The last 3 months have been just wonderful for me. Although I have transition physically to the states, I have been able to work with university students back home in India through the Mana Maali student wellness initiative. Conducting weekly supervisions with the coaches, being a coach myself, and attending weekly research meetings at Stanford, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity — I get the best of both worlds. So, at the end of the first academic semester and our first phase of rolling out Project Mana Maali to all 4 BITS Pilani campuses, I flew ‘home’ to India and got a chance to spend a week’s time at the BITS Pilani Goa campus. While there, I worked with students to create awareness about mental health through our Mana Maali mental health campaign and to spread the word about the availability of the new service, the online anxiety program provided by their university.
I had heard from my friend and colleague, Nitya, about the enthusiasm students in this campus had shown towards Mana Maali and our mission to create mental health awareness and reduce stigma related to seeking help. From the day I arrived, I was able to see what Nitya meant when she said that this bunch of students are a really motivated lot. From getting a dynamic team together to coordinating activities, their efforts made my visit and all the scheduled activities go smoothly. It has felt like the most productive week so far in this project.
My visit began with a meeting with the Mana Maali core student group and the Faculty-in-charge for the program, Prof. Kannan, to schedule our agenda for the week and strategize how to implement our ideas. Aparna Vemuri, the university liaison from White Swan Foundation, joined the meeting via Google Hangout and provided her input regarding planning the mental health awareness campaigns and measuring their reach and impact in the community. Prof. Kannan eased our efforts tremendously by securing necessary permissions to conduct various sessions with students. He was also instrumental in arranging meetings with the concerned faculty/Professors. Students took up responsibilities to work on various activities, mobilize other student volunteers, and arrange for materials required for the activities.
The next day began with a meeting with the director of BITS Pilani Goa campus, Prof. Punnekkat, and the head of student welfare division, Prof. J.V Rao. Their invaluable inputs and guidelines helped structure the implementation of our activities. What stood out for me during this meeting was the concern and interest to ensure the well-being of students. The repeated question was, ‘How can we better support our students?” We also had a meeting with the faculty mentors and student mentors who support students who are underperforming academically. It was a similar experience with them as well. They were really concerned about not just students’ academic performance but also their overall well-being. The meeting helped us structure a training for the student mentors in how to be a positive, empathetic peer mentor.
The training for the student mentors was well received. Students received training on how to better communicate with their peers, identify issues the students are dealing with and help them manage/cope, identify signs of distress and guide the mentees to the right source(s) of support, use tactics like “motivational interviewing” to motivate their peers and, finally, reflect on some of the challenges they might face while mentoring. I also spent time talking to them about mental health generally and spoke to them briefly about the Mana Maali Program and related activities. I was really inspired by these students and their willingness to support their peers. They readily discussed about the challenges they faced while mentoring and expressed need for more training to help them support their peers better.
The same day I also had a training session with Nirmaan NGO volunteers who work tutoring and mentoring children in the nearby communities and via university-community events (e.g., Zari, Shiksha and Ignite). This training was intended to help them better identify and support children who might have behavior problems. I spoke to students about the various disruptive behaviors and their likely causes and trained them in how to build rapport with these children and provide a positive atmosphere in which the children can learn. Again, I was in awe of these young individuals who were so motivated to reach out to underprivileged children and share with them their time, talents, and patience.
On day 3 I spoke to 1st year students about how to cope with stress. I began by defining stress then training them in how to identify causes of stress, cope with stress and reduce the impact of stress. Most of the students stayed back after the session to interact and share their concerns and many of them expressed their need for more of such sessions on a regular basis. It was a good feedback to receive from them. Quite a few students asked for and were given appointments for individual sessions. This reminded me of the time when I was an on-campus counselor in a college in Hyderabad and would conduct regular training with students on various topics ranging from ‘study skills’ and ‘time management’ to ‘healthy and unhealthy relationships’ and ‘coping with peer pressure’. These interactive group sessions would encourage students to see me one-on-one in counseling. This experience again made me realize how important it is to reach out to students through these sessions to build trust and to equip them with skills to cope with the various issues they go through during this time, in addition to conveying to them that they can reach out to you whenever they need help and support.
We had scheduled the most fun activity for day 4 — the “BITSInsideOut” sticker campaign! The Sticker campaign was a huge success with a lot of students opening up and publicly sharing ‘what makes them anxious’. All of the Nirmaan Mana Maali subcommittee volunteers were given their Mana Maali Student Mental Health Ambassador T-shirts to wear during the campaign. This campaign was designed to create awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma associated with speaking about anxiety and other psychological problems. Students wrote on stickers the various issues that cause them anxiety, from exams to expectations to girls, to name a few. A secondary aim of this campaign was to inform them about the Mana Maali Program and the online private mental health self-assessment survey scheduled to release at the end of this month. The Mana Maali sub-committee worked really hard to make this event fun and successful. It was great interacting with students through this activity. I also got a chance to speak to many of the students and ask them how they felt about the various Mana Maali activities and awareness posters across campus. It was very reassuring to hear from students that they supported such activities to create awareness about mental health and that they really thought it would help change people’s attitude towards mental health, starting within their own campus.
On day 5, I spent the day interacting with doctors and researchers at Sangath NGO in Goa. I spent the day observing the training sessions they run for mental health counselors in the community and exploring opportunities for collaboration moving forward. It was amazing attending their clinical meetings and skills training sessions. It took me back to my counseling skills training at the Hyderabad Academy of Psychology, which was where I got a strong foundation in counseling skills. It was very nostalgic to be a part of role playing activities and giving and receiving feedback. I also met some amazing psychologists and clinicians with a passion to work with people in the community.
At the end of the day we had a meeting with the volunteers to decide on the future steps to be taken to keep the positive momentum of the campaign going. We had Nitya and Aparna join in online and help us plan steps ahead. Students came up with really good strategies and plans to take the activities forward. This was also the last day of activities, and I had to leave the next day. But I couldn’t go without thanking the Mana Maali team members for all their hard work and efforts and so, to say ‘thank you’ to them, we planned to have dinner at one of their favourite places on campus, the infamous ‘Persian Court’.
My visit ended with a last meeting with the director and professors in charge, thanking them for enabling this wonderful learning experience for both the students and myself.
This visit is going to remain a pleasant memory for a long time. I’ve learned so much from these students – their enthusiasm is really contagious! I also never knew that being around professors of Physics and Math would actually be so much fun :). I also didn’t know I had it in me to work alongside these amazing people and successfully carry out a ‘mental health campaign’! I left with new insights about myself and the people with whom we work. I am excited to continue supporting these students in their endeavors, through online trainings, knowledge sharing across our partners, and empowering them to take ownership over the Mana Maali campaign at their campus.
I hope many students take the survey when it is released at the end of the month and seek whatever kind of help they might want, and I hope many students gain from being a part of this initiative in some way or the other. Our efforts to reach out to them will continue.
Here’s to BITS Goa and the wonderful Mana Maali student team there!