Indian society’s fixation on high scores above all else in education is damaging  children’s mental health, according to Festival for Change challenge finalist, Project Ruhani. Karen Marshall explains.

Festival for Change 2020
Aashna Agrawal and Ria Gupta were finalists in our Festival for Change Challenge where we asked for project proposals for how to build back better. They were judged by a range of experts. The criteria applied were that the project demonstrates:

■ original practical thinking drawing on diverse perspectives;

■ a response to changes in the socio, political and economic context post pandemic;

■ it addresses major issues – such as ecological crisis, social fragmentation or economic dysfunction; and

■ communication with  impact – clear, compelling and creative.

You can see further information about our Festival Change and all the finalists here.

Aashna Agrawal and Ria Gupta are two articulate, determined, young women who are set to take on the patriarchal culture of India.

These second-year undergraduates are addressing the endemic stigma of mental health problems that prevents people from discussing them. Their project – a finalist in the Festival for Change 2020 challenge – seeks to shine a light on the impact on mental health that comes from early experiences during childhood with a particular emphasis on the detriment caused by what they say is India’s highly pressured education system that focuses solely on excellence in examinations.

They explain how their motivation comes from seeing contemporaries struggle through school and from experiencing that struggle.

Aashna, from Calcutta, explains how she was surrounded during her school days by supportive women role models including her mother and elder sister. The teachers at her forward-thinking girls’ school, she says, looked after not only her education but also her emotional needs. However, she remembers how friends suffered mental anguish under the pressure to succeed – to the point, with one friend, of harming herself. At the same time the same friends were unable to talk about their difficulties because of the shame it would bring.

“The women started to take control of their lives and their families and had aspirations for their daughters.”

Ria, in contrast, attended a more typical co-educational school in the Indian system where she says emotional support for pupils was lacking. Subsequently she felt that she was not equipped to cope with the body image issues and self consciousness which came with puberty. She says that although she had “amazing family and friends,” it was not until she went to college that she was surrounded by positive women role models. She asserts that the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University, encouraged and empowered its young wards.

Aashna has been instrumental in setting up community visits as part of their work – Project Ruhani – visiting under-privileged women in villages near her college. She has recruited a group of young women to call on 15 housewives daily to listen to their troubles and even to help them find jobs.

Aashna’s team found domestic cleaning work for them in an affluent neighbourhood and negotiated fair wages for the village women. She says the women began to take control of their lives and their families and started to have aspirations for their daughters, encouraging them to continue with school and supporting them in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Meanwhile she says she looks forward to the day when those daughters will provide good role models for their children and spread a positive mindset through future generations.

Aashna reflects on earlier days of Ruhani when they networked with mental health professionals and persuaded some to deliver low-cost workshops on self-esteem, fear management and other issues. Those groups have continued online during the pandemic. Both women say they achieved their aim with the groups, which was to connect professionals from different backgrounds in the mental health sphere with young people.

Since then for Aashna and Ria, under Project Ruhani, as their confidence grew in the understanding of mental health issues, they were able to set up and facilitate small discussion groups. These sharing spaces – called resilience circles –  enabled young people to meet and talk through a range of matters.

Further ideas to expand the outreach of Project Ruhani have included a questionnaire to find out what people needed support with. From their findings Aashna and Ria realised that active listening was a key factor. More importantly, however, the 18-25 year-olds that they asked each said, had they known how to deal with their feelings at a much younger age, then they would have been able to deal with mental issues in adulthood a lot more successfully.

Ignorance is fuelling the stigma of mental health problems in India.”

Aashna says conversations with friends revealed a consensus that it was important to understand that what they were feeling was normal. Aashna concludes that ignorance is fuelling the stigma of mental health problems in India and Indian society is turning a blind eye towards child mental health. She and Ria agree that were they to target schoolchildren with what they had learnt, they could make a big difference. So, they focused their ideas on an initiative to introduce a mental health well-being programme into schools.

“If you can tackle mental health issues from a tender age, then there will be a ripple effect and you will build resilient adults, more equipped to deal with their issues in the long term,” Aashna explained.

Aashna, Ria and their team decided to use social media to spread the word about their workshops for young people where they could have a space to speak out and listen to other people with similar experiences.

Alongside this, they have since taken advice from health professionals to put together a training programme for teachers. Mental health problems manifest themselves early in life and can snowball into issues that are internalised in adulthood. And lockdown has increased trauma and anxiety in children so they now need, more than ever, an empathetic environment that addresses their needs.

Aashna and Ria are dedicated to their cause. Their degree classes often take up to eight hours a day and working on Ruhani has to fit around them. At the same time they are aware of the need to care for themselves.

Indeed these two young women have become those powerful role models that they had when they were growing up. But they are being rebuffed by men at every turn.

They are discovering what it means takes to induce societal change. And where men make the rules, it will take generations to make that change. Aashna and Ria know that they need to bring on board men who do not seek to belittle them, but who buy into their passion and who will help them make their project to grow and improve the lives of billions of youngsters.

They live in a society where men feel that they have to be strong; where it is weak for a man to show his feelings; where a generations of boys have grown up believing mental health is a joke; where escapism is a strategy used to block the need to look after their own emotional health. So how are they going to make things change?

“These two young women have become those powerful role models that they had when they were growing up.”

“It is a matter of putting our foot down and having faith in ourselves. We know we can’t change a mindset instantly and that bringing mental health care into mainstream education cannot happen overnight.  But we will persevere and we are reaching out and telling men that we have a place for them in our hearts.  We want them to join us on our journey.

“We are resilient and we will bounce back with every rejection. If you don’t have enough women role models to look up to then you must become one.”

“We are reaching out and telling men that we have a place for them in our hearts.”

Both women say that being a finalist in the Festival for Change was uplifting. Their idea, they say, has attracted much appreciation and valuable advice which has enabled them to shape the project; to become more robust; and move it forward. 

The interest at the festival has, they say, has given them real confidence because it came from people in many different countries. It has renewed their certainty that Project Ruhani is worth pursuing. And they don’t feel anxious about “dreaming big.” 

Aashna says despitelow points along the way,” she remains “so proud that I have overcome this fear and I have been able to look at this project with a new lens with the support of everyone at this conference.“

Aashna hopes ultimately to work in the mental health field. Ria hopes to work in the social sector in commerce but says she will  keep in touch with the group because  this project is very close to her heart: “I really believe that my involvement can facilitate change and we will be able to bring so many smiles to young people’s faces and change the education system of India.” 


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Karen Marshall

Karen has been a teacher for over 27 years in a variety of schools and has taken leadership roles in girls’ schools now for over two decades. She has a …

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