The PRIDE Series: Empowering the queer identity within our society ft. Deepthi K

When you decide to be true to yourself and live life without hiding a significant part of your identity, it’s common for people to make you feel like you don’t belong and are not accepted. A safe space to share your story and know that there are others like you gives you a sense of connection and comfort.


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Valerie– Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we have with us Deepthi, one of the founders of Chennai Queer Cafe, an online and offline safe social space for anyone who is a cis woman and identifies as Queer or Questioning. She has been a member of the Orinam group and mailing list since 2011 and has been volunteering with the Queer community in Chennai since then. She has been a part of the organizing team at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival since 2013. She is passionate about movies, women in sports, mental health issues and intersectional feminism.

Welcome, Deepthi

Deepthi– Hi. Thank you, Valerie. Thanks for the introduction. One quick thing I would like to say about the introduction is that the group is not just for queer cis women, it’s actually for queer AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals, which sort of includes anybody who is cis gender, identifies as bi, pan or lesbian, and who are assigned female at birth and are trans masculine, gender fluid, as well as non-binary.


Valerie- Thank you for the clarification. 

You were part of the core team that started Chennai Queer Cafe, about 3 years ago, in order to create a safe social space for queer cis women in and around Chennai. What was it that compelled you to start this initiative and how did people receive it?

Deepthi– So, since 2011, like you said, I’ve been a part of Orinam and other queer spaces in Chennai but there wasn’t really an exclusive AFAB space. When we started, there were very few, less than a handful queer women who were coming to the meeting. Not necessarily out in their own spaces but even coming to the meetings. So at that point, like I think around 2013 or so, I had a really bad breakup and I was in a really low point and there was a lot of marriage pressure from the family. At that point, I really needed a space like that, where I could talk to people who could relate to my issue. 

Not that there were not but then, it would have felt better, is what I had in mind and then in 2014-15, when I had the time, there were a little more people. Then we thought of a space like this and then we started an online space and slowly moved it to the offline space. So we meet once every month. Now because of the lockdown we are not able to, but before this, it’s been about three years, we started in September, three years back.


Valerie- So, how did people receive it when you started this initiative? I mean, from then to now, obviously we’ve probably had more people who are coming in and sharing their stories but at a time like then, what was it like?

Deepthi- So, the film festival is usually in June-July-August, early August or late July. So, we started sort of talking about this group around that time and quite a few people had come to the film festival and they were looking for a space like this as well. From them on, we’ve been associated with the film festival so we sort of put a word out during the film festival and the queer events. So, initially we had about 7-8 people, now we have roughly about 20 odd people that come for the offline meetings.


Valerie– Wow!

So just as you said, a lot of the reason you started the initiative draws from your own personal experience. When you realised you were queer, what was your initial reaction? How did you decide to come out to your loved ones and how did their reception to it impact your mental health?

Deepthi– There are a lot of layers in that question. I think I figured out and I knew I liked girls when I was around 16 or so but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on my life or on my everyday stuff. I think it was only when I was 25 that I accepted my sexuality and slowly, I started talking to friends about it. Even at that point, I wasn’t a part of the queer community. So, slowly I started talking to friends. I knew it was a sort of taboo subject and I can’t just randomly come out at work or spaces like that. So, I was very careful as to whom I spoke to. 

I had come out to the family when there was a lot of marriage pressure and stuff. At that point, initially, they were pretty hesitant saying “You were in hostels, maybe it’s because of that” but then they took me to a counsellor in Chennai. That wasn’t a very good experience, that counsellor was pretty homophobic and the  they gave me some time and then they took me to another counsellor that was in Bangalore. So, the counsellor in Bangalore was pretty accepting and at the end of the session, she called in my family and she was like “She’s pretty clear about what she wants. She’s pretty clear as to what she is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you should change about it. Just let her be.” Since then, there’s sort of been no discussion. 

So again, when you talk about the mental health aspect of it, I would say the first session that I had in Chennai was pretty traumatic. So, that put me in  a lot of pressure. At that point, I was in touch with the community but I never really was in a space to mix family and community yet. There was still a lot of pressure from family and the first experience I had with the counsellor didn’t help at all. I think at that point or even early on, when I knew I was queer, I think if there was right representation in the media or access to materials with which I could educate myself, I couldv’e guided myself better, guided my family better and have done away with a lot of trauma that I had to face. 

Even now, even in this day and age of social media, we have queer Pride events happening in cities, we have newspaper coverage, there are still people and parents who believe in this conversion therapy concept. I’m sure you would’ve recently heard that a girl from Kerala committed suicide because of all this. There’s still a lot of this happening and I would say that the solution for that would be on a certain level, educating these touch-points, whether it’s somebody who works in a school or somebody who is a mental health professional or people who are in the media to do the right representation. Even articles sometimes written in the media end up being homophobic. All that put together, a conversation in every space, is what would have helped me when I was 16 or when I was 20. That’s what would help parents normalize it or kids to not feel traumatized about what they are.


Valerie- Right. I liked that you said that right representation is important and access to material so that people can be educated, which makes it an easier conversation when you decide to come out and when you decide to talk to people. 


Deepthi– Right.


Valerie- So, you’ve been vocal about how queer women often lack access to the same benefits and legal rights compared to heterosexual cis women. This can have far-reaching consequences, especially impacting someone’s self-esteem and mental health. What are your views on this? Can you describe it for our listeners? 


Deepthi-  Sure. In my personal experience, I can talk about somebody who is queer cis but again, I would also like to talk about people on the AFAB spectrum because it’s quite different how the AFAB people experience discrimination or oppression. When it comes to me, I would say that queer relationships, especially, are not legally recognized so that has its own complications- whether it’s starting a bank account together or adding your partner as a beneficiary, say for example, on life insurance. Adoption is another huge challenge. Staying together isn’t always easy. People talk. There will be people that say “Oh, two girls are staying together.” Parents don’t make it easy. Even if you’re out to them, you’re not out to them. 

I think, far more traumatic will be situations like if your partner is in the hospital going through something very serious, you don’t have the kind of authority in those spaces. If there is a consent form that needs to be signed or something, they would want somebody who is a blood relative. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been living together for like six, seven or ten years, they would still ask you “How are you related?”. I would imagine that can be a pretty traumatic situation. 

When it comes to somebody who is AFAB and identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, I feel like since their gender expression is different in the sense that somebody who is gender fluid would want to dress up like the opposite sex one day, the societal opposite sex notion, that can cause a lot of judgement. That can cause a lot of judgment from people around in work spaces. Restrooms are again a messy situation when your gender expression doesn’t match what the society expects it to be. When it comes to documentation, it’s a huge challenge- whether it’s a government space or otherwise. So I think these can take a huge toll on especially gender fluid and non-binary people on an everyday basis.


Valerie– Right. So, we’ve talked about what it is like for queer women when it comes to benefits and legal rights but even when it comes to interacting with people in our own community, a lot of people have come out in support of the queer community but I think we’d all agree that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to complete acceptance. What can we do, as individuals, to ensure we can be a support system to the community? 

Deepthi– Whether it’s individuals or brands or organizations, especially when it comes to brands, it’s sort of very triggering when it comes to the whole Pride month because some brands, all they do, is change the logo just for PR. The sensitivity that they show or all that they talk about does not reflect in their policy. Do they have samesex partner benefits in their policy? No. Do they have a gender neutral sexual harassment policy? Maybe not. 

So, similarly, for individuals as well, when it’s Pride month, everybody has a hashtag thing going on, everybody has these frames that they put up on Facebook but a lot of them are not very okay when it comes to starting the conversation around the community when it comes to their friends’ circle or family. I think that would be a huge change. It’s very hard for somebody to recognize and admit to biphobia, transphobia and homophobia. 

If you want to be the person who wants to help the community or be a support system, I think learning, educating, starting conversations and creating a safe space. If it’s the workplace, you want to create a safe space for queer people to come out. So, just compassion, just learning and being a bit sensitive as to what and how. Introspect. I think mainly, starting conversations is what it is but also, along with that, being sensitive and compassionate.


Valerie– So, what are the kinds of reactions that you’ve seen when people come out, that have been negative and can possibly impact people the wrong way? As you said, people do lack compassion and very often, people are insensitive to the whole thing, right? So, what have you seen?

 Deepthi– So, I’ve seen people say “Oh, it’s just a phase. You’ll get through it.” or even worse things like “Oh, you just didn’t find the right man.” Not a very good experience but this is really early on in life where I was like okay, you guys are not going to be very sensitive about it, let me just move myself away from spaces like this. I had the luxury to move away. Not everybody would.


Valerie– Right. So, from the experiences you’ve had, when it came to starting the Chennai Queer Cafe as well as your own personal experience-  because you’ve heard stories of people who come to you and talk about their own journeys- what would you like to say to the people who are struggling to come out? 

Deepthi– I would say that you don’t have to come out. It’s always a choice but then sometimes it’s not easy for a woman because of marriage pressure but there are usually work arounds. One thing I would like to say is- assess your situation because nobody knows it better than you do. You have to figure out if you come out to your parents, how receptive they are. Is there danger of violence? Is there a situation where you can be in like a house arrest situation? So, those are the things you first need to assess. 

I would say test waters. If you are somebody who identifies as non-binary or trans, just drop a word about some actor coming out as trans or some actor coming out as bisexual, just to test waters and see where they stand. I would say, after that, depending on the situation, either you move out of your house whether it’s to study or to work, get your own financial freedom, get your own social support system, like at least five or six friends. They don’t have to necessarily be from the community but some kind of support system that will help you stay sane in times like this, when you’re accidentally out to the family. If and when you choose to come out to the family, you need to have the financial confidence and the emotional support system for you to stay sane. 

So, I think these are the two things that I have pretty much told a lot of people who are like “I think I’ll come out.” Figure out what your situation is. Figure out how open your parents are to listening. Then you take a stand, if you choose to come out.


Valerie– Thank you for your insights on that. I think it’s very important, like you have mentioned in the past, for us as well, it’s important to start initiating conversation and not just turning a blind eye and being ignorant when somebody wants to speak to us. I think it’s very important for us to take part in creating a safe space and being supportive and compassionate towards people so that in turn, we can be a community that does become completely acceptive.


Deepthi– One last point I would like to add is that when I say conversations, it can be around anything. Whether it’s somebody talking about a policy in a workspace or whether they’re taking a domestic violence seminar, you have to understand that queer people exist everywhere so queer identity or queer conversations are as relevant in domestic violence cases as they are anywhere else. So, whether it’s a start-up culture, I am a queer person working in a start-up, so there’s like a two-layered pressure on me, when it comes to my mental health. So, in any space, I think these conversations need to be normalized and so they need to be started.


Valerie- Correct. It was a lot of information that you gave us today, a lot of insights when it came to the legal rights, when it came to how we accept and how we should be around people who decide to come out so that we can be there for them. So, thank you for all of the information and thank you for this conversation.


Deepthi– Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks, Valerie.


LonePack Conversations– The PRIDE Series: Living life with dignity ft. Anwesh Sahoo

Your teens are always a difficult time. We are trying to explore our rebellious natures, trying to find our identities, all the while trying to fit in with our peer group; and when we’re made to feel like we’re different and that we don’t belong – It’s challenging. It takes immense courage to stand up for ourselves and live our truth – even if that means we may not fully ‘fit in’. It’s okay to ‘fit out’.


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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Anwesh Sahoo, an artist, writer, model and a TEDx speaker who was crowned Mr. Gay World India, 2016. He is an activist for LGBTQ rights and has written extensively to dispel stereotypes people have about the LGBTQ community. His campaign “Fitting Out” aimed at connecting with NGOs, schools and communities to spread awareness about the simple fact that straight men and women are only a part of the rainbow spectrum of sexual orientations possible.

Welcome, Anwesh

Anwesh – Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me. 


Valerie– It’s great to have you here today.

Anwesh– Thank you. I’m happy to be a part and I hope that I can actually give out something worthwhile during our conversation. I still believe that I think I’m too small a being to actually be here talking about such big issues today but thank you so much for having me. 

Valerie– I’m sure you will. I mean it’s been a very personal journey for you and I’m sure our listeners would love to hear about it and it will be very inspiring.

Anwesh- I hope so, I hope so. Perfect.


Valerie– – So, in a lot of the talks that you’ve given, you’ve shared your experiences about how you struggled to fit into the ‘typical masculine’ mould growing up. You’ve been vocal about the bullying and teasing that you faced in school. So, how did this impact your mental health and how much did it influence your decision to come out and tell the world how you really feel?

Anwesh– So, to be very honest, I think I was bullied almost all my childhood, especially at school. I think home was always like a safe space. My parents, while sometimes they would get a little annoyed with the fact that there were acquaintances who would always come and talk about, or mock me, or talk about how I should’ve been a girl but I’ve become a guy and I have such feminine traits which boys my age didn’t really have. I think all of this sort of aggravated by the time I turned sixteen. I remember I was actually going for a coaching class at that point in time. I was preparing for JEE and around that time, I was starting to realise that I was actually interested in boys and the fact that my interest in boys was not going to fade away. I think that was the point when I really started questioning everything around me.

I sort of went into this existential crisis perhaps because I think I was finding the education in that coaching centre extremely difficult and I think for any child who has grown up in India, around the time you’re in your eleventh and twelfth standard, it’s such a big leap from when you’re just fifteen and you’re in your tenth standard and I had done well and I was hoping that I would just ace everything that was coming my way but I did find everything in the eleventh standard perhaps a little difficult, also because there are already so many things that are going on in your head. Your body is going through massive changes. So, I do believe that I think the kids in my coaching centre, when they started teasing me, I think that is when it started affecting me because I felt like school was still a place where guys would tease and it didn’t really matter. I had been with those boys for a very long time now and I think that I had sort of trivialized their bullying. 

When the same bullying continued in my coaching centre, that’s when I started questioning that okay, maybe there is something wrong about me, maybe there is something different about me. The more I introspected, the more I realised that I was sort of going into this downward spiral and I do remember this very day when I was just sitting on my table, I was supposed to complete an assignment for my coaching centre. They had given us a lot of assignments and I was really bogged down. I had switched off my lights and I was just there in that darkness, with a pencil in my hand and I had my desk right in front of me, and I was just scribbling on it – like a crazy maniac. It was almost as if I could not take in the mess that was going around in my head. I could not even channelize any of this because of course, I’m talking about 2012, when mental health issues were still not very talked about and I wasn’t even very active on the Internet to even understand all of these very massive concepts, very complex concepts for that matter, for me back then, at least. I had just gone into that phase where I just did not want to live any more.

I had sort of started realising and understanding, and the more I questioned myself – thankfully, I was introspecting- I was questioning what was wrong about me because I could not live without having answers to these questions and the more I questioned myself, the more miserable I felt about the fact that perhaps I am gay and therefore, there is no hope in my life and I think this is it. I just felt that if I am not going to live a dignified life, then there is no point of me living this life because I am going to, perhaps, bring shame to both me as well as my parents. Above everything else, my parents might not even be there for me in the future but I will have to life with this body and the very fact that I am going to be gay all my life and therefore, it just didn’t seem like there was any meaning to my life anymore.

I remember going and standing right in front of my mirror, right above the sink. There was this phenyl bottle which was right below the sink and I would always look at it. After both my parents were asleep, I would go there and stand there for sometimes an hour and I would always be contemplating “Should I drink it? Should I not? Should I drink it? Should I not?” and then I remember once googling what are the easiest ways with which I can kill myself. Those were really dark times. Sometimes, maybe today when I think about it,  they do seem funny but back then, I sort of laughed them off. That’s perhaps the only way I sort of combat all those very difficult times. Back then, it was a very difficult time for me and I would often contemplate what if I just kill myself and just done with this because I cannot take this any more. 

But I do remember telling myself on one of those days when it had sort of become a cycle, you know sometimes when things become a cycle, you start questioning- Why is this becoming a cycle? This is not a good thing for my life, to have a cycle like this where every night I stand in front of the mirror and think about killing myself. Especially if I have exams coming up. Board exams are coming up and my parents were very particular that I should do well, and I was doing well in school so I didn’t want to lose out on my grades. So, I just told myself that if I die today, this is the end. There was nobody who was going to tell my story ever again and perhaps, there will be another Anwesh, if not today then maybe ten years down the line, five years down the line, who would probably go through the same dilemma that I am going through today and perhaps, that Anwesh does not deserve to die and so don’t I. I don’t deserve to die. I deserve to live. I deserve to tell my story, and I deserve to have access to every fundamental right and perhaps the most fundamental right there is, is dignity and happiness. I wanted all of those good things in my life like the way my straight counterparts did. 

Therefore, I just felt like if I would die, it would be the end of everything. I didn’t want that to be the end. I had such big aspirations. I was so hard-working all throughout my life. I didn’t want my hard work to go down the drain. So, I just told myself that. I came back to my room and I do remember that over the time, that night was kind of me reaching the lowest in my life. I came across this amazing book by Robin S Sharma called ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’. That book also changed a lot of my perspective about life. It made me value the time that I have, it made me value the education that I have and it made me value my parents a lot more and I realised that I didn’t want to lead a life where I simply wasn’t being treated like an equal and I think by then, I was just being treated like a garbage bin where people would come and say random and very negative things to me and it would just break my heart and therefore, I just didn’t want to lead that kind of life any more.


Valerie– That is indeed very inspiring and it’s amazing that despite going through so much, you decided that this is not how it’s going to be. You’re going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say that this is who I am and I’m going to live my life with dignity. I think it’s really amazing that you’ve made this decision despite all of the hard times that you’ve gone through and that people have put you through. 

Anwesh– Yeah, today when I sometimes look back at myself, if often breaks my heart when I think about those times but I’m very grateful that by eighteen year old self, my seventeen year old self, for that matter, had the maturity to understand that I deserved more and I think every great thing that has happened to me since, I feel so grateful for it because I know what it means to not have any of it. I know very well what it means to not have any hope at all and just go into that downward spiral and therefore I really value everything that I come across or everything that I experience, both good and bad, because they are why I am what I am today. 


Valerie- That is a wonderful way of looking at things.

So, you’ve also spoken about how society, in India especially, is unprepared to deal with those who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Many parents adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. A lot of other parents who mean well and accept us, still advise us to not tell other people under the guise of ‘protecting us’. So, what is your perspective on this? And how did your parents react when you decided to tell them?

Anwesh– That’s a good question. I have come across, in fact, a lot of people, who are not just from India but also from – I’m talking about gay men – from around the world who often, in fact men who I’ve dated in the past, who would often tell me that I have this “don’t say, don’t share” policy with my parents, or with my mother and I’m trying to do this to protect them from going through that trauma that I’m going through their my life and to be very honest, I don’t think it really works out. I don’t think it, in any way, is helpful for either the person who happens to be queer or the parent because it sort of leads to a very miserable relationship between both of you, because you have already created such a block for yourself between your parent and you and obviously, you’re never going to be transparent to your parents and therefore, any relationship for that matter, not just a mother and child relationship or a father and child relationship, or a parent-child relationship in general but any relationship cannot be based on lies or it cannot be based on half-truths. 

