(M)ore power to mental health

By Ikyatha Yerasala


Mpower, a mental healthcare organization started by educator and philanthropist Neerja Birla and her daughter singer Ananya Birla aims to touch as many lives as possible in the country. Ikyatha Yerasala explores the services offered by them...


‘Oh, you’re just mental’ or ‘tu pagal hain’, are piercing lines that a lot of people in India dealing with mental health issues have to hear from their friends, colleagues and even their own family. The stigma attached to mental health here is enormous and massive efforts are required for ‘mental health’ talk to be made normal. With the National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) 2016 revealing that nearly 150-million Indians suffer from some form of mental health issue and that only about 30 million seek help, it’s alarming that a large section of Indians seek or receive no help for mental health disorders. With mental health sector needing a colossal push, the munificent Mrs. Neerja Birla and her daughter Ananya Birla’s organisation Mpower, hopes to take mental illness treatment to various sections and sectors. A venture by The Aditya Birla Education Trust,  Mpower, which already runs its services in Mumbai and Goa, recently launched a centre in Bengaluru, aiming to provide holistic mental healthcare solutions to children, adolescents, young people and their families. We caught up with Neerja Birla, wife of business tycoon Kumarmangalam Birla and Dr. Vinod Kumar, senior psychiatrist and head of the Bengaluru centre, who shed light on the work Mpower does, the significance of spreading awareness and more

How was the idea of MPower born?

Neerja Birla: The idea to launch the organisation was born three years ago. We’ve been running a couple of schools since ten years and I have three children, and I noticed that whenever there was a problem, one wasn’t aware of what to do or didn’t know where to go. That’s how this whole initiative came together and we decided to create awareness about mental health and provide clinical services. I noticed that kids nowadays needed extra help and faced a lot of challenges. Our vision is to reach out to as many people and lives as possible.


Throw some light on the work Mpower has been doing till now.

Vinod Kumar (VK): The first centre was launched in Mumbai and we just completed three years there. We have an Mpower cell in Goa and Bengaluru is where we’ve started the second cell. We also have the Mpower foundation in Mumbai, for those who cannot afford mental health services – the masses. We have initiatives reaching out to districts and in the next six months, we want to start the foundation in Bengaluru too. We’re also thinking of having cells in Bengaluru as accessibility is a big issue if it’s just in one location. We also have a lot of other initiatives including MPower outreach where we reach out to colleges, schools, corporates and do workshops and seminars. Our heart is in the foundation and we have a lot of ideas around that and we want to do awareness-building activities with primary health centres. The amount of work that needs to be done is endless.  

NB: Our USP is our multi-disciplinary approach where every client is discussed and all therapies are provided under one roof. Since we have three verticals, we will see expansion in all— one is creating awareness and having more events and people participating in them. Then is clinical services and opening up centres and creating more outreach programs and workshops. We want to have a pan-India presence and honestly, it’s impossible to put a specific number on the total lives you want to touch. We do have rural activities in the pipeline where we want to go to the community and talk about mental health. First, we’re targeting schools, NGOs and corporates and then we do intend to reach out to the semi-urban areas too.


With a choc-a-bloc schedule, how do you ensure to keep your mental health stable and at peace, Mrs. Birla?

NB: I ensure I get my daily dose of fitness and exercise – that’s something I try not to miss. It’s important to take time off to exercise. I also spend time with my kids, travel a lot and do a bit of trekking and enjoy open spaces and nature – these are my doses of regular rejuvenation. Having said that, I must add that one needs to do it regularly, it’s not good enough just to be in a pressure cooker for three months and then taking two days off, one needs to take time off every day to do certain practices.

With the youth of the country being plagued by mental health woes, how are you reaching out to teenagers?

VK: We’ve reached out to schools in Bengaluru and the response has been phenomenal. I’ve been in this field long enough and being the official psychiatrist for two international schools here, I’ve worked with. Lot of kids. It’s important to become their friend and not be preachy and finally tell them that it’s their call. We also want to do a lot of innovative activities like flashmobs to spread awareness and also build and develop our organization.


What is Mpower doing to destigmatize the talk around mental illness?

VK: That’s where the awareness initiatives come into light. There is stigma world over and it’s work in progress from our side. It’s our collective responsibility to stamp out stigma – we just have to keep chipping at it and we’ve chipped away quite a bit. Where I practice, I see huge number of people coming out to seek help, so there is a lot of upper and lower-middle class people coming to seek help, even though they still need to keep it under wraps. There’s a lot of fragmentation in mental healthcare sector— there’s a psychiatrist, therapy and counselling services, which are not integrated. We wanted to have an integrated setup where one can walk in as a patient and meet the psychologist etc and the case will be discussed with our team and also decide if you need any medication, number of counselling sessions and we want to keep things sensitive to our cultural context and realities. Also, we’re proud of our Mumbai centre where we have offered services to children with development disorders like autism, learning difficulties and we have music therapists, medical educators et as part of our team. Everything is as good as it gets and is under one roof. Depression, anxiety and mental health need to be normalized and should not be looked at shameful in a country that’s known to push things under the carpet and Mpower seems to be doing just that by providing a range of therapies and focusing on awareness in improving the mental health of Indians. More power to you, Mpower!