Increasing Self-Awareness on Mental Health Issues through Minds Matter: Part II of Interview with Neerja Birla

In our second part of our interview with Neerja Birla talks to Grese Sermaxhaj about Mind Matters and why it matters so much.

While in the first part of the interview with the mental health activist Neerja Birla, we marked World Suicide Prevention Day and discussed on how young people can strengthen their response to mental health issues, in this second part we will bring to you Minds Matter – a progressive Mental Health Curriculum for schools

Through this platform, Aditya Birla World Academy and The Aditya Birla are addressing child and adolescent mental health problems, which children cannot articulate, unlike adults. 

Birla briefs us on this, while mentioning that, as an educationist, she has always believed mental health education needs to be an integral part of the school curriculum. 

Minds Matter is creating healthier coping mechanisms with anxiety and panic attacks, reduced incidences of bullying and harassment and is increasing self-awareness and self-referrals among children. 

Mental illness does not define any of us, Birla highlights at the beginning of our interview.

“It is NOT a character flaw or personal failing. Everyone has the right to lead a full life with respect and dignity in every respect.”

Undoubtedly, Minds Matter is doing exactly this- being a helping hand for many children in India and making a genuine difference.


Minds Matter:  Understanding Child and Adolescent Mental Health

The Minds Matter programme is an attempt to bring about a transformational change in the mental health of all children across the country. 

The programme, integrated into the school curriculum, implements evidence-based therapeutic practices and interventions into the lesson plans for grades 1-12. 

“It identifies teachers and school counsellors from each school to be mental health champions in the classroom. It creates safe actual and virtual classroom environments for students by promoting social, emotional and psychological wellbeing, encouraging help-seeking behaviour and contributing to early prevention, identification and intervention of mental health concerns.” 

She further adds: “In order for stigma to be eased, we need to sensitise children from a very young age when they are impressionable and absorb things easily. By exposing them to the right knowledge and age-appropriate aspects of mental health from an early age, we can encourage help-seeking behaviour and teach them the right coping mechanisms.”

In this way, this curriculum is promoting mental health awareness in kids, building their resilience to deal with stress and difficulties, and teaching them effective coping mechanisms to combat mental health issues. 

“The curriculum can therefore help children become more accepting of other children who may face a mental health concern. In effect, this is easing the stigma and apprehensions that are associated with seeking help.”


Positive Responses to Minds Matter

The response to the Minds Matter programme has been more than overwhelming. 

It was first implemented in 2015 at Aditya Birla World Academy that has 1200 students and in 2017 at The Aditya Birla Integrated School with 150 students who have varying special needs, including learning difficulties. 

In 2020/21, seven schools in Mumbai, with a combined student strength of 10,170 students, implemented the Minds Matter programme successfully. 

In 2021/22, seven more schools across India with a student strength of 12,620 are implementing the curriculum, Birla explains for Youth Time.

“The testimonials that we have received so far have used words and phrases like ‘highly relevant in these times’ ‘the sessions were enriching’, ‘helped me explore my own identity’ and ‘aligns with our school’s vision of holistic education’.”

This seems to be just the beginning. 

“I am confident that we will see the monumental positive consequences of this programme in the entire education system in the years to come.”


Minds Matter: Saving and Improving Lives 

So, how Minds Matter is touching lives and achieving tangible results?

As a direct impact of the Minds Matter programme, Birla explains, they have seen a paradigm shift in the awareness and acceptance of mental health issues in students, teachers and the educational institutions. 

“We have seen increased self-awareness and self-referrals for sure. Children can now articulate their issues to the mental health champions and even ask for interventions. Incidents of distress and self-harm are being reported more frequently.”

“Harassment and bullying are definitely on the wane as children are developing emotional intelligence and tolerance towards each other.”

There is better compliance and decreased behavioural issues in children. 

“We are seeing more open-mindedness towards ‘different children’ and the LGBTQIA+ community. There have been more observed acts of kindness, empathy, and compassion. There is definitely more acceptance and understanding towards autism or any special need.”

Importantly, children have learnt healthier coping mechanisms for anxiety and panic attacks. 

“Students are more confident, more engaged in classrooms and their critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence abilities are enhanced. 

“Most importantly, we have seen increased resilience, life skills and coping mechanisms in children to deal with challenges and circumstances. This will allow students to learn, evolve and become the best versions of themselves that they can.”

Birla cites an example of the difference the Minds Matter programme is making. 

Just before the pandemic, a girl at Aditya Birla World Academy had a panic attack in the classroom before a presentation, she tells.

“The teacher had not yet come to class. The other students did not crowd or overwhelm this student. Instead, one of her close friends took her outside the classroom to help her relax using the grounding techniques they had learnt. 

“Another student went to the counsellor to seek help. The counsellor was quick to respond and helped her calm down. Then, the class teacher offered the student the choice of making her presentation first or at the end of the class, assuring her that her choice would not affect her grade.”

Through the collaborative support of her classmates, her teacher and the counsellor, the situation was handled well and the concerned learner received support in overcoming this incident. 

“This is the safe, supportive, inclusive and stigma-free culture that Minds Matter promotes.”


Everyone Deserves the Same Quality of Mental Wellness 

The results of the Minds Matter programme have only and only been positive and are out there for everyone to see. 

Conclusively, Birla leaves us with the matter that mental illnesses do not discriminate between people – anyone can get afflicted by one. 

“So, why should there be discrimination in the care that people receive? Mental wellbeing is not an option; it is a necessity. 

“Mpower was founded because I truly believe that everyone – people from all walks of life – deserve the same quality of mental wellness and care.”

In our previous piece, Birla shared her expertise about how young people can take care of their mental health: 

How Young People Can Strengthen their Response to Mental Health: Part I of Interview with Neerja Birla

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