Therefore, if you really want to build a healthy relationship with your parent, I would also suggest that you take your time, and see or examine when is the right time for you to really come out to your parents because perhaps in India, I have come across young sixteen-seventeen year olds who find it extremely difficult to talk to their parents because they’re culturally sometimes not a very accepting group of people. I mean, I have come across people where honor killing is still very much a big deal in parts of the country. There are parts where sometimes when kids come out to their parents, they come back to school or they come back to college with swollen faces and that’s not a very safe space to be in. In fact, acquaintances can sometimes be very mean and there is a reason why we still have corrective rape in India. There are still parents who perhaps take their kids to psychologists and sometimes psychiatrists to go through shock therapy, which is such an incredibly awful thing to let your child go through. 

So, I think at least in India, I would say that you take your time, and realise and examine when is the right time for you to really come out. More often than not, it’s better to take your time to empower yourself financially and when you can take a stance for yourself, that is when you actually even initiate a conversation with your parents. If you really think that your parents are extremely headstrong about stuff, then I would really suggest that it is better to not actually share sometimes and perhaps find a safe space somewhere else. As queer people, we always sort of learn to build a chosen family. I do have a chosen family as well in the queer community, which I’m extremely grateful for. They will always accept you the way you are and they will understand the pain that you have been through, which perhaps a lot of our parents find very difficult to understand. 

However, that said, if you can afford to come out, I would really recommend that you do come out because it really helps build a really healthy relationship between your parents and you over time, even if it does not lead to a very healthy conversation at that point in time, which is something that had happened to me. Both my parents were very shocked when I had come out to them. It was extremely difficult to even have a simple conversation with either of my parents when I came out to them. My mother would often say that “Oh my God Anwesh, I don’t know what I did wrong that I have to go through this”. It was no more about just me, it was also about her and the fact that she might have done something wrong which led me to being gay, which is something that I obviously didn’t agree with. I was born this way and therefore, I didn’t understand why I had to go through the negativity or all these very awkward conversations but I realised that I had to be extremely patient with both my parents and I’m grateful that I had that patience with them because now they are certainly a lot more accepting than they used to be.

I know that there is a part of them that still hopes that perhaps someday I would come back to them as their straight son, perhaps marry a woman and they would have a daughter-in-law and all of those aspirations that Indian parents usually have with their kids. But I think it’s a very unfair aspiration to have with your kids. I know that you invest a lot in your kids and therefore you have these dreams attached but your kid will eventually lead his or her own life and therefore it’s extremely important you let your child be and choose what the child thinks is the best for himself or herself. That is exactly where the parents will also eventually find happiness.


Valerie– Right. I’m assuming now that you said your parents also did find it difficult when you told them that you were gay and you said that they were not as accepting then as they probably are becoming now. What was it like for you when you to then, decide to then sign up for the Mr. Gay World pageant. I mean when you told them about it and when you aren’t feeling accepted, what was it like for you to decide to do this and take this step?

Anwesh– Well, there were many reasons why I decided to initially take part in the competition. One of the biggest reasons definitely was the fact that I just felt that the pageant was a platform where I would be able to represent myself and provide my voice with a bigger platform. Above everything else, I felt like it was going to give me a more dignified life, which I really felt was lacking massively in India. In fact, I still to a big extent feel that I’m unable to live my life to the fullest extent sometimes because I have to hide a part of myself while I live here, in India. 

There are times when I would like to wear very fancy clothes or a big pair of heels, which I love wearing. Sometimes I do feel like I don’t get to wear all of that because I have to also take care of my safety. I have been stalked in the past, I have been groped. There are things that I would not like to put myself through again and therefore I’m much more thoughtful, mindful and careful about how I carry myself in public today. I just wanted to have a way better life where I didn’t have to hide myself from anyone. 

Perhaps it was also a way for me to me to combat awkward conversations with my acquaintances because I knew that if I was going to win the pageant, I would never have to deal with awkward conversations with any of my acquaintances and they wouldn’t assume things like I’m going to marry a woman because that would often happen with most of my acquaintances. They would always ask me “What about your girlfriend?” or perhaps someday they would’ve also asked me “When are you getting married to a woman?” and all of that. I felt those questions to me were extremely uncomfortable. I felt like you know, I’m not attracted to a woman and you’ve already assumed that I’m attracted to a woman and therefore, I am going to have a girlfriend and I’m going to marry this person and they would often also do matchmaking for me with all these other girls my age. All of that was extremely awkward for me and I just felt like I don’t deserve to go through all of this. 

I should be able to have a life where people know about me and don’t judge me for who I am. Therefore, even if they judge me after knowing I’m gay, then it’s actually their fault and it’s not going to cost me anything. At least I have put my life out there in front of them, they know about my sexuality and they are not going to have stupid assumptions about who I am. Whether they accept me or not is a very far-fetched question. They should at least know who I am, to begin with. 

There was also one of the clauses in the Mr. Gay World pageant that in order for me to participate, I had to be out to my parents and that is usually done to that the organization doesn’t get into unnecessary fights with the parents of the participants later. I had to be nineteen and I had to be out to participate in Mr. Gay India. Therefore, I was like this is the right time for me to really come out to them and talk about my sexuality to them because I don’t see a reason why I should hide it. Straight people don’t have to hide their sexuality. So why should I have to hide it? 

And my father did say that “I accept you as you are but I don’t want you to talk about your sexuality with others. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve and put it out there for everyone to know and discuss” and I was like “Papa, you are not asking yourself to do that and therefore why should I have to do it? You have to understand that while my sexuality is not everything about me, it is perhaps a very small part about me but it is a pertinent part about me and therefore, I don’t want to hide a part of myself. Nobody is going to ask me to put my gayness out there for everybody to know. They’re never going to ask any questions about my homosexuality until I initiate that conversation with them and I educate them about it because there is a lot more to it and people can be very insensitive about it and people have been very insensitive about it to me all throughout my childhood, all throughout my teenage years and people sometimes still continue to be very insensitive and ask me very insensitive questions and therefore, I do not want to combat any of this anymore. I have had enough of it and I am old enough to decide what is right for me and therefore, if my conscience is right and I know there’s nothing wrong about me being gay, then I am going to talk about it, no matter what”. And that’s what I did and I have no regrets today at all.


Valerie– That’s really great. 

So, the fact that we’ve got platforms like Mr. Gay World does show that ofcourse, we are making progress but as we can see, even many Indian movies and shows that we have, we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community or we’re using them as props for comic relief. So, considering the fact that there is a significant societal impact that movies have on people, especially in India- the Indian audience worships a lot of movie stars and you look at movies and you aspire to be like somebody there. What are your thoughts about this?

Anwesh– I think in popular media in particular, we have a massive lack of representation of the LGBTIQA+ community. We have of course had very problematic characters in the past, some of which have also affected me and my thought process about being gay. In fact, the very first time I actually came across the word “gay” was through Dostana. I think anybody who’s struggling to come out and is struggling with their sexuality should never be looking at a film like Dostana because it will only scar them further. 

The way, for example, the character of Abhishek Bachchan was caricaturized, his character was this effeminate character. Let’s also break this down- there is nothing wrong about him being effeminate. There are a lot of gay men who are effeminate. I happen to be on of them and I have absolutely no regrets about being a proud gay fem man. However, I have lived most of my life knowing that I am brown, gay and fem and all of these three things, when they come together, they sort of unfortunately strip you off of a lot of your privilege growing up. Therefore, I didn’t even know what privilege meant growing up because I was always looked down upon throughout my childhood for being all of these three things. 

Unfortunately, of course, when I looked at the film, I felt that the fem characters were not represented in a dignified way. I often come across a lot of conversation about how gay men are so much more than effeminate, there are also so many gay men who are not fem. They are like any other men. Well, that’s fine and we’ve had enough of that representation. There is a reason why people accept straight acting or masc, as they say, masc gay men very easily because somewhere down the line, they also fit into their hetero-normative mindset and it always becomes very problematic when people in general do not fit into the narrow, normative behavior that the society has sort of chalked out for us. 

Therefore, if a man is a little effeminate, that becomes very problematic because you’ve already been conditioned in a certain way that “This is what a man is supposed to be”. “This is what a woman is supposed to be”. And if you blur those lines, it suddenly becomes so problematic to this entire societal structure that we live in. I genuinely have a massive problem with the way fem gay men, or even trans people are represented in popular media. 

Therefore, I really feel that fem gay men also need representation, and dignified representation. Not all fem gay men are sex addicts or sex maniacs or sexual assaulters or side-kicks! They can be the central character of their own stories and they should be represented as strong dignified characters who have a job, who perhaps have all these jobs that we do not even know a lot of gay men have. A lot of the top leaders in our country happen to be LGBTIQA+ and therefore, I do hope that in the future, there is more equal representation and not the one-dimensional representation that has existed till date.

Valerie– Right. The fact that you said that the representation is not equal and obviously it polarizes people’s vision in the way that they now look at people in society. That is extremely wrong and there needs to be a massive change in the way people are represented on screen.

Anwesh– Yeah, absolutely. It’s high time.


Valerie- So for you, your journey from struggling with bullying to coming out and being crowned Mr. Gay World – I’m sure it’s been a rollercoaster journey for you. So what is the one thing you’d like to share with people who are struggling to come out? 

Anwesh– For me, there were two important things that I would often tell myself when I was struggling with my sexuality. In fact, this was something that I had come across during one of my school assembly sessions, when one of the teachers spoke about self-pitying. I completely agree with the fact that self-denial and self-pitying are two of the worst things that one could do to one’s self. You cannot deny yourself who you truly are and it is extremely important that you live an authentic life. You don’t have to live a life that is so high on ethics because honestly, all this protocol that has been given to us has been defined by someone and everybody’s right and wrong can be very different. 

Therefore, it’s more important that you invest in understanding your conscience and then truly live a more authentic life so that you also lead a more fulfilling life. It is extremely important that you also take yourself less seriously. Don’t get too involved in all the negativity that there is because there honestly is a lot of garbage, even on the Internet right now, at least on the social media platforms. There is a lot of noise on these platforms and I would want people to start investing in looking into themselves instead of indulging in these very meaningless conversations. Pick your conversations, pick your battles and you will lead a much more fulfilling life and that’s all that there is. Leading a peaceful life, leading a happy, fulfilling life. Yeah.

Valerie– Well, Anwesh, thank you for this conversation that I’ve had with you. It’s been lovely to listen to your journey, your experiences shared and I do hope that we become people that are more positive and receptive to other people and let them live their lives with dignity instead of judging and creating differences and all kinds of discrimination. I really hope that we become people who become more acceptive.

Anwesh- Absolutely. I hope so as well and thank you so much for having me again. It’s been incredible talking to you. It’s been a little emotionally actually, as well but yeah, thank you so much and I really hope that my words are able to make a positive impact in the audience listening to us today. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Valerie- I’m sure it will. Thank you.

The PRIDE Series: Acknowledging the self while breaking the stigma around LGBT ft. Vinay Chandran

June marks the beginning of Global Pride month. It’s been heartwarming to see how aware, receptive and supportive we have become towards the LGBTQ community in the recent past.  We’ve indeed come a long way. But somewhere deep down, we do realise that there’s still a stigma that needs to be shattered around it.


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Valerie -Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Vinay Chandran, a counsellor, activist, and writer. He is the Executive Director of Swabhava Trust, an NGO working with and exploring intersections between sexuality, gender, health and mental health concerns, and much more. He also runs a telephone helpline called Sahaya for counseling the LGBTQ individuals and has worked on linking support services with the community. 

Welcome, Vinay

Vinay -Hi, Good Morning

Valerie – It’s great to have you here.

Vinay – Thank you so much for having me here.

Valerie – You started the Swabhava Trust, about 20 years ago, for the LGBT community. At a time when there wasn’t a lot of dialog about the LGBTQ+ community, what drove you to start the organization and what was the initial reception?    

Vinay – Well, it wasn’t just me. There were a set of trustees that helped set up the organization, and the idea was that at that time, there was a dire need especially in Southern India for a counselling service that can specifically be accessed by LGBT people who are going through a lot of personal crisis or identity crisis and so on, and there wasn’t anything like that at the time to address sexiality issues openly and with no judgement. So a few of us got together, kind of realized that we could offer that kind of service because among the original trustees, there were about one or two of them who had experienced setting similar kind of organizations or helplines up in Northern India and we took that experience and kind of helped Swabhava specifically to at least start providing counselling on the telephone and it just took off from there. 

I was working in advertising at the time and I quit that at the time to become part of this full time and set up the helpline and provide counselling. At that time, we had a lot of volunteers and we did a couple of training sessions with a psychiatrist Dr. Shekhar Seshadri from Ninhans on how to provide such counselling, what kind of issues we can address in LGBT communities and so on. We also advertised in newspapers, in classified columns and on various sites, about our services and we’ve been receiving calls non-stop since then.

We set up Swabhava in 1999, so we’re 21 years old this year, and the helpline itself started exactly 20 years ago, in June 2000.

So in terms of initial reception, the only thing I can say is we operated twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, from 6-8 pm in the evening because we weren’t sure of how it would be received or what kind of calls we would get or whether they would be relevant or useful, and on the first day of our launch, the phone started ringing exactly at 6 o’clock and I think in the two hours that we were open, we got about 40-45 calls non-stop. So, we knew then that the requirement was there and it just took off from there. We had a fairly huge kind of experience trying to understand what kind of problems were coming up and how to deal with each of them because we were as new to the counselling field as anybody else at the time. Does that answer your question?


Valerie – It does! It’s actually really great to know that you guys stood up for something like this 21 years ago and the reception that you had to it, having non-stop calls, it does show that there really was a need for the initiative that you guys began. 

Vinay – Absolutely. I think there were a couple of other similar kind of spaces in Delhi and even in Bombay or in Hyderabad but our helpline specifically targeted LGBT issues, specifically provided counselling for that and I think the reception of it, maybe it’s a little bit of promotion of the city itself, it’s because it’s Bnagalore, I think. I do know that organizations that tried to give classified advertisements in newspapers both in Delhi and Bombay, were flat out refused by those newspapers because they didn’t want to take such controversial text that said “Helpline for gays, lesbians, bisexuals transgender perople”. In Bangalore, we had absolutely no problem.

Valerie – That’s really good. So you did give a Tedx talk at NIT Trichy where you spoke about various sources of stigmatization when it comes to sexual orientation, Would you like to elaborate on this for our listeners? It’s something I found very interesting and I thought people should know about.

Vinay – Yeah, I think you have to start with how you are raised as a child in India, where the concept of Nivedita Menon speaks about, a force or compelled heterosexuality is thrust upon you. You are not born heterosexual in any sense of the word, that you are not born to be attracted to the other gender. That is a biological construct but the idea that everybody has to be a heterosexual is kind of drilled into us from a fairly young age. When you talk about films or books that you have to read or cartoons that you watch or cinema or TV serials, it’s always the heterosexual hero-heroine, man-woman story that gets promoted. 

Even in the context of gender, if you look at transgender people, you are promoted this idea of how to be a boy – don’t cry, don’t be like a girl, or how to be a girl – don’t act like a boy, these kind of gender norms are also trained into your psyche from a very young age.

Now, that itself is the source of the first stigma because if you don’t feel that way, if you don’t feel like a man even though your family has been telling you that you are one, if you don’t feel like a woman even though your family is telling you that you are one, and if you don’t feel an attraction towards the other gender even though that is what the world expects you to be, that becomes a source of self-stigmatization.

The world does not have to oppress you in any way for you to know that you are different. The invisibility of that oppression is part of the problem. 

So a lot of children realise very early on that they have to hide themselves and have to pretend not to feel what they actually feel. So, that becomes a huge stress in their minds. During childhood, there’s a stigma of being an effeminate child if you are male or being a masculine woman and things like that. The way you get teased and called all sorts of names like “chakka” and “lesbo” – those kinds of things kind of put more stress on the child.

Whether or not the child is in a formal education system or otherwise, the same thing at home can become very pervasive in the way it formulates the child’s opinion of themselves. It’s really the source of stigma. 

Then, you talk about the absence of these kinds of roles or ideas of sexuality. Where do you see the story of a successful homosexual person? Where do you see the story of a successful transgender person? You don’t see that except in certain kinds of media. Otherwise they are treated as outsiders and therefore kind of weird and freakish and so on. You see that even in cinema until recently.

 A lot of the mainstream characters are either macho men or feminine women. You don’t ever see the context of feminine man except in the context of a comedy.

There is a lot of that kind of stigma that people have to go though, both gender and sexual orientation. Not just one or the other. The stigma is both visible, in the examples I gave, and invisible, by the way we are trained by society on not talking about ourselves.

Those are some of the sources that I talked about there and how it influences mental health and health concerns of LGBT people.

Valerie – Thank you for elaborating on that. We did talk about the struggle when it came to their mental health but we also know that there is a community struggle when it comes to access  to opportunities that many of us often take for granted. Unfortunately, you do know in many cases, this includes access to safe professional mental health care. A lot of times you see that even mental health professionals do not give them the amount of comfort and acceptance that they do deserve. It can also lead to a lot of devastating consequences for them. What are your thoughts on the same?

Vinay – I think the recent case of Anjana Hareesh from Kerala, who went to Goa and was foun dead from suicide and her narration of her story where she says her family found out about her same-sex attractions and sent her to conversion therapy and she was given several kinds of treatments in order to make her straight. And that kind of drove up the depression in her to as point where she couldn’t handle it and committed suicide. We’re talking about the whole conversion therapy bit in the last six months. 

When I started back in ‘99-2000, we used to also get clients who have been referred by doctors, either Nimhans or other kind of mental health spaces where the doctors believe that the conversion therapy administered to the client was not successful and therefore, the person cannot be converted and therefore, the last resort is – “Why don’t you just join the LGBT community because you can’t become normal”. That kind of offering of treatment for people who want to change or don’t want to change, whatever the child might want, if the parents come in and say “My child has to be heterosexual and get married in the next month. You better make him straight”. That kind of belief in the mental health sector, even though the mainstream has changed in the last 20 years, that 20 years ago the Indian psychiatric society or psychological society or the psychiatric social work society would not have openly spoken about stopping conversion therapy treatments, which they are doing today.

 All of these committees have declared and written on paper that they feel conversion therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity is no longer practiced and should not be practised in India. But there are still private practitioners and Anjana Hareesh’s example illustrates the consequences of such practice.

