Published: 14th April 2021
Through Let's Talk, this group of adolescents is helping their peers deal with mental health issues
Project Let's Talk aims to create awareness among adolescents about their mental health and also provides a space for them to open up about their emotions
Is it really okay to cry? Doesn't it make me less of a man?" a young boy stood up and asked during a workshop on toxic masculinity. The workshop was conducted in his school, a government school, as part of a project called Let's Talk that aims to spread awareness on mental health among adolescents. When Aaryani Sahay, the project's 16-year-old founder, told the boy it was indeed okay for him to cry, he was surprised and relieved. He went on to tell them how he was bullied, even physically, whenever he would cry. The workshop had made a huge difference in his life for he could finally be himself. Moments like these are what drive Aaryani and her co-founder, Kashish Singh, to keep doing what they do.
Aaryani's journey with mental health has been almost lifelong. When she was just eight, she lost a close relative to suicide. That was really hard for her to deal with because she didn't understand what suicide was back then. It had to be explained to her. The entire experience, she says, was painful. It also exposed her to the stigma of talking about mental health because she realised, later in life, that it could have been prevented if there was proper awareness. Then, when she was in class VII, she started experiencing panic attacks. She went to school only twice a week because of these. She was terrified to talk about it with friends and family because she felt they wouldn't understand.
However, she eventually did talk about it with her family and, as she expected, the reception that she got from everyone wasn't that great. They tried to understand what she was going through but she could tell that it made them uncomfortable. She explains, "A lot of them called me an attention seeker, they said I was making excuses to not do any work. So that made my recovery twice as hard. Thankfully, I went for therapy and after a year, I felt much better."
She adds, "I wanted to help other people who were going through similar situations. I talked to some of my peers who were going through suicidal thoughts, self-harm and symptoms of depression. I encouraged them to get help, told them how it helped me, but a lot of them refused to tell their families. They refused to go for counselling because they felt that people would judge them and wouldn't believe them. I had seen this problem so many times that, at that point, I knew I had to do something. My friend Kashish and I knew we had the resources so we started the project Let's Talk."
The project aims to spread awareness about mental health among adolescents by conducting sessions in schools across various socio-economic backgrounds. "Since we come from a privileged background, we have people to turn to for help. But students in government schools don't have that kind of support. We wanted to provide them with awareness about mental health. Our model includes a curriculum that we have developed in collaboration with mental health experts because it's important to have the backing of professionals. We talk about vulnerability, toxic masculinity and we introduce concepts like how you can take care of your mental health, how you can feel comfortable talking about your emotions," she says. What's unique about Let's Talk is that the volunteers who talk to the students are of a similar age, fellow youngsters with experience of what they're going through.
While most sessions are conducted in Kannada-medium schools, some are conducted in English-medium schools too. Since the lockdown, they've also been doing webinars. So far, they have conducted 110 awareness sessions and impacted over 3,600 students in about ten schools in Karnataka. In government schools, due to such a severe lack of awareness, when students face any emotional problem or bullying, they have no one to talk to. There is a severe lack of conversation. Some of the causes of their mental health issues are domestic violence, academic pressure, uncertainty about the future and financial issues. "There's no support system and they don't know how to express themselves. We give them pamphlets with contact details of counsellors but it depends on whether the schools give us permission or not to hand them out," says Aaryani.
The team of 25 volunteers has been making a huge impact in the lives of young students by giving them a space to talk about their emotions, not just telling them to talk about them. Aaryani and her team now plan to do some fundraising and assign counsellors to these schools. On top of that, she also hopes to start more chapters. "We want to create a space where no one feels judged and they have the space to talk about it. We have a replicable model, we have the insight so we will provide mentorship to chapter heads. Our focus now is to empower more young people," she concludes.
Aaryani and Kashish are among 19 teenagers across the country who were selected as part of the Ashoka Young Changemakers initiative