International Women's Day 2019 Special - Neerja Birla: 'Mental Health Issues Were the White Elephant in the Room'
Neerja Birla speaks to Masala! exclusively on MPower, her organisation to promote mental health, her battle with post-partum depression and her plans for Dubai
She is passionate and dynamic, her eyes lighting up when she talks about causes close to her heart. Neerja Birla, chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Academy, has used her influence as one of corporate India’s leading lights, to make a difference to the two areas she feels strongly about – education and mental health. Married to business tycoon, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Neerja’s efforts to create awareness about mental health as well as education (through setting up world-class institutes and programmes) has fetched her accolades galore. Part of this mission is MPower, an organisation she set up three years ago, to help people suffering from mental health problems. Combining her concern for both, education and mental health, Neerja is now all set to take the concept beyond India. And that was one of the objectives of a conclave held for educators last month at the BITS Pilani campus, in association with Futures Abroad.
Neerja’s passion and simplicity is endearing. She talks fearlessly about her own struggles with post-partum depression which makes her such an important and relatable voice. Together, with her daughter Ananya – a pop star and social media influencer in her own right – she has become one of the foremost voices of change. She lets Masala! in on her plans for the future…
So how did your journey with MPower begin?
The idea had been lurking in my mind for many years but the journey started three years ago. One day I just decided to go for it and with the help of experts, made a concrete plan. Within a few months, we had put everything together. A few other factors too led to Mpower. I am deeply involved with education, so I have been dealing with children and the issues they face, from close quarters. My own experience as a mother and parent played a part too. After all, I personally had suffered from post-partum depression. So all these dynamics resulted in the gene of MPower.
Why do you think mental health hasn’t received as much attention as it should?
It’s because it’s such a taboo topic! Mental health issues were the white elephant in the room. Over the years, we have tried to remove the stigma around it and get people to have conversations. Only through regular dialogue, can this stigma be alleviated. People need to realise one simple fact: it’s okay to be NOT okay. It’s NOT okay to not seek help. Those suffering from mental health disorders have the right to lead fulfilled lives. Just because you are depressive or anxious or suffer from panic attacks doesn’t mean you can’t lead productive, happy lives. We are trying to get that message across and empower people to feel independent.
How did you deal with your own health issues?
When I went through post-partum depression 25 years ago, I didn’t even know something like it existed. I realised something was wrong with me though I couldn’t point out the exact reason. There was too much guilt associated. You were supposed to feel happy about having a new baby but instead, you found yourself crying! It’s a horrible feeling. Had I known more about the condition, I would have been able to deal with it so much better. However, that didn’t mean I loved my child any less. It’s just a state of mind, a hormonal imbalance. That’s why awareness is so important.
In the last few years, a number of celebrities have opened up about mental health issues. Has it made a difference?
It has made a difference though there is a long way to go. Celebrities talking about it helps normalise a situation. When someone you look up to, talks about it, the issue becomes more relatable. But each one of us individually needs to take ownership for it, only then will it become a collective movement that can go ahead. One Mpower is not enough.
What are your plans with Mpower?
We have two institutions in Mumbai – a centre and a Foundation. We also cater to people who can’t afford it. The Goa centre focuses on the BITS campus there, we have seen an increase in people seeking help. We also have one in Bangalore. Along with it, we have a strong outreach programme where we involve NGOs, colleges etc. We are now looking outside the country and the UAE is one of the stops. I am open to doing workshops and programmes here.
Do you think people in cities like glitzy, privileged cities like Dubai tend to hide mental health problems?
Maybe, it’s all so glossy here! Everyone wants a perfect life which doesn’t exist. Perfection itself is a flawed concept. The sooner we accept, the better it will be. It’s our flaws that make us human.
Your daughter Ananya is the co-founder of MPower. How do you work together?
We bounce off a lot of ideas together. Ananya is a young adult and she relates to the issues well. All my three children are engaged with the cause. My son, who is a cricketer, is constantly giving ideas for MPower, he puts stickers on bats, gives it to friends and so on. Everyone contributes in their own way. Ananya definitely has made a difference. She has a huge fan following and a young crowd that looks up to her.
What are your plans for Dubai?
I hope that we can offer services of the Teachers Training Programme as well as MPower here in Dubai. We are happy to offer workshops, meets with parents and children, share education modules and the like.