It’s incredibly difficult for people from the community, especially if they are dependent on their families for their livelihood. When the family decides that they have to become straight in order to get married, then trying to get a sensitive counsellor to say that “There is nothing wrong with your child but there is definitely something wrong with you for thinking that your child has to be like you and we will counsel you but not your child”, there are very few counsellors. At least 20 years ago, there was Shekhar Seshadri and very few others. 

Now, we can say there are slightly more but that’s in metro areas. What about smaller cities, smaller towns? Those are problematic and we know that there are devastating consequences including suicide.

There are a lot of problems for having proper access to mental health care in India.

Even in the last few months when I’ve been providing counselling, when I tell any of my clients “Why don’t you go to Nimhans and get long term therapy because of the depression you’re going through?” They mostly say “I’m not crazy, why should I go to Nimhans?” They reduce all of mental health into “I’m not crazy”.

The understanding is still not there and we’re talking about a community that is already stigmatized in society and is as stigmatized in the medical sector. 

The mental health sector is one of the most stigmatizing places for the LGBT community.

It’s not easy, for instance, for a transgender woman to walk into a public hospital and not be treated badly in India. There are still those kinds of problems to access.

That is still a change that we need to go through but the fact that committees like the psychiatric society and the others have openly stated their support for the community, things have also changed to some extent. We just hope it takes root far more deeply than it has till now.

Valerie– You did talk about the fact that India has come a long way from the past 20 years when it came to how we look at the LGBT community and how we receive them. But we are aware, as you just said, that we’ve not fully embraced the community and there is a lot of stigma when it comes to the way we talk to them and how we receive them. Also, these are people that we see and interact with on a regular basis, so what do we do, as individuals, in order to embrace the community and be reliable allies towards them?

Vinay – The bigger question is, how do you normalize conversation around gender identity and sexual orientation? Without taking it out of the person and making it something like it’s special about the person. My colleague, who is one of our trustees and has also set up counselling elsewhere as well, he used to say that the community is not asking for special rights, we are asking that we not be given special discrimination. And that is the point that people are failing to understand when it comes to the community. 

An ally who basically responds to a statement of an LGBT person coming out with a basic saying “So what? Let’s go to dinner” or “Let’s go watch a movie”, meaning that it’s received with as much enthusiasm as any news would be received. That there is no spectacular, outgoing kind of reaction that is kind of over the top and makes no difference to the person.

The person needs to feel that there is nothing wrong with them, and the only way you feel that is if you feel that you’re the same as everybody else. I think it’s that sense of creating an ambience or an environment around you where people can open up and say anything like this and not feel so judged. They are not coming out to you because they want you to help them. They are coming out to you because they trust you.

 Do you provide that kind of space for that to happen? That itself needs to be normalized. I know I use the word “normalize” here very carefully because the word “normal” becomes such a weapon towards the LGBT community also, where doctors say “abnormal”, people say “abnormal” and all kinds of names get thrown about and stigmatized. But I want to turn it around and use that also on behalf of the community and say that what an ally can do is to create an environment where being LGBT is no different from being anything else – from having black hair, from wanting to be an actor, from wanting to be an accountant. It makes no difference to life in any other way. It’s the same thing with being a transgender person.

Whoever that person has come out to, they’re still the same friends that they were before. The gender might have changed or been rejected but the people don’t change. And that’s really what we’re trying to get allies to understand.

 I think that while we have travelled a long way over the last 20 years, because when we started, we had no hope that the law would’ve changed in any way. We didn’t think that we would see a change in the laws in 50 years or even in our lifetimes. By 2009, the law had already changed and we had so much back and forth since then. By 2018, when the section 377 was completely struck down, at least read down for consenting adults, we were as surprised because we didn’t think it would happen but attitudes have changed.

The community has become more accepted internationally as well as in India. 

There’s still a long way to go because marriage is still considered number one priority for all families, whether you are gay or straight, they don’t care. You have to get married. That is still a struggle that a lot of LGBT people experience.

So there’s a long way to go but start by creating an environment where people can be themselves.

Valerie– I think that was very very beautifully spoken. When you talk about the need for us to normalize it and the need for us to not treat them any different from who they are and for them to just be seen as a person without labels. 

So, when you draw on your experience as a counsellor and as an activist over the last 20-21 years, what would you now like to say to the individuals who are struggling to come out and live their truth?

Vinay – See, I think the primary struggles are still the same in terms of when poeple call up and say “Am I gay?” “Am I straight?” “Am I normal?” “Why do I feel this way?” “Why am I attracted to my own gender?” “Why do I feel like dressing up like the other gender?” Whatever those questions  are, those are journeys that people will have to go through by themselves. But I think the difference between 20 years ago and now, is the increase in some acceptance within the community itself. 

There is no shame within the community. There may have been a lot of guilt and shame early on because of the way society was, and that has changed over 20 years.

So 20 years ago, there were a few of us and when we get calls about “Is being Gay normal?” “Is it okay?”, we would have to vehemently say that being gay is normal and that discovering yourself as transgender is perfectly alright and so on and so forth. Where the identity, the “label” that you said, those become important. But 20 years later, I feel as a counsellor that now the labels are irrelevant. The conversation for instance, for me as a counsellor between a 25 year old person and their family who is trying to force them to get married, for example, the conversation is not “How do I come out as gay to my family?”. The conversation is “How do I get my family to realise that I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions about things?”.

 If you focus all your energy on how to come out, you create more obstacles. But if your family recognizes you as an independent adult in India, which itself is a big deal obviously, then perhaps the journey of coming out becomes easier. The label is not important. The identity is already there regardless of what you call yourself.  “Are you attracted to men?” “Are you attracted to women?” “Would you identify as a man or a woman or as a gender non-binary?”. All of those are personal journeys but how you have the conversation with other people, I think those milestones have to change. You need to think of yourself as an adult or an independent person. If you are not an adult, then you need to realise that it is about strategizing your coming out because not all families are accepting of these kinds of journeys. 

Strategize in a way that you are able to live your own life and your own truth without necessarily jeopardizing your future in any way. Because at some point, people like, for instance Anjana, that I spoke about, the example of Anjana Hareesh, she had to come out. She felt overwhelmed by the way the family was pressurizing her, and clearly at that point of time, if she hadn’t, they would’ve forced her into getting married or something else. So, it was necessary to come out at that time. And the way they responded to it was by forcing her into conversion therapy and so on and so forth. That tells you two things- that they didn’t respect her as an individual who is capable of making her own choices and that the support system that she had, the friends that she had, the people who surrounded her weren’t enough because the self-esteem and confidence levels had been shattered by the people she trusted. 

So it becomes so difficult at the point to say “Be a proud LGBT person”. Can you be comfortable with yourself but focus also on your identity as a human being? You are valid as a human being. There is nothing wrong with you.

Whether you are LGBT or not is not the point. Recognize that there are many struggles, including sexual orientation and gender identity but they are not the only struggles.

You are going to have more struggles in the future and the way to live your life is to start by saying that “I’m okay. I’m not perfect. There are going to be problems but I will be okay.”

To get to that slowly and to believe in yourself and continue to access support systems and friends in this context is very important. If we focus all of our energies on “Come out” and “Be gay” and “Be transgender” and so on and so forth, then you are creating a conflit with your family and with your friends, etc. but you are not necessarily empowering yourself to deal with the problems.

If you are not comfortable with yourself, if you don’t love yourself as a person, how are you going to make people trust you and love you as well? I think that’s really the problem.

Valerie – I think that’s a really insightful bit of advice for us as well as the community, I’d believe. This has really been a wholesome conversation. I’ve got to learn a lot from you and I hope that we become a people that’s more accepting and non-judgemental and a group of people who don’t look at people differently because of who they choose to be and their sexual orientation. I hope that we become more supportive and acceptive with time. Thank you for all the information and for the lovely conversation I’ve had with you. It’s really been great.

Vinay – Not a problem. Thank you so much for calling.

Valerie – Thank you, Vinay.

LonePack Conversations – Discussing the ‘Meh’ with Bhairavi Prakash

When you don’t have words to describe the feeling of emptiness, anger, frustration, you just go ‘Meh’. It’s an emotion that says a lot without saying much.

In this episode of LonePack Conversations, we discuss this feeling and how to tackle it, among other initiatives from Mithra Trust with its founder Bhairavi Prakash, psychologist and public speaker.

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Karthik: Good morning, Good afternoon, Good night, whatever time it is, wherever you are listening to this episode of our podcast, LonePack Conversations, where we shine the light on mental health experts and organizations and give a voice to connect with all the impactful work they have been doing.

My name is Karthik and in this edition of LonePack Conversations, we are joined by Bhairavi Prakash, a Bangalore based psychologist, founder of the Mithra Trust and public speaker. Hello Bhairavi!


Bhairavi: Hi Karthik! And, I am from Chennai and Bangalore based by the way. Lockdown in Chennai but I am not in Lockdown in Bangalore.


Karthik: That’s interesting!

Alright, Can you give a brief introduction of yourself and the work that Mithra Trust does?


Bhairavi: Sure, I’m a psychologist as you said. I studied in Chennai. I went to Women’s Christian College here and I have been in this field for about ten years now. I have worked on everything from corporate mental health, setting up school mental health programs, to working on artificial intelligence in mental health and things like that. Then, I ended up founding Mithra as an NGO. 

The idea of Mithra is to give mental health information and tools and spread awareness in a way that a friend would. I found that everything around mental health was very scientific or it was very medical. It didn’t have that personal connection or personal impact. 

A lot of the work that I do is based on my own stories. So, mental health issues that I have faced myself or having lost a friend to suicide or just things that happen in life that impact you but you don’t realize at that time that it has impacted you.


Karthik: Wow! That is quite impactful to know.

So, I find that there are a lot of parallels and synergies between what LonePack does and also what Mithra Trust does. So, what was your inspiration to founding this organization? and, how is the work that Mithra Trust does unique?


Bhairavi: I’d done so much in mental health but Mithra is the first area that looks at it in a very friendly way. So, I am not talking as a psychologist to people. The tools that we provide are actually tools that I need for myself. So, Mithra just began as a way of looking at what are the things that I needed at different points in my life and making that accessible. 

One of the first things that we did when we launched Mithra was this series called ‘What to say’. It is such a simple concept. How many times have you been on the phone where somebody is crying or someone is really upset and you don’t know what to say to them? So, my whole thing was, How can I help you be a better friend and How can I help you be a better support system and that’s how ‘What to Say’ started.

We launched, ‘What to Say’ for somebody who wants to take their own life and we have done series covering so many things, anxiety, depression, grief, over-thinking, heart-break, how to apologize, all the way to abortion, miscarriage and sexual assault. I keep asking the Mithra community on Instagram, “What do you want help with?” and based on that we come up with a lot of the content.

Mithra is an organization that I have created basically to help me and is helping a lot of other people… So, I think, in that way, it is very unique.


Karthik: Yeah… What you say about, when you’re in a situation, you always misinterpret things or you have the right intentions in mind but you come out and say something that is hurtful to others. So, that series is really quite useful.

So, one of the signature initiatives of the Mithra Trust is The Meh Kit and it has been featured in The Hindu. For people who haven’t heard about this, What is the ‘Meh’ and how does this kit help people tackle this feeling?


Bhairavi: The Meh, again is so personal. The Meh, is what I used to say when I didn’t have words and somebody asks you, “How are you doing?” and I’d be in the middle of a depressive episode and I couldn’t explain what I was going through. For them, the Meh could have been anything from feeling overwhelmed to feeling bored, disinterested or very sad but at the end of it, you just know that the Meh means “Not Okay”. So, the minute says ‘Meh’ you know that they are not okay. The Meh is just that overall feeling of being not okay and you say it with a shrug and you feel it with your whole body and you are, ‘Meh’. So, that’s where the Meh came from. 

The Meh Kit, the first one that we have done is called “Riding out Depression” and the idea was how do you help somebody have the tools to understand their own lows and the tools to help them ride it out themselves, the tools to help somebody help themselves. It came from a friend of mine who wrote to me saying, he was a very very dark period and he wasn’t okay and he didn’t want to go to a therapist.

So, I told him that I can’t replace therapy and I am not going to do that but what I can do is that  get you ready if at all you decide to go to a therapist, to make you feel a little bit better and understand what you are going through. It was a series of conversations and all of this was through email. The minute I saw how well he did with that, I was, like, “How can I make this accessible to other people?”. So, basically the idea of the Meh Kit is to unpack different types of emotions that you go through different thoughts that you have and to understand that. 

So, the idea is to, one, give people information of what it really feels like and two, give them the space to understand it on their own time and three, give them the tools to deal with it when they are ready. It has everything, from the ‘What to Say’ statements to explaining this whole depressive episode through a series of comics. We used really warm colors, because when you are in that state of not feeling okay, you feel like you don’t deserve any kind of love, affection or warmth. So, the minute you see this kit, in itself is overwhelming love. Lot’s of people have written saying it’s like a hug for me.


Karthik: It is true that lot of us when we phase through this feeling of being stuck and not able to process our own thoughts, we get bombarded on Instagram with plain messages of happy, positive thoughts. There’s always this precise and surgical way of analyzing your thoughts and how to move forward in a very rational fashion, and this kit really does a good job of putting you through those steps and clearly explaining to yourself and moving yourself forward through this entire process. So, that’s great!

Let’s diverge for a bit and try to address the current situation with the Corona Virus, the quarantining and the lockdown. So, how do you think this feeling of ‘Meh’ exhibits itself in a person during this time and as a psychologist, what do you think will help people to get out this feeling.


Bhairavi: I’ll give you the answer to this question based on the conversations that I have been having with people.

People come in because they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed and they are really worried and dealing with uncertainty. There’s just a lot of fear. They are very tired. They want to be productive. Some of them are very grateful that they still have jobs but they are not able to do it. Others are very worried about parents and family being away from home, still others are very irritated about the fact that everybody is together all the time and they don’t get their own space. So, there’s all of this that is happening within one virtual space that we are holding.

What I saw is, four distinct phases, which kind of merge together. First, people kind of feel, at the start of the lockdown especially, they felt like, “What’s the big deal? They feel almost comfortable with it, almost like a summer holiday. Second, any small uncertainty gives you massive frustration. Any small thing that happens, you find yourself reacting in a very big way and not able to understand why. The third is when you feel that you are getting things back on track. You seem to have a plan. You’ve started working out and doing Yoga, have mindfulness and things seem to be a little bit in control. These three things people go through during hours or days. This constant cycle of “I’m not okay.”, “I don’t know what to do.”, “Oh my god! I am getting better.” and then again. That’s something that I saw very clearly.

The overarching thing in all of this was just feelings of guilt. “Why should I be feeling so bad when, the migrant workers, how much they are walking, how much they are being bullied by the police. They have it so much worse than me.” So, I am feeling bad that I am not feeling okay. So, this level of not allowing ourselves to feel. These are people who know it and have been doing the work, who’ve been part of therapy. Even they had trouble doing this.

We need to recognize that all of us are going to be impacted and we need to give ourselves the space to recognize that. But, understanding that it has an impact on us doesn’t take away from the very real pain that somebody else is going through. So, it is not about comparing pain. When you compare it to a physical pain, like a stubbed toe, it doesn’t make sense, “Please cry out. Of course, your toe is in pain. Is it bleeding? Does it need ice? You need to rest.”, you automatically figure out so much ways to support. 


Karthik: When something is right there in front of our eyes, we give it more attention whereas when it is something in our mind, we do not express it. We are not giving ourselves the permission to feel bad or take a moment and heal.


Bhairavi: So, for me as a psychologist, the only thing to everyone in this world right now is think of your own mental and emotional pain that you are going through, like that stubbed toe, try to identify what it is and give yourself that feeling and the permission to feel that pain. That’s the biggest thing you can do for yourself.


Karthik: It’s also the biggest step you can take towards healing.

On your website, there are so many useful resources, you can head to for accessing those resources, I saw there were the ‘Virtual well-being’ sessions, the ‘What to Say’ series and the ‘Meh and me’ series. The last one, ‘Meh and me’ series, I was particularly intrigued by that because it talks about mental health issues in men which is scarcely addressed. Why do you think that is the case and what can men do, who are undergoing mental health issues or who just want to help, to get out of this cage of not being allowed to feel, not being allowed to have mental health issues?


Bhairavi: ‘The Meh and Me’ series started off in November. In November, you have health month for men, Movember, where men grow mustaches and that is what it’s known for. We thought, Let’s try to bring in an interesting concept, where we ask men to submit stories and keep it anonymous. We posted them on Instagram and a number of people said, “If you hadn’t told me this was a man, I would have just assumed it was a woman.” 

One, men don’t talk about it and you don’t acknowledge or associate men with having feelings like that, expressing them and going through pain. That is a huge part of our society, just the way that boys and girls are brought up. That is what you see right? You don’t see someone who is in tune with themselves. You don’t see someone questioning and understanding what’s happening, or even talking about it.

So, The whole point of the ‘Meh and Me’ series is to, (have a platform where you ask), “Tell us about a time where you weren’t feeling okay and were ‘Meh’. What did that feel like? And then what happened?” It’s just to show people that this is a simple format and we have men and boys of all ages to submit what they are going through. So, people started feeling so good about it that we extended it. It’s no longer for that month, November, but become a regular series that we do now.


Karthik: The stories were quite moving. I went through a few of them. To see that it is not only me, me in my four walls, We’re all in this together and the sense of community is quite liberating. 

Mithra Trust has done some great work in bringing awareness to mental health. So, what are some initiatives that we can expect to see in the future that you guys might do?


Bhairavi: Right now, with the lockdown, we did the whole thing about ‘Connect Within’ where we sent messages to people everyday on Instagram saying ‘Take a few moments to pause, to breathe and to think thoughts of kindness, hope, compassion and gratitude.’ We have taken it a step further now. This entire week is part of Mental Health Awareness week. The theme was kindness within you. So, we have been doing these activities around kindness. 

Going forward, we are doing a lot of work on building something for young people, something specifically (for them), because I think, school students, they have so much of uncertainty. Everything that they worked towards, all of their dreams, or they have gotten into college, and now, they don’t know what’s happening.

That feeling of how you deal with all these things, the things that you have been working towards and now don’t mean anything. To bring a framework and a sense around that, we are doing work on resilience, and within resilience engaging in this concept of gratitude, kindness and compassion. That is a series that we’ll be launching in June. It’s gonna be a webinar-discussion series. 

‘Let’s discuss the meh’, is primarily a discussion series. ‘Doodles for the meh’, is a series where you sit and you are provided a tool, you are taught how to doodle while you observe your thoughts, emotions, while you connect to your breathing and you kind of let out the emotions through the doodle and bringing in resilience for the meh, next.


