Technology has always been blamed for a host of issues that students confront today, due to a sedentary lifestyle and an obsessive focus on games and social media. But there are some who apply technology to bring a positive change.
Kaajal Gupta, Young Changemaker, is the founder of an app , a self-help tool that educates users about OCD and normalizes therapy. She and her team also work on programs in schools to remove stigma and raise awareness on mental health.
Kaajal, tell us about Your background?
I was born in New Jersey, USA and grew up in Bangalore, India. While I initially studied in a CBSE curriculum from 1st to 10th grade, I shifted to the IB curriculum for my final two years of high school. While I immersed myself in numerous extracurricular activities in my years in school—from chess to drama to kathak, I was only ever drawn to programming. I spent my free time hooked in front of a screen, absorbing material from online courses about Python, Java, HTML, etc. I moved to studying artificial intelligence algorithms in high school. My mother’s work as a professor of Wireless Communications encouraged me to deepen my knowledge in these fields as well. She continually quizzed me and my sister on logical problems, discussing her recent projects on smart buildings and the internet of things. My father, on the other hand, started a company and his entrepreneurial endeavors inspired me to pursue the same.
Why did you choose to work on a social initiative?
I knew that many people across the world don’t have access to mental health resources or therapists. I personally saw how it could affect people—when I visited the government mental health hospital NIMHANS, I saw thousands of people in line to see a single therapist, setting up makeshift tents to sleep in while waiting. I wanted to create a product that was accessible by all.
How did you feel when you just started off working on your initiative? Did you face any resistance from society /parents / friends / family/teachers ?
I did not face any resistance from the people around me—only encouragement. My friends and family members only tried to help me with this venture, connecting me to people who could help in areas I was less familiar with—such as privacy and security for technology. When I started the initiative, it was difficult, as I didn’t know where to start. But, as I grew my team and developed my ideas, it became rewarding.
What are the challenges? How do you address them?
Challenge 1: The first challenge I faced was finding a psychiatrist who could help me with developing the content with the app. I then began networking, cold-emailing them before being connected to a professor at NIMHANS, who was willing to help me with my work after an initial pitch.
Challenge 2: The stigma against mental health was another issue we faced when reaching out to schools and students to spread our programs to raise awareness on mental health and OCD. We simply had to be persistent and deliver our information in the most persuasive way for this challenge.
More about your work –
What problems do you solve?
There is not enough attention being given to mental health problems in India, particularly those that are frequently stereotyped and misunderstood, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is difficult to access resources regarding OCD and even more difficult and expensive to regularly visit a therapist. Furthermore, the fear of being judged and ridiculed for visiting a therapist serves as a deterrent to anyone with mental illnesses. I know this as I suffered from OCD for 2 years. I had the idea of making an app to help solve this problem- a self-help tool that educates users about OCD and normalizes therapy. Moreover, my team and I worked on programs in schools to remove stigma and raise awareness on mental health.
What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?
Definitely persistence—managing a team of a very large size can be very difficult, but it’s necessary to keep at the problem and motivate them effectively. Organization is also essential. Moreover, creativity in problem-solving is another tool to keep in mind daily when planning programs and new features for the app.
What is a typical day like?
A typical day is filled with Skype calls, Google Docs, and Microsoft Excel data sheets in recent days. However, when developing the app, my days were composed of 14-hour straight coding sessions, my eyes glued to my laptop until the colorful code was burned into my retinas. Both are equally rewarding in my eyes—I love indulging in my technological and entrepreneurial passions.
What is it you love about this job?
I love programming and creating new products, first of all. The process of ideation, design, planning out the logic—it appeals to me above all else. However, I also love interacting with my team members to talk about their own experiences with mental health and their reasons behind working with us.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be recognized for my work multiple times. Notable awards include the World Summit Young Innovator Award, The Better India Young Changemaker Award, and The Hindu BusinessLine Changemaker Finalist Award.
How does your work benefit society?
Our app has over 5000 downloads in India and USA, and has received very positive reviews from our users. Many people have reached out to me, talking about how much the app has helped them. Additionally, our awareness campaign breaks down the preconceived notions students have about mental health—and its more stigmatized aspects.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I once gave a talk at a panel, to discuss my experience with OCD and launching my organization. After the talk, a girl and her father approached me and thanked me for my work with Liberate. They revealed that the girl had OCD and had heard of me from NIMHANS. It was very rewarding to talk to the girl and her father about how I recovered, and to hear about their struggles and stigma they face internally and externally. Knowing that I helped them, in even a small way, helped me see further how my own experience with OCD can and is being used to aid other’s journey to recovery.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Having a reliable team is firstly, very important. For a movement to grow, the people you work with should be persistent and passionate about the cause. Additionally, try to take advantage of every resource and opportunity available to you—from connections to online courses. Moreover, it can always help to have a mentor to guide you in the steps involved in growing your organization. They can help you steer clear of easily-avoidable mistakes.
I aim to grow Liberate and hopefully collaborate with larger mental health services to expand the product’s reach. Additionally, we want to increase our visibility as a social platform that wants to help smash the stereotypes and stigma held against OCD, particularly among teenagers. Furthermore, we are consulting with lawyers to release the app globally within the next month. We are also working on the iOS version of the app. Thus, within the next 3 years, I hope to see Liberate available across all platforms in all areas of the world, and us being able to spread the message of awareness on a large scale.