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Corporate environment hardest to treat: Neerja Birla on mental health

Why did Birla pick mental health as a focus area? National statistics drove the choice

Pavan Lall 

Neerja Birla
Neerja Birla

Launched in 2016, MPower, which started as a paediatric counselling centre in Mumbai, shifted its focus to include adults, and in the past three and a half years has expanded to open centres in Bengaluru, Goa and Pilani along with outreach programmes in New Delhi and Pune.

In addition, the number of patients it treats has grown over ten times from 200 in year one to almost 2,500, says MPower’s founder Neerja Birla. She had started MPower with around Rs 10 crore in funding from the Aditya Birla Education Trust and built a 33-member team. Neerja Birla's husband is Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group. When it kicked off, it was the first to offer therapies based on drama, and pet keeping, apart from traditional treatments.

Why did Birla pick as a focus area? National statistics drove the choice. The most recent National Survey shows that as many as 150 million Indians are in need of “active intervention.” Research by the World Health Organization estimates that one in five Indians will suffer from some form of mental illness by 2020.

While MPower does target schools, colleges, and urban citizens, it's the corporate environment which is hardest to treat and break into for MPower, Birla says pointing to the lack of tolerance of what may be seen as “weakness” among CEOs. If true, the recent alleged suicide of Cafe Coffee Day Founder V G Siddhartha points to one example. More recently, fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi pleaded for bail in an English jail on grounds of depression.

“Corporate India still hasn't woken up and is just starting to becoming aware now,” says Birla. “The stigma is the most in corporate circles because mental illness is equal to a loss of power and control and translates to weakness and supposedly doesn't go hand in hand with high achievers.” The truth, however, is that a number of historical leaders and high achievers have been known to have neurotic traits. Examples include British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Dutch-post impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh, and American aviation pioneer Howard Hughes.

experts who declined to be named said that especially in corporate circles a fast-paced lifestyle, stress, changes in familiar support systems and economic highs and lows are all factors that tie to mental health issues and need to be studied closely. MPower currently treats patients across cover the entire age span from three years of age to 70 years old.

The weighted prevalence across diagnostic categories in urban metros is higher than in rural and urban non-metro areas (with less than 10 million population). However, differences exist across diagnostic categories. The prevalence of schizophrenia and other psychoses (0.64%), mood disorders (5.6%) and neurotic or stress related disorders (6.93%) was nearly 2-3 times more in urban metros, according to the national mental health report.

Goldman Sachs is MPower's CSR partner, and the funding comes from Ultratech, which enables the NGO to fund a team of 36 doctors and 20 staff members.

MPower also started a conclave for around 50 doctors every quarter where they get together and discuss research and case studies. "The biggest challenge is funding and getting people to buy in and understand the need to take care of mental health issues. They may not see as it worth spending money on a counselling session but wouldn't think twice of spending the same amount of money one a meal in a five star hotel. A few sessions can simply be the difference between recovering and becoming more productive or sinking into further debilitation," Birla adds.

First Published: Wed, November 13 2019. 15:21 IST
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