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Research leads to a series of short films exploring mental health in India


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People in India’s southwest state of Kerala have shared their experiences and understanding of living with mental health illnesses for a research project led by De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

MeHeLP India is a collaborative, international cross-disciplinary partnership that examines the applicability and promotion of mental health literacy (MHL) in urban and rural communities, using participatory theatre, storytelling practices and short films.

MeHeLP India Nov 21 (2)

As part of MeHeLP India, which aims to increase the MHL of millions of people in India, researchers asked residents of Kerala to consider the social, economic and cultural factors that impact their mental health.

They then asked people to share their stories on film, with the aim of raising awareness of mental ill-health, as well as associated stigmas and discrimination, among urban, rural and tribal communities.

“Our aim for this work is to identify how best we can construct mental health support that is culturally relevant for specified communities. In this case, for people living in Kerala,” explained Professor Raghu Raghavan, the lead for MeHeLP India and Professor in Mental Health at DMU.

“We wanted to work with communities and increase overall awareness of MHL in the Kerala context and to do this we provided theatre, storytelling and film-based platforms through which fearless conversations around mental ill-health, self-awareness and stigmas were initiated in a meaningful way.”

The work of MeHeLP India in Kerala culminated in a range of innovative interactive drama and short film productions that tell real people’s stories and explore various themes relating to promoting MHL.

The films were showcased during a dedicated ‘Kerala’ and ‘Pan India’ conference hosted by MeHeLP India, where researchers were able to connect and meet with a number of major academic institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across India, to share their work.

Dignitaries in attendance included Ms Veena George, Health Minister for the state of Kerala and Professor Mohanan Kunnummel, Vice Chancellor of Kerala University of Health, as well as speakers from the Tata Trusts, Sangath India, Public Health Foundation of India, Schizophrenia Research Foundation India, Mariwala Health Initiative and the Live Love Laugh Foundation (initiated by famous Bollywood actress, Deepika Padukone).

The project also engaged with the general public beyond the local communities involved in the theatre interventions to consider their own mental health literacies with a range of campaigns focusing on lived experience, channelled through social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

MeHeLP India Nov 21

“We now have a bank of reusable learning materials about mental health literacies that are reaching a broader audience across India,” continued Professor Raghavan. “We know that using forms of creative arts to retell people’s stories can help others gain new knowledge and develop skills for their own mental health and wellbeing.

“We are already seeing these films being absorbed into the curriculum of universities based in Kerala and further afield, as well as being used for training of healthcare professionals and frontline workers too.”

The researchers decided to work in Kerala for a number of reasons – it has 100% literacy, the health index is on par with Western countries, and it has higher life expectancy rates than other states of India.  

However, Kerala also has a higher percentage of mental illness compared to the rest of India and the suicide rates are double the national average – meaning the state has the highest suicide rate in the country.

Ms Veena George, Health Minister for the state of Kerala, said: “When it comes to mental health issues, a majority of our population cannot identify symptoms and disorders and do not use evidence-based methods to tackle them. We need to examine why this happens.

“Lack of awareness of mental health and illness has been pointed out as a reason. Along with this, there exist a lot of misconceptions related to mental illness. It is at this point that MHL becomes important.

“Only a small percentage of people with mental health issues are capable of getting help and the absence of MHL poses a challenge, as it prevents people from seeking mental health services at the right time.

“It has to be ensured that mental health care is accessible to many more people. That is why our government is planning to give equal priority to mental health”

MeHeLP India is led by DMU alongside partners from Loughborough University, University College London (UCL), Middlesex University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India’s National Institute of Mental health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and NGOs in India.

Launched in 2018 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), MeHeLP India’s core objective is to spread awareness on mental health in both rural and urban communities through forms of theatre, films and storytelling.

Posted on Monday 22nd November 2021

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