Karthik: The second example, doodling is quite a favorite of mine and lot of us try to bring it out in a creative form of all our issues, we try to express them, and it’s important to have a platform to have that exposure and getting it out of your system.

It’s been a pleasure to have you in this edition of LonePack Conversations and as we close out this episode, what would be your message to leave our listeners with and where can they head to find more about the Mithra Trust.


Bhairavi: My message to everybody is to acknowledge the Meh, acknowledge when you are not feeling okay. There are so many great resources, the fact that they are listening to the LonePack Conversations, it means they are giving themselves the permission, the time and space to engage with these conversations. I think you guys have been doing an incredible job with this. Even with the letters of positivity, it is something nice to look forward to.

If you want to find out more about Mithra Trust, just jump on Instagram, @mithratrust. 


Karthik: Alright! Let’s close out this edition. Thank you for joining us and have a good day!


Bhairavi: Thank you so much Karthik!


Quarantine, social distancing, and friendships with Lydia Denworth

It’s been a few days since we stepped out, a few weeks since we’ve had proper face-to-face interaction with fellow neighbours, colleagues, and friends. In the current outbreak times, people around reflect on a lot of things—from opinions and decisions to as simple as what to eat for the next meal. And, there are some of them, wanting to have peer network and connectivity. Where are we headed towards?

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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations with Aishwarya. We hope you’re all safe and healthy. Let me introduce the guest for today’s episode—Lydia Denworth.

Lydia is a science journalist and a contributing editor at Scientific American. She’s also authored a book titled “Friendship.”  She’s here to point out the effectiveness of empathy, friendships, and mindfulness in the quarantine times.

Lydia: Hi! It’s great to be here. 

Aishwarya: Okay, so, let’s state the obvious.

People are locked down, they are perturbed and they are still figuring out how to stay safe and make sense of the quarantine mayhem. How are things changing around, and how do you deal with this new anxiety?

Lydia: It really is an unprecedented time but people have gotten through incredible hardships in the past and so, I am looking to the science of resilience and what it can tell us. The uncertainty in all of this is the hardest part. But, I think if we focus on the short term and what we can do each day instead of fixating on how long this is going to go on and what’s gonna happen because of it, we can keep ourselves calmer. In resilience science, what they talk about is trying to keep an optimistic point of view and to do some cognitive retraining. When you start to have to recognize your catastrophic thoughts or anxiety, challenge it and think of some positives, things like that.

Aishwarya: That’s nice. I like this concept of resilience science, and as you said, taking one day at a time one of the activities for each day and negating those anxiety thoughts with positive thoughts is really gonna help. So, thanks for sharing that Lydia.

Social distancing, this is a catch phrase of late. Now, does social distancing alienate your friendships?

L: No! It does not have to be at all. In fact, this is a critical time for friendship. Because what friendship is really about is being there for each other in times of crisis. That is one of the fundamental traits of friendship. It is about helping us weather the stresses of day to day life and this is nothing if not stressful. So, I think it is important to think of this as physical distancing and not social distancing because it is entirely possible to be social from a distance. And, to check in on your friends, think of your friends. In fact, if anything, what’s striking is, how much this time is reinforcing the importance, or making us recognize just how critical social bonds are for our day to day life. We take them for granted most of the time and now that we can’t, is what you will miss most.

Aishwarya: Certainly that is very true, because social bonds were there and it was considered a part of our everyday activity. As you said, we really did not understand the importance of a bond or a relationship or rather just having a casual chat with our friends. But now most of us are wanting a peer to peer interaction, wanting to meet people. It is nice to see that all of us are taking that extra step and finding different ways through which we can stay connected at times like this. 

Lydia: That’s right! I am loving the creativity that people are bringing to this. We are really embracing digital technology. It has good sides and bad sides. We would really be happy to see each other in person when that is possible again but the fact we have so many ways to connect through technology from a distance is really getting people through this. I mean, I am having Zoom video conferencing, Zoom meetings with my friends in a way that I only ever did for work before and I know I am far from the only person that’s true for.

Aishwarya: Yeah, totally! And people are exploring a lot of methods; and talking about that,

Would you like to state some more about the creative methods that people undertook for connecting with each other? Something that you say and you were like “Wow, that’s really good. I would love to share that with others.”


Lydia: I just mentioned video conferencing. That’s the obvious. Because then you can at least see faces and you can have a little more of a natural conversation. In fact, some of my friends who live further away and who I only ever see sporadically, we’re finding that now we say “Why didn’t we do this before?” 

But also, people are also taking a walk on FaceTime together and talking about it on their phone or having a regular check in on a WhatsApp thread. Those things are much more active than before, and I don’t think they have to have long conversations. Just check in regularly—it is an opportunity to call a friend who you haven’t talked to in a long time, and say, “In this time I am thinking about the people who matter to me.” Just to use good old fashioned telephones… or even write a letter—old-school. *Laughs* Nowadays, that feels creative right? That feels a little bit unusual. 

Aishwarya: For sure! 

Lydia: And I love the more talented among us are putting online concerts with everybody, all the instruments and singers performing separately at their homes and then the whole thing being put together online. Those kinds of things have made me very happy when I come across those.

Aishwarya: Interesting! FaceTime and concerts taking place online, tapping on video calls, audio calls and what not…

I think all of these are reinforcing the fact of being there for each other. And as you rightly said, showing the care to the ones that we really care about and letting them know that you are not alone in this journey and we are all here together and will face this together

Lydia: Yes Indeed!


So, you say friendships are important for one’s immune system. I was a little intrigued by that fact. How are these two related?

Lydia: Yes, this is so interesting. One of the major stories that I tell in my book is how scientists have come to understand the importance of friendship on the one hand and social isolation and loneliness on the other on our health. So, friendship is as important as diet and exercise for health and there is a long list of things that social connection affects. The immune system is one but there is also the cardiovascular system, your cognitive health, your mental health, your stress responses. Even the rate at which your cells age is affected by how socially connected you are. 

But, Importantly, let’s talk about the immune system specifically since that is your question and that is so relevant to what’s going on today. When we are under stress Cortisol is released in our bodies, We think of it as a stress response hormone. Those rates increase, Increases in Cortisol can inhibit the immune response in your body and what they have found is that with friendship on the one hand or loneliness on the other is that the loneliest people are more susceptible to inflammation and they are more susceptible to viruses. And people who are more socially connected are more resilient. It has to do with the way your genes are expressed in your immune system. I wont get into the nitty-gritty of it but it is a clear response that we have, so that your immune system is strengthened by having a lot of friendships and social connections in your life.

Aishwarya: That’s so nice to know. The whole concept of how your hormonal changes are associated with digestion or with the friendships that you have. So far we know that when we are mentally affected, it’s going to take a toll on your health. So, with regard to friendship I guess it’s a new theory and nice to know that it has a genetic impact.

Lydia: Right! What I think is so important about this is that it is not so hard to understand that the food you eat has an effect on your body because you put it in your body, or when you go for a run, your heart gets going from the exercise. So, you can see the connection to your health. But for friendships and relationships that exist entirely outside the body, it was more of a leap to understand that that actually does get under your skin and into your cells and changes the way your body responds to experiences, but it does. And so this is a really critical thing and it is a piece of why even if you have to socially distance you still have to connect. It’s going to help you get through this not just psychologically but physiologically. You would be healthier at the end of this experience because of it.

Aishwarya: Makes sense! And all of these are coming together rightly at this point in time—when we definitely need to reach out to people to show care to them or accept love and more kindness from them. So, it’s come together in the best time possible, and I’m sure listeners today would have learned the importance and can map their thoughts around this. 

Lydia: Right.

A: Moving on to the most simplest question yet very complex.

How do we stay healthy both mentally and physically now that you’ve spoken about how mental and physical health together play an important role at a time like this.

Lydia: At a time like this, I said at the beginning that uncertainty is the hardest part and we have to take it day by day. What I think is really important and the experts I have been speaking to, I have been interviewing a lot of mental health practitioners right now about this moment in time and they are saying that it is critical that you establish a routine and take care of yourself. You really focus on maintaining your sleep, getting your exercise and eating well and things like that. Beyond that, we talked about resilience and trying to train your brain. You can use mindfulness and things like that to help you. You can do it in a formal way where you have seated positions and actively engage in mindfulness meditation or you can do it in a simpler more informal way, even when you are washing the dishes or brushing your teeth or taking a minute to focus exactly on what you are doing. It helps people to sort of stop and breathe and put the stresses of what’s going on in the world outside of their mind. 

The other thing I think is really important is what my family and the people I am isolated with during this time, what we are doing is, we are declaring a little piece of each day COVID-19 free, whether that is three hours, one hour or five hours or whatever you can do. But it means that you talk about it, you don’t read the news, you focus on something else. Finally, there are a few positive psychology tips you can use to stay sane and healthy. They are things like finding three good things in the world. Some of the friends in my WhatsApp thread that I am in, they are doing things like, somebody declares today, “Take a picture of Spring where you are” or next day “Take a picture of your pet” or you are looking for good things to share like those concerts we were talking about where people are performing and then share it with your friends or with the world and say, “Here’s one good thing that I found today that made me think about something other than Coronavirus.”

Aishwarya: Yeah! Fair enough. It takes me back to the initial point that we discussed—break your day into multiple parts and have little patterns for yourself, with respect to sleep or exercise or eating. I loved your point on finding three good things in the world; and try to stay away from panic and pandemic news for a while, and need some peaceful time for your family members.

Lydia: I think that is going to be critical and trying to find moments of gratitude, things to be grateful for each day even if they are small things and your good things, and your gratitude moments would be the same or different. Just stopping and breathing and being optimistic. The world has come through massive world wars and pandemics before, never a pandemic like this but what’s interesting here is this is a combination. It doesn’t have any exact examples in history. So, you have to take pieces of what we have used to get through. But, always, always, always, that has been our friends and social networks and that is true now as it ever has been.

Aishwarya: Absolutely! The current time that we are in is a combination of too many attacks and staying sane is definitely going to be a hard task but I am sure with the couple of things that we discussed now, at least it would ease it for people a bit. And I have wondered at the fact that little things like gratitude and showing love and showing kindness and spreading positive vibes take utmost importance right now and these are certain things that we tend to miss out in our day to day lives easily when we were busy with our work, very busy moving around, shuttling around and now, all of these things seem to come into picture very clearly. So, it is wonderful to see how humanity works!

Lydia: That’s very true!

Aishwarya: How do you see the next few weeks panning out? Also, We were talking about the power of social media.

How do we view social media in a way that is very specific to spreading positive vibes and not really worried about the pandemic and the negativity that is being spread about, not reading the rumors and false information?

Lydia: First of all, the big problem is that none of us knows exactly how the next few weeks will pan out and that is part of what is causing our anxiety, is that uncertainty. But, one of the stories that I am reporting at the moment is about how pandemics end and how they pan out. The truth is that they do end. So, we can know that, we just don’t know how long it will take. 

To stay positive and especially through social media, the same things are true that we have been talking about with the way you view social media and the way you read the news. You need to be intentional and deliberate in your approach. You need to bring a critical mind to the things you read. One of the problems with social media these days is that there is fake news there and stuff that is not proven yet. The pace of the news is so fast that I have seen a lot of stories that rocket around the Internet about aspects of the coronavirus that then turn out not to be true. So, people’s response to something upsetting is to be a little skeptical—wait till you see it a few times, don’t freak out right from the start. Right now, the Internet is a source of amazing examples of resilience and the best side of the human spirit. So, look for those. Be intentional about finding the good things and just stopping and appreciating them. I’ve said it a couple of times now—Each day I stop and watch one of the concerts that have been put together—the Stgrano symphony orchestra, and the other one…They did a version of the “Rite of Spring” and it just made me so happy. It’s a minute to stop and without social media I couldn’t find those things. Try to focus on what is good in the same way that we set a routine for yourself in your daily life, maybe you read the news at a certain time of the day and the rest of the day you leave that alone. And use social media just to converse with your friends and look for structure and just don’t scroll through the news feed endlessly and picking up on anything that is making you feel panicky is not going to help.

Aishwarya: Summing up what you discussed, the first step is to condition our thoughts, to decide what is really the need of the hour and what is not required and when you go through social media, apply that pattern, apply that condition and just take in only that information that is relevant for you and leave out the rest. So, don’t fall prey to these cautionary and negative and false information on social media.

Lydia: Let me just add that it’s important to have news sources you trust, and pay attention to the source of the information that you are looking at. Does it come from a newspaper that you know? Is it a reputable publication or not?. And if you can’t find this source, then you can discount it somewhat. If it’s true and important, it will bubble up in bigger ways, in places you trust. That’s another way to limit and be intentional in what you absorb and what you ignore.

Aishwarya: Fair enough! If you’ve been following somebody, I think by now you would know if it’s something that matters to you, if it’s true and if it’s coming from a good source that you can take in. 

Thank you so much, Lydia! At this critical time, I am sure that LonePack Conversations listeners have thoughtful takeaways from you and realizing the power of togetherness and friendship is sure to help all of us stay connected despite the current physical separation. Thank you so much once again for being part of this episode and letting people see a lot of positivity from you

Lydia: Thank you for having me! I’m glad to do it.

LonePack Conversations—Rand Fishkin & fighting depression through an entrepreneurial journey

Putting one’s efforts, money, time, and passion into building a company is easier said than done. Not only does it give one the fame and glory of establishing big in the business world, but also drive them crazy over various step-stones in the process to stardom. 

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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and today we’re speaking to Rand Fishkin, an established entrepreneur and leader in the start-up space. 

Hi Rand! Welcome to LonePack Conversations. It’s great to speak to you. 

Rand: Great to speak to you, as well! Thanks for having me.  

Aishwarya: Sure. Let’s begin with a little bit of a background. 

So, you’re just about to kickstart your second entrepreneurial venture. How is life and how are things? 

Rand: Exciting, yeah. I’ve been working on this new venture for a couple of years now; almost 2 years, exactly, and have a co-founder, we have raised a little bit of money, we’re just getting ready to launch our paid product, and so it’s busy, but in a good way. 

Aishwarya: That sounds exciting! So, as the founder of ‘Moz’ and currently ‘SparkToro’, if you had to pick a challenging and mentally exhausting moment in your life, what would it be? 

Rand: I have had many. Probably too many. I would say one of the most mentally taxing and frustrating parts of my career during my tenure as CEO of ‘Moz’, after we raised our $18 million funding round. And of course, you know lots of requirements around growth and exits come with that.  We had a team of about 50 people at the time, which was a wonderful size, I really enjoyed it, but we had to grow, right? We had to get much bigger, much faster, be able to do a lot more, produce a lot more software, delight a lot more customers. And so, over the next 18 months, we tripled the team size to nearly 150 people including contractors, and that process, those 18 months, from 2012 into 2013, those were one of the hardest, most difficult of my career. 

I think that building a team from the ground up is a hard thing, but scaling at a rapid rate, right; adding more people you have in a company is really really exhausting for the team , for the leadership, it’s really hard on your value and your culture; it’s hard on all the people who are there. That stands out in my mind as being a crazy difficult time. 

Aishwarya: Definitely, I think I’m able to imagine, the way you are describing, how it would be for somebody who has bigger aspirations and goals. At the same time, those 18 months would’ve been really taxing for you. And, I actually read about the fact that when Sarah came in as the CEO after you, how things were able to, you know, bring back into the picture; how there was a sort of unity in the team, and I really love that portion. 

Rand: I found it tremendously challenging to just maintain a culture; a company culture that I wanted to exist. I think that was a huge part of the problem. 

Another part of the problem, too, is this; the expectations that come from your existing team, right, from the people who’ve been there, and who’ve helped you along the way, and what they expect from a growing company, right, a lot of people who are individual contributors want to become managers. A lot of people who are managers expect their teams to grow, and their budgets to grow, and I think as a CEO, especially a first-time CEO, it’s really hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: True, yeah. 

Rand: You’re just not used to it; you don’t expect it, you know, you have all this money; people know you have all this money; expectations, and they say, ‘Hey, I want more budget, I want more people on my team, I wanna hire three more people. You’re expected to say yes, and it’s hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: Absolutely. Each company has its set of goals and expectations, and the people who make up the company again will have their expectations, and it’s important to sort of align these together, because everybody is definitely looking out for growth map and likewise with the company, and I think as the CEO, an important task, and the most contingent task for you would’ve been to align these two together. I can definitely understand that. 

Rand: Yeah, I think there’s this big challenge where people have multiple goals in mind, so obviously, the people who were working at ‘Moz’; they wanted the company to do well, but they also wanted their personal careers to do well. They wanted their personal careers to show growth. They want their title to get bigger, they want their pay to get more, they want more people reporting to them, because that looks more impressive to future employers. These are often at odds with what you should do as a CEO. The right thing to do as a CEO; your obligation to the shareholders, and your Board, and the company’s growth, is to say no to almost everything, except a few things. 

But the pressure in the moment feels the opposite.  When someone comes to you and says ‘Hey, I’ve done a loyal, great job over the last three or four years; I expect these things from my career; this is what I’m looking for,’ and you want to say “Yes, you deserve that, I want to give it to you.” But in fact what you’ve got to say is, “It’s not the right thing for the company, and if that’s not enough to keep you here, then good luck; let’s find you a new role somewhere else; I’m happy to make  introductions, or give a nice testimonial about you.” And if that’s not enough, here’s what you can expect from your career here over the next few years, and here’s how it gets changed. It gets really hard, right.  

Startups…startups are one thing, and as they get to middling stages of growth, they become another thing. People are really bad at change; people hate change. 

Aishwarya: Certainly, certainly. I think for people, as you grow, as you start up, as you try to grow that company big, the most important and most difficult task would be to prioritize and say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things that really matter. Especially in this case, when an employee walks up to you and asks for, say, a pay raise or a change in role, and you know that he/she is still deserving, but at that point, you might have to say no because you have certain aspirations; certain paths for the company to go through. So that’s totally acceptable, and it’s time that people start thinking about this; how to say no, because that’s one of the most difficult tasks. 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely. Saying no and saying yes; these are the hard things. 

Aishwarya: So, did depression have an effect on your physical health? If so, how did you realize it and what were the measures you took to overcome that? 

Rand: Yeah, the bad news for me is, it did have a significant effect on my health and wellbeing, I think both physically and mentally. Over the course of my…I was in my late 20s and my early-mid 30s and I had degenerative disk disease, which affects your spine and made it very uncomfortable and difficult for me to sit for long stretches, which is very hard when you have to get on a lot of planes and travel overseas for conferences and events and those sort of things. 

And it also had a significant negative impact on my sleep. Which, of course, you know, sleep and stress are very well-coordinated, and I think that that cycle of having stress, compounding physical pain which made it hard to sleep, which made every day even more stressful; that cycle, that loop, was really really difficult to break through. 

