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Walking towards hope

R Sriram Srinivas, who has multiple disabilities—mental retardation and spastic diplegia—takes a breather during his yoga session at home. P Settu, his yoga therapist, who has been teaching Sriram two years now, says that Sriram used to be inattentive and restless, but now follows instructions well and has mellowed down significantly.  



Images and text by Naveen P M

Walking towards hope (2/9)

M Vanitha, Sriram's teacher, helps Sriram wear his dance apparel before the start of the 'World Differently Abled Day Cultural Programme' at Don Guanella Special School in Chennai. Due to Sriram's condition, simple tasks such as putting on clothes can become a chore and he often ends up needing some assistance. 


Walking towards hope (3/9)

Sriram rides his bicycle—fitted with a custom-made backrest—flanked by special education teacher, G V Arumugam. Arumugam has known Sriram for 15 years and was initially hired to teach him basic reading and writing skills. On Sriram's parents' request, he started to assist Sriram in walking and then taught him how to ride a bicycle so he could improve his muscle tone. 

Read Sriram's story here


Walking towards hope (4/9)

R Devi helps Sriram read a clock at Sai Sri Ram Training Centre. Sriram has difficulty reading and writing even basic words, and has a hard time grasping universal concepts such as time, date, and money. Devi is Sriram's favorite teacher. Sai Sri Ram Training Centre has eight students with special needs, two teachers, and a domestic help. The school functions from 10 am to 3 pm and keeps the students busy with a plethora of activities such as coloring, computer games, and yoga.


Walking towards hope (5/9)

M R Karthik, physical trainer, subjects Sriram to one of the many "balancing exercises" to improve his balance and correct his "scissor gait". Karthik has been training Sriram for the last two years. "In the beginning, Sriram could hardly stand for a minute on his own and displayed a lot of traits commonly seen in persons with Intellectual Disability (ID), such as lack of eye contact, droning, drooling...," says Karthik.

Read Sriram's story here


Walking towards hope (6/9)

Sriram and his classmates from Sai Sri Ram Training Centre perform to a medley of Bollywood songs at the 'World Differently Abled Day Cultural Programme' held in Don Guanella Special School, Chennai. P Dharani Kumar, a professional choreographer, composed the dance moves for this performance. He visits the school every weekend to teach dance to these students. "Sriram usually has trouble recollecting and executing my dance moves but he stepped his game up through some spontaneous moves," he said. 

Read Sriram's story here

Walking towards hope (7/9)

Sriram is ecstatic after receiving a silver medal for the Standing Long Jump event. His driver, D Alvin (right), and Sriram's mother, R Vanitha, gather around to congratulate him, at the Special Olympics Sports Meet held on YMCA Grounds, Chennai. Sriram shares a special bond with Alvin and the two can often be seen engaging in healthy banter. 


Walking towards hope (8/9)

Sriram does a lap of backstroke at The League Club, Chennai. His parents introduced him to swimming at the age of seven after a doctor suggested hydropathy as treatment. Sriram has been training under U Sathish Kumar, swim coach for children with special needs, for one year now. Sriram won four gold medals in as many events at two swim meets for para-athletes held last year in Tamil Nadu.


Walking towards hope (9/9)

Dr J Paul Devasagayam, Area Director, Special Olympics Bharat, Tamil Nadu, reviews Sriram Srinivas's progress with his mother, R Vanitha, during one of their monthly meetings at his 100-square-foot office in Purasawalkam, Chennai.


Asking for help is not a sign of weakness

Youth can empower themselves with knowledge and skills that can help prevent or detect mental health
Dr Seema Mehrotra

'Feeling happy and stress-free', 'managing emotions' and 'feeling a sense of mastery over life's challenges'. These were some of the responses we got from a large-scale survey we conducted among college-going youth in which we asked them to come up with personal meanings of being mentally healthy. These perspectives of the youth we interviewed are somewhat similar to the scientific conceptualization of mental health.

Youth form a very significant proportion of the Indian population. Mental health concerns of the youth deserve special attention for several reasons. They are in a phase of life that is rich with potential, and that is marked by vulnerabilities. The onset of a large proportion of mental health problems is before 24 years of age. But it is a sad observation that only a small proportion of individuals who need professional help actually seek or receive it. This gap is due to many factors such as lack of awareness, ambivalence, stigma and the lack of easy access to professional services.

We also conducted a series of focus group discussions with youth pursuing graduation. These discussions elicited multiple causes of stress such as a significant sense of pressure and competition in academics, career as well as social spheres.

A high expectation of 'being stress-free all the time' can be a source of stress in itself, as it does not match the realities of the inevitable frustrations in daily life. Several youth voiced difficulties in 'emotionally connecting' with their parents and teachers about the challenges that their social world poses. The frustration of 'not being understood' was a recurrent theme that emerged in youth discussions on mental health. The other issues that affect a sizeable number of urban youth in colleges are to do with migration from smaller towns to the culture of a metropolitan city and the experience of alienation, especially in the initial phase of adaptation. Despite all this, youth discussions were characterized by enthusiasm and optimism about their collective capacity to adapt and to change.

Youth are increasingly recognizing that talking about their mental health issues does not necessarily mean that one is weak or that one has a severe mental health condition. In our observations, some of the common concerns for which urban youth seek professional help are 'grappling with depression and turmoil in the context of close relationships', 'confusion about career goals' and 'anxiety in social situations'.

When youth reach out to seek support, friends often become one of the first lines of support. This has multiple implications. Firstly, youth can be helped to hone their skills in providing support to peers who may be psychologically distressed. Secondly, youth can be helped to view support from friends as well as support from a professional as complementing each other rather than as substitutes of the other. Lastly, youth can play a very powerful role in fighting stigma that surrounds mental health issues in our society. We end up dampening the energy, initiatives and engagement of youth with mental health issues when we treat them as passive recipients of information or instruction, rather than as active collaborators in bringing about positive social changes.

Youth have tremendous potential to empower themselves and their peers with knowledge and skills that can help in prevention or early detection of mental health problems as well as promotion of mental health. Youth Pro, an initiative of the department of clinical psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, is a testimony to the powerful role that youth can play in mental health promotion.

Dr Seema Mehrotra is additional professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS. She coordinates activities of the positive psychology unit in her department, which revolve around mental health promotion research, service and training, with a special focus on youth.

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