Mind Mela 2016 — Understanding Psychological First Aid

Image credit: Adveka Foundation

It has already been a year since Adveka Foundation began working to promote awareness about mental health, and to ensure uniform access to mental health services for people from all sections of society.

Recently, we held the second edition of Mind Mela, an initiative by Adveka Foundation in collaboration with The Change Entrepreneurs and Maniben Nanavati Women’s College (MNWC), Mumbai. Mind Mela aims to end the stigma associated with mental illness by involving people from all walks of life — to help them understand what mental illness is, to encourage them to speak about it, to dispel the myths surrounding it, and to help them get access mental health professionals when needed.

This year’s World Health Organization’s (WHO) theme for World Mental Health Day 2016 was Psychological First Aid.

When people are affected by crisis events — natural or manmade, such as earthquakes, outbreak of disease, accidents, war, or terror attacks — their immediate requirement is first aid for physical injuries, both superficial and life – threatening. But crisis events also take an equally heavy emotional toll. Like debilitating wounds, if shock, panic, and emotional upheaval are not immediately dealt with, it can result in severe long-term or even permanent mental health damage. Therefore, people suffering from emotional distress — anxiety, agitation, and shock — as a result of a crisis event are equally in need of psychological first aid (PFA).

Essentially, PFA is the immediate, supportive response with respect to the mental health of individuals affected by a crisis situation. Its ultimate goal is to help people in their long-term recovery and reduce the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the WHO’s Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers, PFA involves:
» providing practical care and support, which does not intrude;
» assessing needs and concerns;
» helping people to address basic needs (for example, food and water, information);
» listening to people, but not pressuring them to talk;
» comforting people and helping them to feel calm;
» helping people connect to information, services and social supports;
» protecting people from further harm.

Typically, first aid, both physical and psychological, is administered by emergency services — trained individuals and teams who respond to a crisis event. These include search and rescue workers, health staff, firemen, community workers, and police officers. But in most cases, response teams are not the first at the site of a crisis event; it’s the survivors and others in the immediate vicinity. And if they have basic knowledge of physical and psychological first aid, their immediate actions can save many lives. So, it is essential that even non emergency services personnel learn psychological first aid. In the event of a traumatic incident, until professional response teams arrive, there will be someone trained in PFA who will be able to handle the situation.

Image credit: Adveka Foundation
Image credit: Adveka Foundation

Like last year, Mind Mela 2016 was an amalgam of multiple events. For the Outreach Programme, students of MNWC organized awareness drives in ten locations across Mumbai, where they spoke to people about mental health. The talk focused on striving for and achieving dignity in mental health across the world, i.e., where a person suffering from mental illness is accepted, allowed to live their life with dignity, and able to access help without fear.

The second component of Mind Mela was conducted as part of Adveka Foundation’s Sahit programme, which involves engagement with stakeholders. Through trainings, workshops, and counselling services, the Sahit programme helps organizations, corporate entities, and government agencies provide a safe and nurturing environment for their employees.

Adveka held comprehensive sessions with Cuddles Foundation, Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA), Andheri fire station, and Juhu police station to train their staff on psychological first aid. Members of these organizations enjoyed the interactive sessions, and were extremely responsive. Since they already use various aspects of PFA in their everyday jobs, they felt good knowing their work was appreciated and recognized as part of the larger framework of dignity in mental health.

The final event of Mind Mela comprised a series of talks held at The HIVE in Bandra, Mumbai. In the first segment, fittingly called The Survivor’s Shoes, three individuals shared their experiences of dealing with anxiety and depression, combating depression as a result of being diagnosed with cancer, and coping in the aftermath of suicide, respectively. Along with encouraging open conversation about mental health, each account highlighted the necessity of psychological first aid while experiencing a traumatic situation.

Mansi*, a 24-year-old cancer survivor, recounted how her brother’s support enabled her to get through chemotherapy and depression after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Worried about the emotional toll the disease was taking on Mansi and their parents, her brother encouraged her to stop thinking about her situation for a few hours every evening so the family could spend quality time together. What started as trying to maintain a brave front for her parents became a coping method for Mansi, as it helped her endure the physical and mental ordeal of her treatment. She also asked her doctors and nurses to be honest with her throughout, so she could have a realistic idea of her situation and be mentally prepared for any possible outcome.

The emotional support provided by Mansi’s brother — listening to her, encouraging her to stay positive, giving her confidence — worked as invaluable PFA for Mansi. Despite the odds, with his help, she won her battle against cancer.

Nisha*, a screenplay writer, shared her experience of dealing with anxiety and depression associated with body image. Growing up insecure about her body and looks, Nisha tried to compensate by proving herself academically and professionally. But her negative perception about her looks affected her overall self esteem, leading to severe anxiety and depression. Working on a chaotic film set surrounded by people far more self-assured than her added to her stress. Nisha’s confidence and self esteem plummeted, resulting in her getting bullied. Her parents, worried about her state of near-panic over anything related to her work, encouraged her to seek help from a psychiatrist.

Her parents’ support worked as an important PFA technique. Nisha quit her job and began writing extensively, using it to channel her anxiety. This helped her cope even more, and she gradually succeeded in regaining her confidence and self esteem.

The third speaker, Rahul*, narrated how failure to recognize the signs of mental illness led to his friend’s family being shattered after their son committed suicide last year. Unable to live up to his own academic expectations, Girish*, the son of Rahul’s close friends, took his own life. The devastated family was crushed by guilt because none of them had noticed or known Girish was troubled enough to resort to such an extreme step. Worse, they did not get access to proper grief and trauma counselling afterwards, and as a result, are still struggling to recover from the loss of their son.

While Mansi and Nisha’s stories demonstrate how the survivors fought and overcame their mental illnesses, the third experience starkly illustrates what happens when individuals suffering from acute emotional distress don’t receive psychological first aid, either because the signs are ignored or because they are not recognized.

The final segment, Past, Present, and Future, featured a talk by Dr. Avinash Desousa, an eminent psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He has worked extensively on anxiety and depression, and his organization, the Desousa Foundation, works to promote awareness about mental health and mental illness across all sections of society, especially through education. They conduct programs and workshops on mental health issues in schools, colleges, universities and other academic institutions.

Dr. Desousa reminded the audience that the stigma associated with mental illness is so ingrained, an overwhelming majority of people — even doctors and other medical professionals — refuse to acknowledge that they or their family members suffer from any kind of mental health problems. However, he added, it is those who are unable to communicate their issues who need help urgently.

He emphasized that, given the current state of mental health in India, it is extremely necessary for mental health awareness to become part of mainstream education by being taught in schools and colleges just like any other academic subject.

The experiences shared by all four speakers resonated deeply with the audience. Most importantly, it underscored the fact that effective communication about mental health is the first and biggest step to eradicating the stigma attached to it.

Mind Mela 2016 was undoubtedly a success. We hope it encouraged more people to open up about their mental health issues, and we look forward to hearing and learning from their experiences next year.

 

*Names have been changed to protect identities.


*Written in the capacity of Editor & Content Manager for Adveka Foundation. Originally published here.