The spread of COVID-19 has significantly pronounced the need for addressing the mental health needs of individuals, particularly children and caregivers in marginalized and low-income communities. With the spread of the virus in slum communities, loss of income and job opportunities, being locked in small home spaces, often with difficult family situations, the life situations of many young children and their caregivers have become grim with rising fear, anxiety and inability to manage complex emotions in such ambiguous times.
The intersectionality of poverty and mental health is well-documented. Lower mental health and higher stress has also been linked to decreased immunity, hence increasing the probability of infection.
In times as trying as these, Apni Shala has been working with children, educators and families from low-income homes for the last seven years in Mumbai's L, M-east and M-west wards, three of the least developed wards.
With a focus on promotive and preventive mental health, Apni Shala's initiatives focus on building stronger social skills and developing deeper emotional resilience. It has been working with over 5000 children, over 200 educators and over 300 families to destigmatize mental health, create awareness and help individuals develop better mental health capacities and create a safe environment for others around them.
Apni Shala Foundation is based in Mumbai and serves children and families from marginalised communities to build stronger social emotional competencies and mental wellbeing. The organisation was founded by Amrita Nair, Anukriti Goyal and Swetha Ranganathan, three students from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2013.
"Apni Shala has closely worked with teachers, principals, students and families from municipal schools in L, M-east and M-west wards, three of the most disadvantaged wards in Mumbai. In conversation with them, it emerged that there was a high need of relief and well-being support, severe lack of information in communities, and it was accentuating day by day," Rohit Kumar, CEO, tells The Logical Indian.
Since the spread of COVID-19, Many organizations have come forward to provide ration, food supplies, medicines, and mental health support. However, in many communities, access, information, and comfort to make use of these services remained a challenge.
The stigma and lack of awareness about mental wellbeing inhibit people to talk about and access the support they need at times. This is the gap that Apni Shala aimed to fill in through the following well-being initiatives:
1) Connecting families to available opportunities to receive ration, medicines, and other basic needs from government, NGOs, and individuals who were offering these services.
2) Making well-researched content on wellbeing and emotional resilience available in simple, easy and local languages for families to quickly learn and apply them for themselves and their families
3) Making Mental health first-aid available to children and adults in distress in these communities. Apni Shala team members, using our long-standing professional development, help adults and children ideate on wellbeing, care in the communities and systems of support available, to weave joy and motivation
4) Enabling virtual/remote learning for children and adults to come on online platforms, wherever possible to process their emotions, express their anxiety and build a support system of care
5) Help children and adults understand what they are feeling, process it with Apni Shala team on call or on video chat, and if needed, be guided by the Apni Shala team member to adequate therapy/counseling support network
"In the last few weeks since Apni Shala launched this initiative, many families have come forward to express their needs more clearly, vocalise what they are going through, seek support and take better care of themselves and their families. Teachers and principals from Apni Shala's partner schools have been incredibly helpful in building contact, sharing information with families, and partnering to extend support," Rohit says.
"Mahesh bhaiya, Radhika's father, is a cab driver and the only earning member of his family. He has two daughters who study in a municipal school where Apni Shala Foundation runs the mental well-being initiative. His wife is diabetic and his other daughter has convulsions occasionally because of which they couldn't continue sending her to school. They live in a slum in Chembur which was due for redevelopment under the SRA," says Mansi Gohil from Apni Shala.
"Just before the lockdown was announced, the inhabitants were asked to vacate and asked to move somewhere else on the rent that would be provided by the builder. With the lockdown enforced, the family had moved to Kamothe in New Mumbai, a completely new community with no income anymore and no support in the area. Unable to afford the medical expenses and the grocery requirements the family was in dire need of support and was undergoing extreme stress when we reached out to them," she adds.
Mansi adds, "it is when I tried to coordinate with our team to support them and just yesterday we got them Ration and all medicines that they needed and then Mahesh bhaiya said, "Apni Shala ki teacher, aap ne bohot badi musibat mei humko sath diya hai, kisi rishtedaar ne madat nahi ki par aapne ki, aapka bahut bahut shukriya (Apni Shala's teacher, you have helped solve a really big problem for us. Not even relatives could help but you, didi. Thank you so much)."
In another incident, Aditi Ganguly from the Apni Shala team shares, "Yesterday, I was speaking with a parent. Nazia didi was sharing about the acute shortage of ration. After a few minutes the mother said in Hindi "Didi, whatever happens, we have to stay positive. And it's also important to be good with others. My daughter tells me that in school you all teach how to keep calm during difficult times, I am trying just that. With your work, I got to understand a lot.'"
The resources for activities and steps people can take for their wellbeing have been developed in the last two months and are being shared through WhatsApp with parents and teachers. Since its launch in early April, these resources have been accessed by over 4,000 users.
"In the last two months, we have been able to support social and emotional wellbeing over 300 children, youth and adults through online workshops. Through these workshops we have been helping people process their stress, fear and anxiety, help them see the support system they have and can further access, and build strategies together to manage day-to-day wellbeing during this lockdown," Rohit says.
"We have also been able to serve over 1200 families through ration, medicines, toiletries and other basic necessities in Kurla, Ghatkopar, Mankhurd, Chembur and Govandi areas of Mumbai Since April, 2020," he adds.
"Reach out to people in your city. Pay advance salaries to your househelp. Call them once in a while to check how they are doing. If you are looking for resources for yourself and your children, do access our online resources portal. If you would like to participate in our future online workshops, follow Apni Shala to stay updated," he tells the common people.
In times of such a pandemic, it's really important that we all come together as a community of caregivers and lend a helping hand to each other.
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