Challenges become aspirations when you combine what you enjoy doing with a mission, problems that you want to address.

Apoorvi Bharatram, Young Changemaker, talks about how her interest in helping people and curiosity for psychology led her to take up initiatives in spreading awareness on mental health among the marginalized student community.

Apoorvi, tell us about your background?

I come from a business family in Delhi and have lived here my whole life. I study at the Shri Ram School under the IB curriculum. I always had a keen interest in psychology and took it as a higher-level subject in school. I had seen my sister suffer from depression for 4 years and because of that I started reading up more on abnormal psychology and causes for disorders, which further sparked my interest. My family is also very philanthropic because of which I was always involved in some sorts of social initiatives, be it raising funds through bake sales or volunteering for my sister’s NGO. 

Why did you choose to work on a social initiative?

The idea behind this initiative came when, after studying psychology and seeing my own sister suffer from depression, I started noticing signs of mental illnesses all around me- be it a friend’s aversion to eating or visible scars on another’s wrists. This made me start wondering, if in my school where we have 2 counsellors, have regular workshops on managing stress and growing up, and our teachers are trained to deal with mental illnesses, how do students in government schools, who only have 1 counsellor for every 10 schools or so, manage? I also realized that mental health is an extremely technical issue to work with, so before beginning my work, I had to find a mentor and be sure that this is something I truly wanted to work for, as it would not be easy. 

How did you feel when you just started off working on your initiative? Did you face any resistance from society / parents/ friends/ family/ teachers ?

My parents and school were extremely supportive and encouraged me to take such a big step. From the beginning, I loved working on the project as it allowed me to combine two passions- psychology and helping others. There was initially a lot of resistance from the teachers of the schools we were working with as they didn’t want any changes or extra work; however, once they realized the importance of it, they were much more open to it. Working on this kind of project also changed me a lot. It taught me what it really means to make a change and how I can maximize my time and utilize my resources to truly make a difference.

What are the challenges? How do you address them?

The biggest challenge was convincing the teachers that what we had to say was important and that mental health needs to be spoken about. We tackled this by providing them with statistical data on their own students, showing how serious the problems really are. 

Another problem is that mental health is still considered a taboo in our society. No one truly understands it and unless someone close to him or her is suffering, no one is even willing to learn. It is also considered a sign of weakness which is why most people aren’t even willing to admit it when they, or people they know, are suffering. The only solution to this is to increase the number of conversations around mental health and normalize the concept. 

More about your work – 

What problems do you solve?

The problem I’m tackling is the lack of awareness about mental health in our society by working with government schools where teachers are not aware of issues and are not equipped to help the students. For every 10 government schools, there is one counselor due to which no student gets the support and guidance they require. The aim of the happiness project is to promote positivity and happiness in the school environment and provide a supportive community for adolescents to develop holistically. The project has 3 simple steps. First, we administer a survey, which consists of a diagnostic tool we created with the help of psychologists from Children First, for children from grades 6-12. Next we analyze the data collected and try to understand the major trends. For example, we find that 60% suffer from anxiety or 45% are bullied. Based on these results, we organize customized workshops for the teachers of the school so that they can be made aware of the issues and learn basic tips on how to help the students.

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

The most important skill when working with an issue as sensitive as mental health is empathy and compassion as you are required to interact with several people suffering from various issues and you have to make them feel comfortable enough to talk to you. Additionally, we needed a mental health professional who would mentor us at every step of the way and walk us through the psychological technicalities. 

What is a typical day like?

When we are visiting a school, a typical day consists of going from class to class administering the survey. Post that, we collate all the data and compile a report on the results that we found. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love knowing that what I am doing is making a difference in someone else’s life. I also love that it’s combining two passions of mine and is allowing me to grow and learn as the initiative grows. 

Any Awards, prizes, accomplishments?

So far, we’ve taken the survey at 7 schools and have impacted over 3000 children. We got second place at the tGELF Youth Leader Competition and won a bronze medal at Pramerica. I was also a speaker at the conference on Social Emotional Learning by the Maharashtra government.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work has started a much-needed conversation on mental health that has helped reduce the stigma around it. By normalizing mental illnesses, more people will have the courage to talk about their own journeys and have the support to deal with their struggles. Additionally, there is reliable, statistical data showing that mental illnesses are a big problem plaguing society so that governments, teachers, and any other stakeholders are aware. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There was one student who wanted to pursue music, however, his parents and teachers were forcing him to do medicine or engineering. After the workshop with the teachers, when we visited the school, he told us about how the librarian had found him a second-hand guitar and allowed him to practice during his classes.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone is that if this is something you want to do in the long run, make sure it is a cause you really care about and are passionate about. I remember my first experience with a social initiative was volunteering with my sister and although I loved the idea of helping others, I just couldn’t see it through because it wasn’t something I was passionate about. Another thing is that it is okay, in fact it is better to start small. Running pilot projects or working with small groups are important experiences in any project as they allow you to work out the smaller details and ensure that your work is flawless. 

Future Plans?

In the next 5 years, I hope I can create teams in every city so that we can administer the survey and start the conversation on mental health. I also hope to tie up with the government and make sure that all teachers undergo regular training.  We’re also working on an app that will make our diagnostic tools available to everyone.