According to the Lancet Psychiatry Journal (December: 2019), mental health disorders of varying severity affected one in seven Indians in 2017. In India, there are multiple, closely interrelated factors that prevent timely identification and treatment of mental health issues. Although lack of awareness and stigma play a significant role, caste, class, religion, gender etc. are critical in determining the extent and kind of access people have to mental healthcare.
Genesis of ‘The Compassionate Counselling Program’
The onset of COVID-19 has further exacerbated the gap between those who need mental healthcare services and those who are able to provide them. EMpower partners work in communities that are on the margins and field staff have been the first line of support for people experiencing and dealing with extreme vulnerabilities. A few months into the pandemic, field staff at EMpower partner organizations in India started reporting increased stress levels, as they facilitated continuous on-the-ground relief support in communities. EMpower identified an urgent need to invest in resiliency building within organizations. Under the aegis of EMpower’s Building Bridges learning exchange series, The Compassionate Counselling Program began as the first concrete step in this direction, aimed specifically at equipping field staff in organizations with relevant counselling skills to reach communities with mindfulness and compassion.
Designing the program: A truly collaborative endeavour
In April 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, frustration, exhaustion began to take an emotional and mental toll on professionals working in opportunity-deprived communities. Keeping this in mind, EMpower provided a COVID response Building Bridges Grant to Antarang.
Using this grant, the ‘Train The Trainer’ resilience building module was designed to strengthen compassion and skill in times of the current pandemic with grave challenges like loss of income, risk of violence and fears of spread of disease.
Our priority was to focus on development professionals so that they could continue supporting and offering youth in dealing with their stress and building their emotional resilience.
The course was curated keeping in development professionals such as NGO leaders, teachers, facilitators, community staff, program staff and administrative staff who work with vulnerable populations.
Program Methodology and Structure
The 8-week virtual program (June 5 to July 24) was developed in collaboration with Sadia Saeed of Inner Space Counselling, an expert counselling and psychotherapy center. EMpower was closely involved at all stages of development, from ideation to structure. To make the program as relevant and beneficial as possible, registrants filled out a needs assessment form. Recognizing language barriers that often make such programs utterly inaccessible, the program was delivered entirely in Hindi and all training material was made to be bilingual (English & Hindi).
Module 1 i.e. the Basic Module focused on Understanding Oneself in order to Understand the Other.
Expected Outcomes: A heightened awareness of self, and the ability to practice compassion for oneself- especially in stressful times.
Module 2 i.e. the Advanced Module involved Building on Counseling Skills
Expected Outcomes: The ability to compassionately counsel young participants and offer support to team members.
After each session, participants received guided audios, readings and a list of tasks to perform during the week in order to deepen learning. The program created a safe space to discuss questions during and between the session(s).
Antarang Foundation recorded and streamed all sessions on its YouTube channel; they continue to remain available for participants to go back to, and help expand the program’s reach to those who may need it. This goes back to the belief in making mental healthcare accessible and democratizing knowledge wherever possible.
What we heard
More than 750 registrations were recorded when the program was announced, attesting to the need for such initiatives. Between 250 to 800 participants attended each session. Participants were asked how they felt after having completed the program and a word cloud was generated collating their responses. The words ‘compassionate’, ‘happy’, ‘grateful’, ‘peaceful’ stood out prominently among other positive expressions, indicating more than a general satisfaction among participants.
The team also collected feedback on important learnings for participants from the program and some of the responses were:
“How to learn to offer compassion to self and thus do it rightly for others in practice…”
“Learn how to manage stress”
“To be patient with myself to understand people around me better. To know when and how to offer help. To recognize my own feelings. ”
“Learn to pause before immediately responding to stimuli”
“Understanding a counselor’s perspective and learning about helping vs fixing mindset was really helpful.”
“How to lead a conversation with someone who is seeking support while practicing compassion towards ourselves”
Priya Agrawal, Founder & Director at Antarang Foundation shared her thoughts about the program:
“The series has been overwhelmingly positive on so many counts. Mental and emotional wellness is a need faced by all – and this workshop bore testimony to that. One big reason why access to mental health is not universal is the prohibitive costs. So many people across organizations reached out to convey their appreciation and mentioned how therapy and counselling costs are so high that they are impossible to afford, hence they appreciated this enabling series even more.”
The way forward: Institutionalizing Learnings and intended Impact
Our partners OSCAR Foundation, Enabling Leadership, Saath Charitable Trust, CHIP Mumbai have taken the learnings from this program back to their own organizations and started the process of capacity strengthening and institutionalization- which is being supported by EMpower. EMpower will continue supporting partners in making emotional and mental wellness for youth more systemic and accessible.
EMpower’s Intended Impact (2020 – 2025)
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