And eventually, I think the answer for me ended up being pulling back from the quantity of work I was doing; I invested in physical therapy, and mental health therapy, right—seeing a counsellor, a therapist, and a coach, and I also stepped down from the CEO role, and took another role inside the company, although I think that probably did not have a great impact on my mental health and physical health for at least a number of years. 

And it wasn’t really until I left ‘Moz’ and started my new company, ‘SparkToro’, that I think I got to a really healthy place. And so nowadays, arguably the best shape of my life, both physically and mentally; but it is… it can be really hard, and I think that people have to choose. They have to choose what’s right for them, and whether they can prioritize their health over their company. I think what’s wrong is that it’s often a false dichotomy, where you think you need to be working all hours when, in fact, a few very productive hours are probably far better than 60 or 80 hours in a work week. 

But that’s just not the general belief. I think that the culture of tech is to overwork people and we need to end that. 

Aishwarya: Sure. I think that’s quite some stress and physical toll on you, and kudos to you because you’ve managed it really well. And, you know what, you’ve set an example to a lot of listeners today because I’m sure most of them have thoughts today about starting up or they are in the process of running a company, and they are handling a lot of pressure on a day-to-day basis. 

So, I guess what you told actually gives them a good idea to reflect upon, especially when you said ‘Choose’ because, you know, as Jeff Bezos says, at the end of the day, you’re made up of your choices. And you have to make those choices in a right way; good, bad, whatever it is, you just have to analyze and try to come over it. So I think that’s a very strong point that I, along with the listeners, are picking up today for our own lives, as well. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I mean, my hope is that in the future, more people choose to prioritize their health first, and I believe that it will actually lead; that will lead to more successful business outcomes. 

I think there’s a mythology that by sacrificing health, and making that choice, if you will, to devote yourself entirely to your work and your business, that somehow you’re going to benefit from that; that your business is going to benefit from that…I think that’s not true. 

I think that the CEOs’ job, fundamentally the CEO’s job is to make great decisions. And every piece of research we have shows that when you’re sleep-deprived, and when you’re in pain, and when you’re not taking care of your body, your decision-making is worse. 

So I would argue that you should work less, you should sleep more, you should exercise and eat and enjoy your social life so that you are mentally in a good place, to make great decisions. Because that is your core job. 

And I know I made a lot of bad decisions when I wasn’t sleeping, when I was working 60-80 hours a week; I know I did. 

Aishwarya: Spot on! I think it’s straight from a founder’s life, and you know, these are some gold points, and I’m sure that the listeners are just going to pick this up and try to relate this with their lives, and start practising them already. 

Rand: Yeah. 

Aishwarya: From a workplace front, do you think workers and peers can be supportive about your mental wellness at the times that you need? 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely! I think that you, as a founder, can craft a culture that reinforces and supports the idea that it’s results and quality of work that matter, and not the amount of work that matters, or hard work or the number of hours in the office or number of hours online; I think those are useless matrices. I would instead reward work that is high quality, and work that gets results. And I would recognise and reward people investing in their health. 

I think that if you do those two things, craft that type of a culture, you can do that from the bottom-up or the top-down, both, and you will get a workplace that delivers really good quality results. 

Aishwarya: Wonderful! I think a little bit of a praise and appreciative behaviour of one another would definitely help in succeeding. Not just sticking on what the results are, and how much time it took for the results to come in, but actually the quality work that comes in after somebody works on it; just a small appreciation would go a long way in building team spirit. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, and I think recognising; I mean, somebody puts two hours into a project, and the results are high-quality; I think recognising and rewarding that, more so than if somebody puts 20 or 30 hours into the same project and gets the same quality of results; I think that’s an excellent thing. 

One of the things that’s definitely true, especially in most high-tech work, is that when you are well-rested, and well-fed and in a good place mentally, you tend to contribute far better quality work in much shorter amounts of time. 

A lot of times you get back from vacation, and you’ll find that, “Wow! I got so much done in one day after vacation, compared to a whole week when I’m in the middle of a slog.” 

Aishwarya: True that! I think these are some gestures that most of us should keep in mind, and a contribution of this kind can actually boost the morale of the team. 

You would’ve met a lot of C-suite leaders, venture capitalists and startup founders. Do you see a common pattern of depression or mental trauma among these leaders, simply because all of these roles demand much energy and pressure to deliver the best? 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I’ve definitely seen many, many entrepreneurs, founders, executives;  folks tell that they are struggling, mentally and emotionally and often physically. And I hope that’s a culture we can change. 

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm. Definitely, I think the struggle is real, and it’s important that…Actually, I have discovered that somebody has to first recognize that there is a struggle and that there are these mental traumas that are happening because I feel at this time, most of us don’t recognize that. That is the first problem, rather than the mental issues being there as a problem. The major problem, I feel, is not accepting, or refusing to recognize that there is even a problem like this. 

So, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think about people who have to recognize that something is happening, which most of them don’t do?

Rand: Yeah, I would agree. I don’t think you can solve a problem until you recognize it’s there and come to consensus about the fact that it is a problem. It is only after that recognition that you can address it. And this is why I think a lot of this has to do with regards to representation. If you don’t have leaders in these companies talking about these issues, saying that they faced it, talking about how they fixed it, I think you will continue to get a culture that frankly, rewards sacrificing life for work instead of balancing. 

Aishwarya: Definitely. So have you invested and secured in the mental health benefits for your employees and company leaders, now that we’re talking about team benefits, and how we should be mindful of each other in the team?

Rand: Yeah, I think we did a number of things at ‘Moz’ while I was still there and I think the company is still continuing to invest in that. So I think that includes paying for counsellors and mental health, making sure it’s a part of the company’s healthcare packages and benefits, it includes wellness rooms, it includes being more flexible with time off for mental and emotional health days, it also includes trying to nudge people more towards taking their vacation.

For SparkToro, it’s just Cassy and I; there’s only the two of us, we’re founders. We have a very very healthy work-life balance, so I think we’re sort of in a lucky position to be able to invest upto what we can and want to do and in some weeks and yeah, that’s a ton of time put into business. And, some weeks, it’s like “Hey, Cassy has kids and is busy with the family one week and I have relatives that I’m responsible for and taking care of and sometimes that all overtakes the some of the work that I wish I could get done in a week, and that’s okay!” We allow ourselves the freedom and flexibility to do that and we know that every other hour of every day is not important; what’s important is doing quality work when we’re at the peak of our performance.

Aishwarya: Awesome. I love the fact that you mentioned work-life balance, and you and Casey set the right path for people who joined SparkToro. I’m sure they would look up to the founders to see what kind of goals, or what kind of objectives you’d have, and most of them get inspired from that.

So you and Casey setting that example of having a good work-life balance, taking some time off for some personal duties is important, and I’m glad that you guys are doing it, so congrats on that. 

Rand: Oh, thank you. Yeah, we really hope so. I expect to keep the company relatively small and remote only, which I think allows people to work from wherever is most comfortable for them.

Aishwarya: Oh, that’s nice.

Rand: Yeah, and work when it’s comfortable for them and I think that’s honestly the future of work. Yeah, I think the future of work is doing from wherever is most comfortable for you.

Aishwarya: Definitely, and I think that’s the first step on the path to being mindful. I’m sure if people are given that little freedom to do work at the time that they are intended to do, when they can actually contribute much to the team; I think that paves the way for better work to be done.

Rand: I agree 100 percent. 

Aishwarya: So, in your book ‘Lost and Founder’ which, I’d like to document, is one of my recent favourites, you’ve spoken about the ways to invest in behaviour, without trying to focus on the outcomes. Beautiful thought, I should say. Could you elaborate a bit on that and tell us how this act helped your mental wellness?

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So this comes from the idea of personal investment, and this works really well in the business world, as well. So this is essentially saying, “My focus is going to be on contributing the highest quality work that I can, rather than focusing on whether I immediately got the outcome that I was seeking.” 

And what happens in a lot of business practices is—marketing, for example; let’s say that I’m working on building up a great content marketing channel. And so, when you put up your first, say, blog posts, or articles, or newsletters, or content pieces of any kind, and when you see that they don’t perform the way that you want them to; when they don’t attract enough traffic, or the traffic that they do attract doesn’t convert, it’s not doing well on certain channels that you hoped it would; there’s a temptation to either give up, and stop making that investment, or to try and change the way that you’re doing things. 

And I think that you can, in fact, learn from your past experiences, and use that to form the future, but I think it’s a mistake to exclusively track results, as opposed to tracking high-quality work. If you put out a great post; great content piece, you’re proud of it, you know that the people who consumed it, it resonated with them; the answer could be that you need to keep doing that more, over time; you need to give it time to have serendipitous outcomes in the future. And a lot of the time, it’s about taking the shots and missing until one hits. I think unfortunately luck and timing are downplayed in the business world, when they probably shouldn’t be. And this is why I tell folks to invest in quality work rather than exclusively investing in results and outcome.

Aishwarya: Certainly. It comes down to enjoying the whole process of doing something because the journey is more important, and it’s important to stay connected to this journey. In fact, when you talked about how to use past references and how to tailor your future, that really made sense, both in professional and personal self; to constantly analyze the things that you’ve done, things that have really helped you achieve something, and sort of replicate that, or use some references from there in your future work. That doesn’t mean you’re dwelling in the past, but at the same time it also means you’re taking control of where you want to go in the future. 

So to invest in potentials is a very very good thought that you had put forth today. 

Rand: Oh, thanks, yeah. And I would also say that you have to be careful of small sample sizes. So one of the things I see people struggle with a lot is that they make a small number of investments, right. “Hey, we tried content marketing, we invested in ten content pieces, but they didn’t work for us, therefore we think that content marketing is not right for our audience.” And in fact, the problem is, ten is too small a sample. You might need a hundred pieces, before you can truly say how effective content can be. 

Alternatively, you may be making the investment, but not putting out quality work, and instead thinking like a check-list item, just to be published and pushed out. And that’s not wise, either.

Aishwarya: True, that! I think you shouldn’t be judgemental in the first place, and as you said, ten versus a hundred; it’s important that a lot of time and potential is invested into it, rather than just tying up with the short-term outcomes. It’s important to step aside and look at the longer run, and the bigger picture. 

Rand: And this is a really hard thing, right, I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to make investments when you don’t have results to prove. I think one of the toughest things is to ask executives and leadership to make space for failures and investments that have long pay-off periods.  But when they do, when leadership embraces that, I think you can get the expected results over time. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think this mentality starts with leadership, and if it’s set right there, I’m sure the startup is going to really function well because tying up to results is a problem with the urges that tend to happen to companies. Obviously, you’d be questioned about the results, about what you have done to validate your work, but it’s also important to note the fact that failures are required for you to do some quality work in the future. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Aishwarya: So now that we’re towards the end of the conversation, I have a quick something to ask you. What’s the thing that seemed like the one; that would bring the world down for you, back then, but now brings a laugh at the very thought of it?

Rand: Oh, gosh. I’m not sure I had something around quite that stark. Hmm, you know, there was a time at ‘Moz’ when we were getting, I don’t know, sort of subtle threats, from Google. 

People who worked at Google, like, there’s this one guy who worked at Google who would occasionally email me or say something to me like in person about how they didn’t like what ‘Moz’ was doing, they didn’t like the blog posts that we were publishing, or who we invited to our conferences, or they didn’t like the experiments that we were running, and I remember being really scared; we had board meetings where we talked about how this was going to be a big threat to the company and what we did there. 

And then it really turned out to be nothing at all. I don’t even think it was Google’s policy at all. It was just this one person, or this one team at Google who sort of got annoyed and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll mention that I’m annoyed” and we just took it really really hard. 

I regret making concessions and changing our business tactics and strategies to please some far-off person from Google that we really didn’t have to. 

Aishwarya: I see, wow. It’s a little creepy to hear as well, right, somebody personally attacking you, and obviously as you said, it’s not going to be the other company’s terms for them to directly reach out to another person of another company, and this seems like more of a personal attack than it seems from the company. 

Rand: Yeah, and Google’s done this a bunch, right, use some combination of carrot and stick to gauge behavior, and now they’re powerful company, you know, now much more so than back then, but even then they were much more powerful in terms of the web, and web traffic, and people being able to find you and trust you, and especially for an SEO company, which ‘Moz’ was, you know, we thought it was so important to have good relationships there. Yeah, I wish I had been a little more mature. 

Aishwarya: You don’t have to regret much, Rand, because at that time it would’ve definitely taught you something, which you can pick up for the next couple of your ventures, as well. 

Rand: Right, I think one of the things I’d definitely do for my future companies, is not feel bullied by bigger players. 

Aishwarya: Yes, that’s such a strong part, actually, thanks for mentioning that.

Rand: Ah, it was my pleasure. 

Aishwarya: So thank you so much for your time today, Rand. It was such a pleasure to talk to you about dealing with depression through an entrepreneurial journey. I picked up a lot of lessons today, and I’m sure the listeners would also know about the struggles before starting up, and coping with everyday pressures at work, and shattering the stigmas while they function, or try to function as an organisation together.  

Rand: Well, thank you so much for having this great conversation with me, Aishwarya. I appreciate it. 

Aishwarya: All the best from LonePack for your SparkToro journey; I’m sure it is going to be really really interesting and exciting.  

LonePack Conversations—Ruchita Chandrashekar & Everything about mental wellness

Fred Rogers, a famous American TV personality once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”  

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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Aishwarya, hosting this session today, along with Ms. Ruchita Chandrashekar, a licensed clinician, presently working for a federally funded program in the United States. She’s also a trauma therapist and a seasoned writer at some platforms like The Wire, HuffPost, and The Print. 

Ruchita: Hi, Aishwarya. I’m happy to be here.

Aishwarya: So, let’s get started with the interview. To start with, let us talk a little bit about your background. Can you tell us what motivated you to pursue a full-time career in a field related to mental health?

Ruchita: Sure. So, I worked in advertising before this; I was a copywriter with an agency. And, I think as I saw people my age go through a lot of stressors, and saw my friends have mental health concerns, saw myself have mental health concerns, I realized, or at least noticed, that we didn’t have as many resources or even as much knowledge or any kind of understanding. There was a lot of stigma in households to be able to talk about it. But then, my experience was just that, “Oh my god, there is no place to just go to, to understand, to know what is happening,” because physical health is always treated so separately from mental health.

Aishwarya: So true.

Ruchita: So, this was in 2015, and at 23 I realized that’s not something I wanted to do. That’s when I shifted to social work, where I worked with this organization called Prerana that strives to end inter-generational prostitution in the red-light areas of Bombay. So, I used to work there as a social worker and a research assistant for about six months just to understand if trauma work was something I was, 1) built for, 2) I enjoyed doing, and what really was my role in working with these populations, these severely traumatized populations. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I learnt a lot about systems, I learnt a lot about building communities, with healthcare and things like that. It was a very intersectional experience for me. And, by then was when I applied for my Master’s for my graduate school. So that was when I transitioned to the US once I got my admission, and then got trained, licensed, and have been practicing since.

Aishwarya: That’s great to know. I think what I really like about your journey is how you were able to map each step, because it’s more like this connecting-the-dots style where you were able to reason out why you wanted to get into doing it all through your personal experiences as well the experiences that shaped you around. So, that’s really interesting to know the thought.

Ruchita: One thing to also highlight is, because I was switching careers and how that is not necessarily normal in a lot of Indian households to be allowed to do, it was almost like I had to prove something to my parents, that this was something that would make sense, which is unfortunately also a kind of stress that a lot of young Indian folks go through – like they have to be stuck to one thing that they have to do and cannot transition to something else. So, a lot of that possibly just came from that. Thank you.

Aishwarya: I think you set an example this way. I mean, not only being a clinician. I think you set an example from the career path you’ve taken, and the story behind the whole career path. So that’s something that motivates others around to probably look up to you as an example.

So, a counseling psychologist – that’s very interesting. What does a day in the life of a clinician look like?

Ruchita: So, I’ve had multiple ways in which this has functioned. I work at a residential facility now, so I’m seeing folks all day. But I’ve also had places where I have worked at where people have set appointments and they come in. So, depending on the setting that you work in, you possibly have a case load that you set for the week, you see a number of folks in a day, you have your case notes to finish, you have your consultation meetings to do, so it’s usually pretty packed. A lot of times, because of how underfunded mental health can be, even in parts of the US, you’re just doing back-to-back sessions, often which tend to take a toll on you. But, yeah, that’s what it is – it’s just packed. And, I think what is important to highlight is that the role is so different from anything else that you do in the corporate world, because you are having interpersonal interactions about people’s pain, about people’s trauma, about people’s symptoms, as you are assessing and as you are being a source of support and treating them. So, it’s a lot of emotional labour that goes into each hour. So, that is what a usual day looks like.

Aishwarya: That’s nice. So, I think a majority of your work involves, or rather, revolves around meeting people and getting to know them and making an impact in their lives in a subtle way. That’s nice to know. There are many stereotypes about what therapy looks like. How accurate is it, and what’s really involved in a therapy session?

Ruchita: So, the one thing that it isn’t is that it’s not like talking to a friend. Often, it gets misconstrued for, “If you have a friend, why do you need a therapist?” Talking is a modality that is used, but that is not the only modality in the pathway to therapy. You have stuff like EMDR, you have other features to talk therapy, and you have other things that also get added to it to make it a treatment process, firstly. I think it is important to acknowledge that therapy is a treatment science and it is not like talking to your friend, it’s not like talking to your mom, it’s not similar to those aspects. The similar features of you talking to people in your life and you talking to a therapist is that you should feel supported, which should be features of most interpersonal relationships in your life, that you feel supported, you feel cared for, you feel important, you feel validated. What you feel from both of those relationships can be similar, but the methods and means with which they’re conducted is very different. Therapists are not giving you advice; they’re literally trained with how questions have to be asked to you, with open-ended and close-ended questions, with how we rephrase. Therapists are trained to, you know, not go into all of it—be able to strategically decide where someone might be at, and that’s something, and to pack it up again before the session is done. It is a very meticulous form of treatment that is done. Talking is a modality that is used, because it’s not like when you go to see your general physician and they just have a stethoscope to you and are able to check your eyes – that is their modality. Modality for therapy is you talk; you’re able to communicate. It is more reliant on you as a human being, as a patient to be able to deliver what is bothering you, and then to be able to receive, assess, and strategize what might be helpful to you. It is extremely intimate, because there are things you may sometimes share with your therapist that you might not share with anybody at all. Confidentiality is essential, which is not something interpersonal relationships in your life might guarantee, but a therapist-patient relationship should guarantee that. I know that doesn’t happen sometimes, but that doesn’t make it okay.

So, there are a lot of interpersonal relationships outside of therapy are, which I think are stereotypes which I just wanted to address. Secondly, it is something that will take time, because you’re literally working through parts of your life, you’re understanding the ways in which you’ve been conditioned. So, it is an intimate process that takes time for you to get by.

