Building up the team to break down mental health stigma

It all started during summer break after my first year (about 6 months ago). My friend asked me if I was interested in volunteering for a project. I had no clue what the project was about and what my role would be…but Mana-Maali (‘gardener of the mind’) sounded interesting. It aroused my curiosity. Little did I know that I would become the director of the Mana Maali Goa Campus Team a few months later…

Fast-forward 4 months to late winter break after the first semester of my second year. I got a Whatsapp message from Sukirt (The Goa campus president of Nirmaan and a close friend): “Rohan, I need to talk to you.” The unusually formal request made me think it must be something important. “Nirmaan is officially collaborating with the Mana Maali initiative at BITS and I’d like you to be the leader of the Mana Maali subcommittee within Nirmaan Goa. What do you think?”

Flashback again to the start of first semester of my second year. I was just back to campus. I was sitting at a dining table in the Goa campus VGH (Visitor’s Guest House). All the potential volunteers were meeting with Nitya Kanuri and Professor Kannan to discuss Project Mana Maali over lunch. I had jumped at the opportunity for free food before heading back to mess food for the next few months. Before I knew it, finally taking a breath between rotis and looking up, I realized the meeting was over, the other student leaders had left, and I was left alone in an ocean of awkwardness. I made a mental note that I had to somehow make a good impression…

Back to the future…I was back from winter break. Little did I know that history would repeat itself…however this time I was prepared. I had been involved with the Mana Maali initiatives last semester and had seen their potential for sparking and changing conversations on campus about mental health. Mental Health is very less talked about and must be addressed, especially in institutions such as ours, where academic excellence often prompts such high levels of stress. Nitya told me her plans for this semester (to expand the efforts from last semester and do more to engage students about mental health), and I was excited that I would be leading something that could help others. Project Mana Maali seems like the perfect way to raise such awareness. Personally I have always wanted to be the one who brought a meaningful change. To do something different, something which people rarely focus on. It is true that physical health is vital to survival, but that does not mean we should not also focus on our mental well-being. Project Mana Maali provided the perfect springboard for me to start doing what I am passionate about…to putting my energy into helping others.

Well, that was just the start. Now, I needed a team. To be a pioneer for the project in our campus was not as easy as it seemed. I needed to make people feel the importance of the project as I had come to feel over the last semester. The small initial team of 4 Nirmaan members and I decided that the best way to promote publicity would be to air a Mana Maali special video during Quark (one of the biggest techno-managerial fests in India, hosted by our campus in February each year). Making the video was a challenge. Even with all the man(and woman)-power of our volunteers and the department of photography by our side with all their cool gadgets, it was quite difficult to convince people to give a live interview answering questions about mental health. Some good friends of mine helped out only because I told them the video would make them famous! Eventually, once a few gave interviews, it became easier to recruit more and we managed to get enough people talking openly. The video was aired on Day 0 of Quark during inauguration and was received overwhelmingly well by the audience of 3000 BITSians and students from other colleges. Although the video did focus on some deeper subjects, it had its funny moments, too. And since the video featured people other students have seen or met, many were pleasantly surprised to see their friends on the big screen, talking about their mental health.

Once Quark ended, we had a new wave of activity. Enter Bona, Nitya’s colleague in Project Mana Maali. Bona is a licensed clinical psychologist who completed her training in Hyderabad and recently moved to San Francisco where she met the Mana Maali team at Stanford. We had spoken a lot over Skype before she came. I was hoping that I would be able to do a good job during her stay and convince her of my capability to lead Mana Maali mental health activities at the Goa campus successfully. Bona came to our campus to lead training sessions with various student groups who work as mentors in the communities both outside and inside BITS. She also led sessions with the first years on coping with anxiety and stress and being a good peer support to friends. She also came to help raise awareness about mental health more generally through various activities we planned as well as about the online counseling available to students who complete the Mana Maali survey and are identified as having high levels of anxiety. Advertising for Mana Maali during Bona’s well-attended talks really helped gain awareness and even volunteers. The “BITSInsideOut” Sticker Campaign added to this publicity and student enthusiasm. The Sticker Campaign was a novel strategy to spread awareness and publicize Mana Maali. All people had to do was write what made them anxious on a sticker and stick it on their T-Shirts. At first, to get the campaign started, all the Mana Maali volunteers stuck stickers on ourselves. Seeing Professor Kannan and Professor Bijil Prakash wear these stickers motivated a lot of students to join the cause. In fact, the professors did more publicity and convincing than us…because no one can refuse a professor when they ask you to do something! :). You’ll learn more about this in the next post by my teammate.

Overall the event and other activities during Bona’s visit were carried out well. Personally I feel very happy and lucky to be the team lead of the Goa Campus Mana Maali team. I feel like I’ve been given a purpose in life. I love my team, and I feel they are the perfect team required to raise Mana Maali to great heights in Goa Campus. To eradicate all misconceptions about mental health and to see to it that those who are really in need of help get attention immediately. We have a lot of activities planned for the rest of this semester and beyond as well as various avenues to explore to implement Mana Maali successfully and broadly. We are now a team of 17 and expanding…and hoping to achieve the best we can.

– Rohan


Our whole team getting ready to launch the sticker campaign in the mess.
Bona and I sharing our anxieties to kick off the sticker campaign :).
Plotting our next student engagement activities in Professor Kannan’s office.
Successful campaign selfies! And goodbye to Bona…until we meet again!

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