Aishwarya: Totally. I think those are two valid points that you’ve stated. I think everybody needs to understand that therapy is no longer a taboo, or it’s no longer a simple thing that you can do with any person you meet, or rather any friend or a family member. And, that point about getting to know what really goes through each other’s minds, and a therapist has all the tools and all the abilities to bring that out of people’s thoughts; that point is really valid and I feel people would now understand more because it’s coming right from a mental health clinician who’s actually practicing it. So, I think now people will really get to understand why it is important to actually consider therapy as an everyday activity. Thanks so much for shedding light on that.

So, moving on, not just a clinician, but you’re also a published writer and a columnist. How effective a tool is the pen in mental health and what inspired you to take it up?

Ruchita: I think it’s effective in creating conversations. I specifically write for India and I write with Indian publications. I also try to push it more in India, because my hope is to destigmatize mental health in South Asian communities, which is why I treat that as my audience whenever I put anything out. The way I started doing this is through Twitter threads that I would do, and the one thing that I noticed was people started talking to each other more than what they were asking me. So, it became like this community that they were building where they were like, “Oh, I’ve been through this,” or, “Oh, this has helped me.” Now, you also have to recognize that, systemically, India doesn’t have many resources right now – when it comes to mental health – that are accessible. It is extremely expensive and not something you get in all the cities, all the villages, and all the communities. And, we have an extremely high suicide rate, we have a lot of mental health concerns that you see across the age groups, and it’s an untreated population. So, a lot of times, people tend to turn to their friends and family for some kind of support. What I noticed under these threads that I used to do was strangers started turning to each other, like, “My family doesn’t understand, but, okay, you saying this doesn’t make me feel alone.” So, it started developing more conversation, and I went beyond, writing symptoms of panic attacks and everything also with the environments that will trigger you, like emotional abuse in South Asian households – things like that that I think are very normalized because of culture and can trigger a lot of symptoms. And, no one talks about it because it’s a shame for you to talk about anything in South Asian cultures.

Aishwarya: Totally.

Ruchita: So, I noticed that that was something that was picking up more. Then, I started doing long-form pieces on that front, also because I think there is value in someone writing from a field about the field. Like, you would rely more on a doctor telling you about symptoms for migraines, and telling you what to do for a migraine, or providing more education on migraines. So, as a mental health clinician, it started feeling like my responsibility to provide what we call psycho-education. So, if you turn to WebMD and you Google something, maybe there’s a part that brings up something I’m saying, that might provide some kind of insight, that might just be worthy in you showing it to someone, saying, “Hey, this is someone who treats people, and they’re saying this is happening, so maybe it is valid.”

Aishwarya: There is more credibility around it.

Ruchita: Exactly, which I, unfortunately, didn’t see a lot. A lot of times, I would see these panels and news channels on Mental Health Day, or this and that, and people were literally capitalizing on causes at this point. And, there are comedians on these panels, but you don’t see one psychologist, you don’t see one psychiatrist, you don’t see one person who is actually working with communities and actually working with folks and is able to be a credible resource. Why are comedians on this panel? Why are social media influencers here? Because then, what happens is, your sources of information become people who are literally capitalizing on these causes, and they’re not the most credible sources of information. Yes, there is validity in knowing that all these actors and actresses have anxiety, but what beyond that? How do you understand your anxiety now? How do you recognize that this is something that is happening to you and you need to do something about it? None of these panels and none of these mainstream areas are telling you that necessarily.

So, I think that is why I noticed that the stigmatization, yes there was benefit in exposure like that and it was breaking down a little, but there has to be actionable change. People have to know that they have strengths, that they have things that they can do, that they can try, that they can talk about to be able to help themselves. So, I think that is what became my driving force, which is what I still like to treat it as, so whether nor not I publish more with these areas, I still try to do more of those Twitter threads, I still like to do a poll every now and then asking people what they want to learn about so it’s not just me throwing jargon at them. Like, someone once told me, “I want to know how to help a friend going through things like that,” so I was like, “Okay, that makes sense, let’s do that.” So, I also often just use Twitter as a research tool to understand what people are looking for, what do they want to learn about, what are they trying to understand, and then just build it accordingly. It’s important that it helps them. It doesn’t necessarily help me.

Aishwarya: I absolutely love the motive behind the entire work that you’re doing, because this particular point about building a community; I think that is where the whole strength of social media, or be it any writing platform, is people themselves come in and then they use it as a tool to express their ideas and thoughts. And, the reason that you said, sometimes people are not supportive, sometimes family and friends are not supportive, but people are quite vulnerable, and that’s totally okay, they use these mediums as tools or as platforms to express their thoughts, and I think that’s a very, very valid point that you’ve mentioned.

So, according to you, how much of a connect do mental, sexual, and physical health have? When trauma affects one, do you think all the others get impacted as well?

Ruchita: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. They’re all interconnected. Health is very intersectional and, unfortunately, we need more conversation around that. Like, if you have persistent anxiety, and your Cortisol levels keep fluctuating that much with your brain getting overactive that many times, it can affect your immunity, which can then start affecting your physical health, which can then start making you weak. It’s in the smallest of ways. Like, why is it that when you look at middle-aged fathers, everyone has blood pressure and everyone is told that stress is the cause for this? Where does stress come from? That is your mental health. Stress is a natural bodily response that, unfortunately, when people are not trained to manage, it results in blood pressure, it results in diabetes. Like, look at so many of these physical health diagnoses and how many of them have stress as a major cause. It is extremely stupid to tell people, “Don’t get stressed,” because when has that worked? Now, you tell me—when someone comes and tells you, “Aishwarya, don’t get stressed,” has your stress just magically vanished? No, because stress is a natural bodily response to something. We have to be able to have tools that help us manage our stress, because it’s a response.

Like, you can’t control a sneeze; you will sneeze when you have to sneeze, but you will learn to manage a cold. So, it’s in things like that. And, I’m glad you brought up trauma, because trauma has a tendency to have debilitating effects on not only your mental health, your physical health, and your sexual health. Like, they all go together, depending on the type of trauma you’ve had, the age at which you’ve experienced it, the time in your lifespan that it has not gotten attention and not gotten treated, how much of that have you internalized, and how much of that has influenced the way you live your life which then gets attached to your lifestyle. A lot of times, say for example – it’s a very oversimplified example – sexual trauma, say childhood sexual trauma that a child has no awareness of, firstly, what is good touch and bad touch, to understand they’re getting traumatized and the powerlessness attached to that. Now, you have not said anything to anybody for years, so this is just an open wound that has influenced the way you grew up and started living your life.

And then, as you grow up, you start having more interpersonal relationships, which is when you start having sexual relations, as well, possibly. And, the nature of how you conduct yourself in those can get influenced, the way you conduct yourself in relationships, the way you treat yourself as a human being in relationships. It gets very relational after a point, because human beings are social beings. And then it also, because it has been an open untreated wound for so long, can start affecting your physical well-being, as well, with how you treat your body, how you have understood messages about that. You can lose sensation in parts of your body because of sexual trauma.

Aishwarya: Totally. Now I see a complete picture of how each of these realms are influencing each other. You don’t have to have a checklist and say, “Hey, I’ve done these five things, and still I don’t find my mental health to improve.” It’s not a factor of ticking the points and seeing where you are, but it’s acknowledgment, it’s about acceptance, and it is to ensure that you are okay with the things that you’re currently going through. So, thanks for that point, Ruchita.

Ruchita: Yeah, absolutely.

Aishwarya: Can you tell me, so far what has been the most common type of mental health issue occurring in your patients? Do you see any common pattern in any specific age group?

Ruchita: So, a lot of times, anxiety and depression can be diagnoses, but a lot of times they’re symptoms as well. I think, specifically, anxiety is a very common bodily response that happens because the human brain is designed to protect you. So, the minute it realizes that something’s going to hit the fan, even if it assumed and there’s no danger anyway, it becomes what we call an irrational thought that come in, like, “No, I have to be afraid of this!” and you’ll have anxiety. So, a lot of times anxiety in those aspects can be its own diagnosis, but often it’ll also be like a symptom to something else. So, I will often see features of anxiety, or mood symptoms – that’s how I would put it, instead of just putting it as “anxiety and depression.”

Every time I assess folks, I always ask them, “How has your sleep been? How has your appetite been? How has your mood been? Do you feel tired?” And, often, that’ll paint a picture. So, the presentation of things. The features of every diagnosis are going to be different, like I always tell you. But mood symptoms is something that you might be able to catch. And, even those mood symptoms might look very different, because sometimes people’s brains are so… oh, the human brain is so fascinating! Like, the people may be so high that the mood will also not be able to tell you anything? But their sleep patterns might, their appetite might tell you something, things like, “Am I able to concentrate on things or not, can I focus on things or not, have I lost interest in things?” So, you look for very specific features on that front, and you also look for functioning. So, that’s the way I am able to assess.

With younger folks, you’ll see more features of anxiety that come up, but a lot of that can also be just appropriate anxiety, because you’re afraid of what you’re going to do with your life in this world and everyone in your life is telling you that you have to excel tomorrow, and that’s going to give you anxiety. So, there’s also forms of appropriate presentations according to your developmental stage and age, and then other forms like, “You seem too calm, or too regulated,” and, “Is there something to catch here? Because you’re possible too tired to care.” So, it’s always individualized, but culture plays a huge role, as well, in people’s presentations. But what I’ve noticed across the board is that people’s environments tend to influence their symptoms highly, which then goes to inform their diagnosis. And that’ll also be because I’ve worked with very diverse communities; I’ve worked with undocumented immigrant minors who’re seeking refugee status now, which is very different from an urban population or something like that, right?

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Ruchita: But those features, people’s environments affecting their daily functioning, is big that I see.

Aishwarya: So, the way I see it is you look for a few common indicators and try to map a whole journey and, as you said, experiences, culture, and environment. All of these are contributing factors that play a role.

Ruchita: Yes.

Aishwarya: So, a larger goal of LonePack is also to work towards helping suicidal individuals. Have you dealt with such individuals with suicidal tendencies earlier? What would be the right kind of approach to help them?

Ruchita: Oh yes, I’ve dealt with a lot of suicidal folks – some with active suicidal ideation, some with passive suicidal ideation, active self-harm tendencies, and everything. Oh, how do I put this? What I’ve noticed, and I think this is something I will first address to the larger community, because at some point in time it’s possible people are going to come across someone who has suicidal tendencies.

Aishwarya: Yes.

Ruchita: The fact that they’re informing you of their suicidal tendencies itself is a big sign that they possibly want help, and they may or may not do something in the next moment, but it is a good sign. If someone is talking to you about, “I have thoughts of ending my life,” or, “I have tried this,” or something like that, you treat is as something they’re going through and allowing them that space to express themselves. “Why are you feeling that way? How can I help you?” I think often people jump to advice, which is dangerous because if you’re going to start telling them how to live their life, then you’re also questioning how they’ve already lived their life, thereby reinforcing this, “Oh, I don’t know how to live my life anyway, so I should die.”

So, it’s very important to come from a strength-space perspective, just allowing that space of, “Okay, everyone is going to die anyway, what makes you want to die right now? How can I help you? What is it that you need? I’m sorry you feel this way. Do you trust yourself to be around yourself for a while? I care about you. I love you.” Come from a strength space perspective like that, because I think one of the stupidest things people assume about suicide is that it’s an act of cowardice. No! It’s an act of exhaustion. There is nothing cowardly about attempting suicide or doing anything like that. It is a terrifying thing to go through, and they go through it.

So, to know that it comes from a place of exhaustion; if that has become your last resort, like, “Nothing is helping me anymore, nothing is working anymore,” you have reached your peak of exhaustion, you’re done. So, I think just acknowledging it like that, like that is their crisis and allowing them to just tell you what is happening, instead of you acting like this expert on suicide and things like that is important.

Aishwarya: Yes. So, in a way, it is approaching it in a more practical manner, and trying to be non-judgemental, and trying to say that you’re there for the person to listen to the person. And, it’s a good thing that the person chose the one they want to actually speak to and be open about their thoughts. So, that was a very good statement that you had told, and I’m sure that for the people who listen, I think now they understand how to deal with somebody who tries to come to them and speak about insecurities or suicidal thoughts or any mental health issues from now on.

Ruchita:  Yeah, and I think, more importantly, it is empathy.

Aishwarya: Totally.

Ruchita: I think it’s horrifying that people stigmatize suicide only with attention. Yes, there are some people who do it, but that comes from deeper mental health concerns, firstly. But to assume that everyone is just doing this for attention? There are other ways to get attention, people don’t want to be shamed to get attention, everyone’s not into that kind of masochism, which is stupid. To just come from a place of empathy, that, “Oh my God, my loved one, this person is talking to me and is so exhausted. And, more importantly, to acknowledge your boundaries, but to put them forth in a healthy, kind manner.

To be like, “Hey, it looks like you are going through a lot right now, and I am sorry, this is really bad. But I don’t think I am equipped to help you. You are worthy of help. You are worthy of support in a way that I’m not qualified in this moment to help you with.” But if you’re going to assert those boundaries to communicate that, don’t abandon them. Just let them know that, “I think I cannot provide this for you, and let’s work together on another channel for you to get it from.”

Aishwarya: Yes. Thanks for putting it that way, Ruchita. I think empathy is a powerful tool that all of us need to develop.

Ruchita: You cannot have, like, five textbook techniques to avoid anxiety or anything, because everyone’s anxiety looks different, everyone’s depression looks different, everyone’s bipolar disorder tendencies looks different, everyone’s schizophrenia looks different, everyone’s grief looks different. Everything. No two brains are the same, which is why I think it is important to maybe spend time, like ten minutes in a day.

Aishwarya: I mean those are really golden words. I see self-aware is over self-care, because you need to understand yourself better first to see what really is more caring and nurturing for you. And, as you said no two persons are the same. So, understanding each of us have on our own cycles, our own ways to indulge in, our own ways to develop is the first and the foremost thing we need to do.

Ruchita: Yeah, and you’re an expert on yourself. Nobody is an expert on you. You are the only expert on yourself, so you know, that’s it.

Aishwarya: People can be there to support you, can be there to help you find and discover your interests, your passion. But again, in the end, I think you should be there for yourself. You are your own master, so yeah.

Ruchita: Yeah, mmhm.

Aishwarya: Thank you very much, Ruchita. It was wonderful to hear your experiences in being with mental health victims, a couple of anecdotes that you shared, and I’m sure listeners might pick up some ways to both practice and promote mental well-being.

Ruchita: I hope so.

Aishwarya: Today’s episode was an example of how clinicians like Ruchita together with mental health organizations like LonePack can work together towards shattering the stigma on mental health issues. Thanks for listening to our session. To hear more such sorts of discussions, keep tabs on the next episode of LonePack Conversations. Until then, see you all. 

LonePack Conversations – Nirmala Mehendale & Kindness Unlimited

A quote by Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher says, ‘Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.’

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AishwaryaWelcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Aishwarya, and I’ll be hosting the session today. And with me, I have Ms Nirmala Mehendale, the founder of Kindness Unlimited, an Indian non-profit aiming to create a movement that unifies the nation with kindness. Welcome, Nirmala!

Nirmala: Hi Aishwarya! I’m excited to be on this show.

Aishwarya: Yeah, I’m so excited as well. So, let’s begin with an introduction. 

We see that you’re a Postgraduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, serving for over three decades in the HR industry. And then you co-founded ‘Kindness Unlimited’, along with working with your HR firm, Mind Movers. Now, you spend more time and efforts in Kindness Unlimited, your non-profit organization. So what made you shift from a corporate working-for-profit world, to an NGO that is not for profit?

Nirmala: That’s a good question, and Aishwarya honestly, it happened very naturally for me.

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm?

Nirmala: I started Kindness Unlimited in 2005. At that time, I was in the thick of my professional work, but I could see the overlap between what I was doing professionally, that was in HR, and the philosophy that, I’ll say ‘KU’ for short for Kindness Unlimited, okay, so the philosophy that KU was promoting. And the philosophy and the definition of kindness was, ‘…balancing self-interest with the common good…’. Now, this philosophy really really appealed to me and I tried to do the little bit that I could, but as you know when you’re absolutely busy, working, you have less time to put into it. But it was always in the back of my mind that someday, I should make that shift to putting more time into this, the trust that we formed. So that’s the way, you know, it came and I won’t say suddenly it came and naturally, and I’m really happy to have made the plunge and spend more time with the movement now. 

Aishwarya: That’s so interesting! So, why do you think empathy, kindness and mental wellbeing are very important in today’s society? What makes you think that?

Nirmala: Oh, every single day I’m reminded, you know, honestly, how important this is because I keep meeting so many who somehow open up and really acknowledge, not to everybody else, but you know, to some of us that they are actually lonely, looking for validation, acceptance. And most of us are searching for compassion and love. 

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Nirmala: So, kindness is an act in compassion that helps us to show someone that we care. And so, it’s such an important role that I can’t even, you know, mention to people, somehow the word, ‘kind’ doesn’t come off very often; it has a very different connotations, but when you actually think of the number of times each of us has received kindness, given kindness, how – what an impact it makes in a small, small way. But it can really make someone’s day, someone’s moment, and help all of us live a little more joyfully in today’s world, which is so fast-paced and so digital, right? We just seem to lose that human connect.

Aishwarya: That is so true because, you know, sometimes kindness need not be outrightly shown; it’s something very subtle, actually, you receive it and you give it back in a very subtle manner, without you realising that you are doing it. 

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah, you’re right and it can become a habit, and that’s what, when I talked to educators and others, I say, it can become a habit because, like any other thing, the more we do it the more fulfilled we feel; we kind of do more of it. 

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Nirmala: Sometimes it’s unconscious, but if you make it conscious because you understand the joy that it brings to you and to the other. 

Aishwarya: Exactly, that’s so true. In fact, it transforms you and gives you, like, a channel or a platform to transform somebody else’s life as well. 

Nirmala: So that giving and receiving, right, so in a minute, I can become a receiver, and this is something most people don’t see. Like, I think, ‘Oh, maybe I’m this big giver’ but suppose I’m crossing the road and I have an accident. In that split second, with all the money and education I might have, I become a receiver because I’m dependent on other people to lift me up, to take me to a doctor, to treat me; it’s all strangers who then, you know, come up to my aid. We don’t realise how vulnerable we are; each of us, we’re givers, we’re receivers, givers, receivers. 

Aishwarya: Absolutely, yeah, that’s so nice to hear. 

So, Kindness Unlimited, you know, in short, ‘KU’; that’s a wonderful and a positive name. When and how did this organization, you know, come into action, and what was the motive behind it when you started?

Nirmala: So. Somewhere, in the mid 2000’s, you know, there was the late Mr Vasant Kalbag. He was a scientist; he had a great scientific temperament, and he deep-dived into the philosophy and the practical application of being kind. So he researched a lot about it, right from Darwin’s evolution of man, how cooperation and collaboration can actually help humans innovate and to prosper. I happened to find Mr. Kalbag and his loving wife, Shanti Kalbag, by pure chance. 

Aishwarya: Okay.

Nirmala: And, I never looked back. So, it was that— the conversations that I keep having with him, I mean, a total stranger met this person, and I took to the philosophy. It was he who suggested the name, and I thought it was beautiful, and then we decided, ‘Let’s formalize it.’ After many, many months of meeting and discussing, and so we are on the founding team. There’s another Trustee called Lopa Vyas, and that’s where, you know, in a small way, Kindness Unlimited—we said we’d all do our own little thing, in our own little way, but let’s kind of jump on. So that’s it! Today the vision is to make India a kinder nation. And, the platform we’re looking for is a platform that can enable interconnectedness among citizens, by encouraging acts of kindness and trying to build a supportive network.  

Aishwarya: Oh, so good. I mean, I just absolutely love the motive behind this, because it seems simple, but it takes so much effort and so much thinking from each of us to actually show that kindness out to people. It’s a very, very nice initiative, and congrats on that. 

Nirmala: Thank you.

Aishwarya: So, you’ve been working for empowering people with kindness and public interest, for about 15 years now. 

Nirmala: Yeah.

Aishwarya: So, did any specific, you know, life incident help you shift focus on spreading kindness and shattering the predominance of selfishness?

Nirmala: It’s a great thought, and I’ve been dwelling on this, myself. So maybe I’ll share one incident; it would be a couple of incidents, but I’ll surely share one. 

Aishwarya: Sure.

Nirmala: So, Aishwarya, as you know my work is with people, right? So I come from a domain which deals with people. And I used to see so many unhappy professionals. They just seemed to be outwardly happy, but inwardly they seemed to be stuck in jobs, and they just didn’t seem to be passionate about whatever role they had, and they just, you know, somehow were stuck.  

So I realised at that time, we all seem to be in a race; a kind of competition to reach somewhere. Heaven knows where! And in that mad race, rightly called a ‘rat race’, some of us have to sacrifice fulfilment for what the world and others perceive will give us a better life. While I was dwelling on this, I went through my own existential questions and dilemmas. As I was watching others, I was looking inwards, myself. And around that time, I lost three very close family members. And it was their passing away that hit me and made me-forced me to acknowledge that what I remember about them was everything good that they did to me and the joy they brought to me, right. Because when someone leaves you, you’re left with just memories, no? 

And it was that that said, “Oh god, in all this race and everything, hardly anyone remembers your gold medals and the million-dollar deals that you cracked and whatever else, right.” What people remember is how nice someone was to me, and that’s when I said, I think, you know, this is something I’d like to give more time for; it became a personal vision, and I tried to put a timeline in place when I would spend far more time in growing the organization. And building KU and taking this mission forward. And, you know, the work – in this movement I made many friends on the table, too. It was a very supportive environment when you realise there were other people in the world, and you were not alone like you really believed in.

Aishwarya: Yes. And you know, personally, though I am very sorry for the loss, I’m so glad that you were able to connect with like-minded people; with people who want to take this mission up with that positivity and happiness through kindness. I’m so glad that KU came into existence with a network and a community of such like-minded people. 

And it’s so positive to hear about the whole story.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah.

Aishwarya: And the other point you mentioned about mental health, that’s very important; in fact, that’s exactly what LonePack works for, as well. People just run behind this rat’s race, and they are just there, fastened with a lot of things going on, with a lot of thoughts going on. But finally, what you said is so true; what matters, in the end, is, how did we treat each other, how were we to each other, and how good we were to each other, and the memories all lineup. 

Nirmala: Sure, sure, sure. And unfortunately, it’s pain that makes most of us reflect; it’s very ironical. It’s very, very ironical. 

Aishwarya: It is very ironic. In the end, you know, there has to be some inflicting pain that makes us count on all the blessings that we have. But I’m glad that somehow, somewhere, we get the chance to recount on all our happy moments, our memories, our blessings. 

Nirmala: And channelizing it in a positive manner, right.

Aishwarya: Yes

Nirmala: So, using that pain as learning to actually do some good, yeah. 

Aishwarya: True. Not getting very stagnant at that point and sticking to the pain, but going beyond that and trying to overcome that and achieving bigger things. 

Nirmala: I agree. 

Aishwarya: So according to you, what’s the impact of kindness, kinship and goodness on mental health?

Nirmala: So, we keep talking of the word, ‘well-being’ in our day-to-day lives, right? And so well-being is physical and it’s our mental well-being, no? So when I’ve been looking at the kindness philosophy, I’ve realised it’s so important to take care of ourselves first, and being kind to ourselves is the first step. And I remember this example, and I keep repeating it all the time; it’s the aeroplane example. So in times of turbulence, we’ve been told to take the oxygen masks, right, and we’ve always been told to take the mask first before we help children and seniors. So with that example, I share that once we accept and we become more forgiving, less harsh to ourselves; begin accepting the kindness of others. It’s not easy to accept the kindness of others, as well, okay. And this then can be very liberating, and the cycle of giving and receiving will happen. And it’s a great cycle of giving and receiving if we can acknowledge graciously that right through life, we bother givers and receivers. And in mental wellbeing, especially, you know,  a lot of people have said even one friend or one person can make a difference. And I see that happening, that those who have at least that one person accepting them for who they are, make such an impact. 

And, I’ll always remember the story of a young boy walking on a bridge across the sea, in the US, and contemplating jumping and ending his life. And this boy, as he was running on the bridge, was stopped by a couple who requested him to take their picture. And while they were requesting him to do that, they had a conversation with him. And later on, this boy says that if it were not that human connection on that day, he would have probably ended his life. 

Aishwarya: So true. I think it’s just being there for each other so that you can make a better world together.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah. As I said earlier, Aishwarya, unless my glasses are at least half full, I cannot give to others, right?

Aishwarya: Exactly, exactly. It’s not like you are treating yourself very harsh, you go around and preach to others about how to be happy, because you have to practise it yourself first. Your glass has to be at least half full for you to think from there, and give it to others. 

And actually, I have to mention about this self-care point because over the last couple of months, you know, to whoever I speak to, especially people from the mental health background; all of them consider self-care to be a very important tool. So it’s not selfish to want self-care, and self-care is definitely not just about getting things for you, or doing something calming, no, it’s actually more than that. It’s fighting around challenges and trying to accept the person that you are, with all the flaws and imperfections. 

Nirmala: I agree, and a lot of people think, you know, that ‘I am such a giver’ and so, but they get burnt out, and they can’t then sustain that giving, right, because to give I must receive, accept that I am human and as you very rightly said, accept my flaws, and you know, and then feel that ‘I am now feeling a little fulfilled, so I can go out there and help others’. 

Aishwarya: So true, yes. It’s like, it has to be a cycle; it’s giving and taking back, and that continues in a loop. When you don’t have anything in your basket, you really can’t take something out and give it out to others, so I think it’s such a valid point that you stated. 

And so…just moving on to a little more about you, what were some hurdles and challenges that you had initially faced by running a non-profit?

Nirmala: So the biggest challenge is, Aishwarya, though we are a registered NGO, we actually function as a movement. 

Aishwarya: Okay.

Nirmala: So none of us get paid so far, and all of us are givers and volunteers, right. So everything is done through the pro bono methodology, and it is honestly miraculous, that’s the only word I can say. Because every time we have a project and then somebody comes and helps and people give up their time, talent and  I’m always amazed, because it takes me back to the barter system, and I remember debating, you know, the joys of possibly the barter system, and it does have its own role. But having said that, you know, I think the time has come now for us to slightly work on a structure, to create an organization so that we can spread faster, wider, and at the same time, be very mindful of attaining the beauty of an inclusive transparent and a very giving movement.

Aishwarya: I think that’s so true, because it’s like hearing me out, because that’s exactly the kind of thought we had with LonePack. Initially, we were also a pro bono society, and it was an important hurdle that we had, starting out; to have a structure and to impact more people in our journey. So I think it’s like hearing it out from me.

So, Kindness Unlimited is an executive member of the World Kindness Movement, a global body for kindness, with representations from 28 countries across the world. And that’s really big!

So, what impact does this create, and how do you all, as global leaders, work together, work for a common mission?

Nirmala: So, the World Kindness Movement plays the role of supporting and encouraging their members to keep spreading good, in their own corner of the world. So they’re not really very structured about ‘what’ because each country focuses on different areas, right. But today, and I would say, unfortunately, it’s terror, violence and hate that’s creeping its head and that’s something that the World Kindness family is seeing across all countries, right.

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: And so we’re strengthened in our belief that its love and kindness that will ultimately triumph. In many incidents, we’ve seen hate creates more hate, so we’re slowly building traction to enable us to put kindness on the global agenda, move to the UN and formalize things, so that’s the role and the route the World Kindness Movement sees itself playing. When we look at mission statements and agendas across corporations everywhere, we don’t see the word, ‘kind’ being there. So honestly, it is to put the word ‘kind’ and the act of kindness on the agenda for individuals, families, societies, schools, communities,  countries. 

Aishwarya: Perfect. So I think this is such a good initiative, and as you mentioned, it is those tiny little initiatives that each of us take as our own leaders; each of us from different nationalities takes and together, how we impact the wider world. 

So, a major part of what you do is related to the youth as a society, with the aim of spreading kindness among children, young adults in schools, colleges and institutions. So LonePack, also is a non-governmental organisation working for your mental health awareness and wellness. We share a common thread here.

So, what’s your reasoning behind working for the betterment of today’s youth?

Nirmala: So, as I mentioned earlier, when you have fast resources, it makes sense to invest your energies in the country’s future. 

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: And also behavioural changes are easier when one is younger, before fixed patterns and rigid mindsets and prejudices are formed, right?

And so we think its much better to invest with them. We’re also working with educators who work with the youth. So, you know, and I’m really always hoping that my generation especially can die with our prejudices rather than passing it on to the youth. How do we open the youth to see a world which has less prejudices and more acceptance, and to get them to see the benefits of collaboration. 

Aishwarya: That is very true, because I think the youth of today need to be empowered and feel empowered. You know, the world is full of opportunities, it’s full of changes,  and a lot of opportunities here and there, but finally its about telling the youth how they can make use of those opportunities; that is exactly what we’re working towards.

Nirmala: Right, right. And Aishwarya, the definition is ‘balancing self-interest with the common good’ right? And this definition, the youth are able to buy into.

Aishwarya: Yeah, yeah, true.

So the impact is more on them, because they’re able to comprehend what we are working towards, and we would be able to put in more effort and more meaning into what we do currently. So I think that’s a good reasoning behind the motive.

Nirmala: So when you talk about networking, right, the importance of networking, so I always remind them how networking starts with giving, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: So, that’s how you build a network; it’s not just for selfishness; you can be selfish, but you won’t have a connect for a longer period of time. Because the person will say you’re a taker; you’re using somebody, and so youth, once they see that it doesn’t even make this much sense really and you can’t build goodwill by just being a taker. 

Aishwarya: Yes, so true. So you have to show some amount of wanting to give back to the society, wanting to drive a change in the community, because that is where you earn a good set of like-minded people around, who will also help you in where you want to go and what you want to achieve. 

Nirmala: Such a small world today because of technology, right?

Aishwarya: Yes, yes.

Nirmala: And our reputation precedes us. 

Aishwarya: Yes. In fact, we think we are all connected, but then it is absolutely how do you make that network work for a longer time, work with good relationships and trust.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah yeah.

Aishwarya: So, the next question I wanted to ask was, we heard about your new project called ‘Pooh Circles.’ So can you elaborate a bit more on what it is about, and who can benefit from it?

Nirmala: So, as we said earlier, you know Aishwarya, that LonePack is in that space as well, that we see so many lonely people, right, who on the front are seemingly seem all sorted out, but when you know that there are young people and people of all ages who seemingly are lonely and want to belong; with that in mind, I decided to do an experiment, and build a space of acceptance, sharing, active listening, and most of all, non-judgement.  Where whoever comes to the circle can benefit from this process. 

Sometimes, many of us are hesitant going to a counsellor. That’s because of the various kind of connotations this has, especially in our country. And so, I’ve seen firsthand that it takes a while for someone – you know, rather than go early,  people go when they are very, very late. And can’t really handle it well. So I thought, let’s create a first step, where we create a group process. And then possibly when people can come in and see the benefits and joys of this process.

So to give people an idea of group process, of non-judgement, acceptance, unconditional positive regard, respect; to get them to trust one another, and the kind of sharing that they do, in this kind of sacred space, so that was my idea. And then some of them want to go in later on for counselling and they understand the importance and the benefits. 

So I just wanted a first step, to give people that understanding that most of us are lonely, and we’re all searching for something, and there’s no harm in accepting that, and learning from each other, and then if required, moving on to going to a counsellor, if they think that could also help them. 

So it’s a first step circle; that’s what I’m trying to create. 

Aishwarya: Yes. This is incredible, and in fact, to add on, I was captivated by this term that you said, ‘being non-judgemental’. Because that’s exactly what I have been talking to people about, what I’ve been  hearing in the last couple of conversations I had with some people around.

So first step, we can do to people around us, is being non-judgemental, because I think that creates a fear in all of us, that when we are trying to be judgemental, or we are being judged by others, and to move past that fear, which hinders us from opening up, and you know, hinders us from speaking aloud our insecurities, and a couple of issues that we face mentally. 

 Nirmala: And also, we become very poor listeners, no Aishwarya?

Aishwarya: Oh, yes.

Nirmala: We’re always with our digital gadgets and seem so distracted. So to actually have two  hours of uninterrupted space where everyone is actively listening, I think for all of us, it can be very beneficial. 

Even online, we have become very less tolerant of other peoples’ views right? So we look at trolling and all these kinds of unkind bullying behaviour online; it’s a reflection of something that’s happening to all of us, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes. I think, after the impact of social media, with a lot of these social platforms growing, we are more into digital connect. But in fact, to lead to more positivity and more kinship and close feelings; rather it’s more bullying, and doing more abusive activities. It’s high time that we start taking the impact of social media very crucially. 

Nirmala: Right, and that’s why organizations like LonePack, Kindness, all of us are trying our best to put the positive voice out there, right. 

Aishwarya: Exactly! We use social media in a way to alert people to spread positivity and to remind people that they are worth it, and they can also spread the same message to others around. 

So how do you think we, as neighbours, relatives, or colleagues, can spread positivity everyday, in simple ways?

Nirmala: So I’ll share some very very simple ways; there are so many, Aishwarya. I’d say, you know, that whenever we smile and acknowledge a human being, that’s huge. We can lend a helping hand, like carrying a heavy load, holding the lift for someone who’s rushing to get in, checking when someone’ sick, sharing something handmade, like a card or food, even calling those who labour hard for us by their names, and not their caste names, or their occupation title. It seems very small, but it can make a huge difference in showing that you care and you’re concerned about, you know- small things. So it can really trigger change, no, once larger numbers start practising very small little acts of concern, I’m sure it would make a big difference for the greater good. Because all this will have a ripple effect, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes

Nirmala: So there’ll be more smiles to go around, more people who are nice to the other, so the whole random-acts-of-kindness ripple effect begins, and you have human connections that grow, and the small things actually are the big things in life, yeah, and it holds so much of space in our heart, sometimes, you know, such a small thing is done, and you say, ‘Oh someone remembered that I was travelling and wished me’ or ‘someone remembered that I had an exam’ and you know, so these little things make life so much worthwhile. And so if more of us did that and, you know, consciously helped, we’d start our days better, and maybe the person who’s receiving that kind act will go forth and be kind to another person, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes. In the end, it all matters about how good you were to yourself, and how you spread that goodness around to people. 

So little things really matter, and it’s not just words; it’s not just by words to say that, you know, these little things matter; you have to do it in actions. So as you said, these small acts of kindness that all of us can do everyday, if we multiply that, I think, as a community, it’s going to have more and more impact on more and more people. 

Nirmala: Yeah. In fact, this year, Aishwarya, 13th November is World Kindness Day every year. And in India it’s still not caught up, so we’re really trying to put that day on the agenda. So this year we’re having a huge event with music and with standup shows; and yeah, we’ve already booked the auditorium, and no one will have to buy a ticket. 

The ones who’re coming for the show is going to be given a list of kind acts; they pick a kind act, and they perform it, and they get a ticket to the show!

Aishwarya: Oh! That’s so good! Yeah, it’s such a good initiative; it’s interesting. I’m sure that people would love to do it, and this way, I think they’re all helping people remember those little acts of kindness that they should be doing. 

Nirmala: Sure. 

Aishwarya: So it’s a very good initiative, and all the best for the event. 

Nirmala: Thank you, thank you.

Aishwarya: So, Thank you so much, Nirmala, and it was wonderful speaking to you today about how kindness can be a magic wand, create positivity, and promote mental health. 

Nirmala: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed sharing with you, and I’m sure jointly all of us, you know, collaborating in this space, can together make a huge difference. 

Aishwarya: Yes, so true. 

So today’s episode was a clear example of how Kindness Unlimited and LonePack, along with people around, can work together towards spreading kindness. 

To listen to more such positive discussions, keep tabs on the next episode of LonePack Conversations. So until then, I’m signing off. Bubye!


LonePack Conversations – Ryan Bonnici & Bring Change to Mind

Workplace wellness is a phrase we’ve been hearing lately. While it’s common to see a lot of millennials falling prey to anxiety, trauma, tiredness, and exhaustion, the question is how well corporates and organizational leaders are heeding to this issue.


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Aishwarya: Welcome to Lonepack conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and with me, I have Ryan Bonnici, a renowned leader in today’s marketing world. Hi Ryan, it’s great to have you in our session today. 

Ryan: Hey! It is nice to be here, thank you for having me!

Aishwarya: So, Ryan, you’re the Chief Marketing Officer at G2, one of the world’s leading review and app-listing platforms. You also serve on the Board of Directors for the mental-health non-profit, ‘Bring Change to Mind.’ How’s it to manage both nonprofit and revenue-based leadership roles at the same time?

Ryan: You know, it’s an interesting challenge, but it makes it really fun because I feel like a lot of the work I do at G2—which obviously is very revenue-focused is luckily in an area I really love. I’m super passionate about technology and software, and I love that role, and it pays me which is great. And then on the flip side, the work I do with ‘Bring Change to Mind’— well it doesn’t pay me in the same sense, but it’s a rounded area that is really important to me, and so yes, nice to kind of give back in a way that’s not revenue actually. So yeah, it’s quite fun but it definitely sometimes is a challenge of time for me to prioritize between the two.

Aishwarya: Oh yeah. I think the ‘giving-back-to-the-community’ part is extremely heart-warming and I can understand because I come from the same marketing background and I also ended up working in a non-profit as well. So I think, I sort of find a personal connection with you and I absolutely agree with the point that you mentioned right now. 

So, you are a CMO under 30! Congratulations on this, and I’m sure this is not an easy journey. How’s it to handle the pressures of your role, and have those pressures ever taken a toll on your mental health?

Ryan: Thanks, I appreciate it. Yeah, it’s definitely unusual—when I was really little, at the age of 10, for some reason knew I wanted to be a CMO, and I really wanted to be a CMO at the age of 30, so clearly I’ve been a bit of an unusual kid but it was very cool to finally reach that goal. I think I got there a couple months after my 29th birthday. I think I was not even necessarily trying, I think I kind of forgot about the ‘30 age’ component. Because I didn’t really care about getting there by 30 once I got older, but when it actually happened, it kind of reminded me! Anyway, thank you for that! In terms of how to handle the pressures of the role, the thing that helps me the most is a few, but I have a really amazing team at G2 that I built so when I joined the business, I had maybe five people on the team, and now kind of a year-and-a-half, and our marketing team is around 60-70 folks. It’s been a really crazy year so that was a lot of fun but it was also pretty stressful, and I definitely in the last two years have needed to do a lot of things that helped manage the pressure. For example, I get a sports massage once a week which is not fun but painful; If I get really scared I get acupuncture every week; I go to the kyro, and doing a lot of self-care activities, and seeing a therapist regularly—weekly or twice a week to help me work on my mind—keep working on my body and keep both of them as healthy as possible.

Aishwarya: Totally! To start off, I think you wanted to be a CMO right at the age of 10. I’ve read this short story where you were fancied by the emails that your father used to get and you really wanted to be a CMO right then. 

Ryan: Yes! My dad’s a business owner and I used to see him always on his phone getting emails, and I used to tell myself, “Oh my gosh that’s so cool. I can’t wait to have a phone and get mails and tell me I’m important and people need me.”

Aishwarya: I think that’s the best part as a child—seeing your father and getting inspired. Nice to know, Ryan. I love the way you brought the point about seeing therapists as a form of self-care and as a form of maintaining the body-and-mind balance. I really liked that point because most of the people today think going to a therapist is a sort of extra work and still many people think of it as a taboo. So I think this coming from you, from your experience, is a very good point that you stated. So, what are some ways you shattered the stigma around mental health within your organisation?

Ryan: I think shattering stigma is what ‘Bring Change to Mind’ is all about. When we did the research, we saw that there’s a lot of great services out there for people to become aware of their mental health and their mental health challenges and proactively seeing therapists.

We see great results. My wife actually is a clinical psychologist. We met in Psychology class, back in university, and what we understood in the world is that the problem wasn’t helping folks once they raise their hands because most people don’t ask for help. 80% of people who have a mental health condition don’t actually seek help and those who do seek help on an average do 10 years after when they are diagnosed with the symptoms and problems. 10 years is the average time that takes for someone to get help, and we researched and realised that the reason why people weren’t getting help was because there was this stigma around mental health. 

I don’t necessarily sit every day and think about how I’m going to shatter the stigma around mental health—but I guess I try to be really vulnerable and authentic and talk to people about my own challenges. And, I think by me doing that, I’ve noticed other people have come to me and shared with me their challenges, and have said to me that they are talking about that has helped get therapy. I think the best way to drive change in that space is ultimately is to just be open and tell people the truth about what you’re going through, good and bad. I think that helps them to start to realise that it is a safe space.

Aishwarya: So, coincidentally LonePack’s motive is also to shatter the stigma around mental health. And, that was a very valid statement that you said—people have to be vulnerable about the emotions that they go through. And I think impact needn’t always be a greater thing, it can be a small act of kindness that can actually go a long way. So, as you said get the impact done with a self-motive and get that out to people so more people get influenced by you and try to do the same thing, and I think impact spreads in that way. 

Ryan: Absolutely! 

Aishwarya: In a recent article, you spoke about how being bullied had a part in your success today. Could you elaborate more on that?

Ryan: Absolutely. Growing up as I mentioned earlier, I was odd and a bit different and shy. I was also an only-child, and I wasn’t guided on knowing how to make friends. I was still a pretty nice kid, but I don’t know how I was really an easy target for bullies. That was tough and that shook me in a certain way, some of them which were good—but I’ve been able to work on the trauma from that, and at the same time it’s hard for me to say that I wouldn’t want to have that not happen to me, because I really like the person I am today, and I don’t know what kind of person I would be, had I not have that happen to me. I had to work on myself. I do not regret any of that stuff, but I definitely regret not getting therapy earlier. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think recounting and getting back to childhood, and relating it to the present-day views is very important—and, it is good that all of us need to start doing that. 

You’re featured as one of the Most Authentic CMOs by Drift, another giant in the SaaS industry. How do you think ‘authenticity’ can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, and on the whole, the entire workforce?

Ryan: Authenticity can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, because I think it’s so different from standard and the traditional leadership kind-of model and the leadership role that most managers take. I think it’s important to kind of think about management and leadership as two very-different things, and even if you are a manager you might not be able to lead in, so yeah and I think by the old-school way of management really was keeping control—not sharing everything with the team, keeping people in the dark, only telling them the minimum they need to know. If I think of a recent example for me was I had to let two people go on my team this week because they had really bad attitudes and you know we had given a lot of feedback on developing on these things, and they just didn’t, and I’m just simplifying obviously because I don’t want to get into the details.  

Aishwarya: I understand.   

Ryan: I was really proud when we had to tell this to the team—the bigger team—and when they asked questions, we were able to be really authentic with them about what we expect from them and why they shouldn’t be afraid about their own jobs, and I got 70 pieces of feedback and small notes saying that by being so authentic about the situation and telling around place that it does suck, it isn’t a fun experience for the folks to let go but also for us as a team we will grow stronger from it, etc. I think by opening up and by being authentic, it means that you get that back from your employees, and so now they are being more authentic with you which means as a leader you can do your job because you know where the problems or opportunities or difficulties faster because people are coming to you more quickly. So, that’s how it has impacted me.

Aishwarya: I think from your words I can sense that a ‘great’ team actually needs more transparency because it’s not just called a great team because they do great work or they do something really big. I think it’s more about how they treat the fellow people and what kind of attitude they have with the fellow people. And yeah, to identify the limitations, and to identify the strengths and addressing the issues good or bad—I think that forms the strength of the team and that actually grows to an organisation level as well the top management or the C-suite. 

You wrote in your recent article for Harvard Business Review on how as a boss you encourage your employees to consider outside job offers. That’s interesting. Does it have anything to do with the mental health concept? Or, was it something else that drove you to pick this thought. 

Ryan: So, I think where this came from for me in this concept wasn’t tied in with mental health, really, I was kind of examining my own career and I am often asked by my PAs and my employees the questions on career and growing and it reflects on the past decade of marketing, and how I have gotten to where I have got. And I think to be part of it for me was always being happy to chat with people if they talked to me about a role that is interesting or the company that is doing interesting things. And, I probably only reply and set up a call maybe with 5% of the people that actually reach out to me. Lot of them are maybe not the right roles or their companies aren’t the right fit for what I’d be interested in. I am always interested in learning about the roles out there and what my value or worth is. Being involved in those conversations just reactively helped me work on myself. Companies said they will pay me a certain amount to do this job at their companies—I didn’t want to work there. I love where I am working right now. Maybe, I have to speak to my boss that I am not at the right market pay right. Again, that allows me to have a simple and professional discussion like, “Hey! I like staying here but I’m getting offers that are 20% more than what I am currently on and I don’t want to leave but I am considering these offers at the moment just because of the fact that the extra 20% will be really helpful for me and my family situation.” Maybe I’ll have to do it, I haven’t done many times maybe once or twice in my career and my bosses have always been able to come back to me and offer me more responsibility and compensation. My message here is that you shouldn’t just go and try to, you know, blackmail your boss. In reality, you must do this only when you’re well aware of your path and are actually willing to leave, because it could go wrong and your boss might not want you on the team. So, you should never have that conversation unless you are going to leave if there isn’t a change at work. But it is also important to have that conversation. In my experience, my employees will come to me and chat with me when they are interviewing with a company and it is weird to say that I don’t find that weird at all. If they are on my team, I would love to coach them in terms of how they get their next job because they are going to leave  being a total advocate for our company, me and their career. They might be referred by well-known people in Chicago, looking for jobs. It is not a bad thing, you don’t want the same people on you team, the same CMO forever and mix things up. I am realistic with my team about either being here forever nor do I expect them to pretend that they are. 

Aishwarya: Yes, true, it’s a perfect analysis. Corporates work on this format. Most of the employees today want to work with more valued, proactive, empathetic and realistic leader so that they can be confident discussing issues, about their future growth opportunities that they get from outside; And, the way you mentioned that the people who are addressing this should be confident and have solid thoughts before talking about this to their bosses—I think on both sides having certain amount of realistic attitude, transparency and candidness really helps. It is wonderful to know that you’ve been a leader who does that. 

What’s your view on employees taking days off for mental health, popularly known as the “mental health day?

Ryan: I think it’s great. More employees must do this and employers must openly talk about this as well as an options for folks to take. I genuinely think that the only way to make people realistically take these things seriously is for leadership teams to actually do that themselves and show that it’s an ‘OKAY’ thing to do. I have had days that I’ve cancelled on all my meetings in the morning just because I haven’t been in the right frame of mind for that day. I have told my employees that I’m taking a “mental health day” and that has encouraged them to know that they can do the same. 

Aishwarya: Certainly. I think that the leaders set the right example, and the people who are hearing this right now, know that it’s okay to take a day off for mental issues; for their mental health. 

How important is mental health from a workspace angle and what are some simple steps that a team can take to ensure emotional wellness? 

Ryan: I don’t think your mental health at workplace is different from that of your home. Everything is connected—how you’re sleeping, how stressed you’re, and how you’re at work with all these things. I think some really simple things folks can do is get better at identifying when they have a low mental health score. For example, they wake up and have the lowest score for their mental health for a certain day so instead of having lots of coffee and sugary drinks, sit with your emotions and try to work out on what is making you feel down. I turn off most notifications from my apps on my phone—it doesn’t buzz unless someone is calling or sending me an SMS. My screen also is completely muted so the only way I see a notification is when I go into the app itself. That was a really conscious thing I needed to, I was getting overwhelmed and anxious that day my phone was just ringing every second. Putting about a few intentional change in notifications was one big way to help. Finally, identifying if your work is a safe space, looking at how you can have conversations like that with your boss and your employees around mental health. That doesn’t mean the boss has to ask, “how is your mental health today,” although asking questions might help employees open up but they answer in work-related terms. Instead of asking questions like “How are you doing?” for which most employees answer, I ask “How are you doing outside of work?” or “How are you doing as a person?” That is showing my employee that this one-on-one, this conversation and relationship, is a safe space for them to open up. 

Aishwarya: Yes, great. I see three things that you’ve mentioned—dealing with your emotions, muting your notifications, retrospection and having a proper conversation with your boss or anyone you feel like talking at workplace. I think coming to the closure, I have one last question that is the most debatable and important one that most corporates need to look into.

As a top-tier management leader, do you think every company should invest more on providing mental wellness support in the form of therapy sessions, relaxation benefits and so on?

Ryan: Absolutely, I really think that for any company to be successful, it’s because of their employees. So, you need to hire the best employees, run the best training for them to become better and keep learning. You need to support them in their journey and just as you’d allow someone get extra training in their job area to make them better. I don’t think there is any difference in terms of training around how we function in our health. Businesses today are very comfortable today in giving gym compensations for employees by having internal gyms. More companies now are creating really amazing cultures and motivating employers are doing the same with mental health too. Yes, I’m a big fan and I’m excited that more and more businesses and some of the world’s best leaders are realising that it’s not just about the work, it’s about the person that gets the work done too. 

Aishwarya: Yes, certainly. 

Thank you, Ryan, I think it was a great opportunity for me to speak to you about how mental health is perceived in the corporate front, especially coming from a C-suite leader, and what your honest experiences are being a CMO of a world-renowned company. We are immensely pleased and we extend our hearty congratulations to you on behalf of Lonepack for all the amazing work that you are doing. Thank you once again!

Ryan: Thank you for having me, really had a lot of fun. 


LonePack Conversations – Indu Gopalakrishnan & Project Kintsugi

Talking about mental health and creating awareness surrounding mental health issues is an arduous task that cannot be done in a day. We all know that the waves of change, of any kind, take a while to reach the shore, and the amount of effort to sustain the wave is plenty. The only way to achieve that is by work together, as a community. LonePack conversations is one such initiative where we reach out to other people in the mental health community to gain their insights and experiences with working in the field. And the first-ever edition of LonePack conversations starts out with Indu Gopalakrishnan. Indu is the founder of Project Kintsugi–an initiative taken to form a safe space for women to talk, to form a community of supporters who will have your back during times of distress. Read along to get to know about Indu and Project Kintsugi and how during times of need, people become our greatest strength. 

1. First off, what personally prompted you to start thinking about mental health and shatter the stigma surrounding mental health issues?

Indu: There is still a lack of awareness surrounding mental health and many people still go through hard times battling mental health issues alone. The more you speak about it, the easier it gets to identify problems and in turn, helps people get the support that they need the most instead of suffering in silence. It’s pacifying when someone identifies the nameless demon that’s inside them—the reason for the suffering that they are undergoing.

Be it childhood trauma or complex anxiety issues that I or someone I know go through, it’s comforting only when someone takes the initiative to categorize and label all the issues and problems under a bucket. And, that’s exactly what made me pick up the thread and voice out for mental health. My whole motive was to find the people (as well as being one) who can support each other, connect the dots for recovery, and spread positivity around.

 2. We now see that mental health is slowly garnering interest among people with its steady inclusion in social media. But, even with all the growing limelight, do you, in some way, think that society still doesn’t understand the actual issues relating to mental health and the sensitivity around it? How much awareness do you think people really have when it comes to mental health issues?  

Indu: Building awareness is a slow process. You may not see the results immediately but the more we talk about it, we build more consciousness around the topic and the consciousness and curiosity slowly build awareness. This is similar to how awareness initiatives around saving water and being eco-friendly work. We may not follow it immediately but it happens over a period of time.

Likewise, with mental health, attention and action set in gradually. So, each time you write or read about anxiety, trauma or panic attacks, it leaves a lingering thought in you, making you understand the underlying importance. Not instantly impactful, but with time, it will truly make a difference. 

 3. Does every level of distress require therapy? What do you think would be the need of the hour for mental health?

Indu: Like how people have annual health check-ups, I believe that every individual should have at least one round of therapy. It helps you put things in perspective. In the society we live in, most of them still consider therapy to be a taboo, however, on the contrary, therapists help you find your own voice—your own ways to appreciate yourself. There is so much negativity around the word self-care as being selfish, but putting yourself and your emotions first will help you become more self-aware and a better person.

4. Moving on to your own work, Project Kintsugi—lovely name! How did this project come into place and what does it signify? 

Indu: Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. 

When I was going through my heartbreak a friend once sent me this. In this context, Kintsugi is about embracing the wound/damage and creating something strong and beautiful out of it. And, that’s how Project Kintsugi was born—to embrace and empower distressed women, making them believe in their own strengths. 

5. What would the project’s goals be and what challenges did you have to face when you started the project and how did you work to overcome them?

Indu: The vision of Project Kintsugi is to build a community of supporting and non-judgemental women who stand up for each other during unforeseen times. It’s not about me as a person running the whole show—rather, I see it as a collective effort. The project will continue to run independently, so even if it’s just 10 people today, they will form a chain of trust and grow the community that helps one another. 

The biggest challenge I faced, and still sometimes do, is being available always! I currently juggle between a full-time day career and my pet project. While I don’t want to claim the reasons for my unavailability, it’s important to understand that Kintsugi isn’t a one-time work—it’s not about passing information or suggesting some details. It’s about listening to each other, reflecting on stories, and supporting women with possible legal and moral help. So, yes, it’s a Herculean task on my plate, but I love doing it!

6. What kind of support do you offer and how do you think it impacts your target audience?

Indu: Kintsugi meetups function on an anonymous setup—we’re not judgemental about who you are and what you do—but, our major motive is why you’re here and how we can help you. Women who go through troubled marriages, harassment, and domestic violence, can take these meetups to be a solace, wherein they can talk about what they’re going through. 

We encourage people not to come up with any solution immediately or offer any opinions, but the whole idea is to provide a medium for women to vent out, address their issues, network with other women going through similar experiences, and get legal or professional contacts/help for the betterment of their situation.

7.Women, divorce, domestic violence and depression—any clichéd sayings and experiences that you had to encounter that tried to relate these three? How did you handle it?

Indu: Ah! That’s something unsaid and clichéd in this society. You can almost read it in everyone’s faces—what questions they’ll ask, what opinions they hold, and what rumours they’re ready to speak around.

The truth is depression or domestic violence can happen to anyone. I wasn’t brave enough initially to handle these and was waiting for a change to happen. But, soon, I realized that I deserved something better than just the blame I put on myself for unfortunate happenings. 

What really helped me handle and put things into perspective was my ability to connect with others. I help myself by helping others around, and as I said earlier, it’s a chain reaction and you’ll find people returning the same help around. 

8. What’s the best part of your work that concerns mental health?

Indu: Creating a community and bringing people together to share their stories. People end up relating to each other’s problems and finding their kinship with each other. That’s the best part of my project and my life—standing up for each other and making women feel good. 

9. Vulnerability is important when it comes to dealing with mental health issues and talking about them. What would be your two cents for those who struggle with that kind of open vulnerability?

Indu: In my opinion, vulnerability is important—it doesn’t make you weak or put you to shame. In fact, it’s okay to wear vulnerability on your sleeve. As long as you have supporting souls who can relate to the problem you’re going through and help you handle it better, you’re good to go. With Project Kintsugi, that’s what we hope to create, helping people bond better. 

10. And lastly, in this society, what is your idea of a collaborative community that has to come together to raise awareness about mental health issues?

Indu: My idea of a collaborative community is the one where people come together to create an impact in someone’s life. They form a ripple effect, spreading positivity around, just as you see in those cute happy-note-passing videos. The running philosophy is just the simple fact that if we do good to someone, that someone will do good to a few more, and those few will pass this good deed on. Together, we can weave miracles! 

We at LonePack, sincerely thank Indu for all the insights she has shared! It was lovely having her talk to us about Project Kintsugi and everything behind it. We definitely feel many around would find your words helpful and supportive.