A Force to Reckon
Much of what we were taught about health growing up was restricted to the physical and tangible aspects of our bodies. But with time, we have learned that optimal health cannot be achieved without taking into account our mental health. The theme of mental health has been especially close to Amrutam given how we have always aimed at igniting dialogue about things that matter deeper than and beyond the surface. Only recently did Amrutam organize a 21 Day Art Therapy Challenge to spark conversations around mental health and help people become more self-aware and celebrate different forms of expression!
Our today’s #AmrutamNari, Aafreen Ansari has contributed immensely to the awareness regarding mental health in India!
She’s the co-founder of the My Child App and We, Included – organizations that help people start conversations around mental health and developmental disorders. She continues to shape the narrative of how mental health is being spoken about in the country along with spreading the much-needed awareness and debunking the myths. From convincing her parents about letting her pursue an unconventional career path to being featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list, her journey has been nothing short of inspiring!
Igniting A Dialogue
“It all began when I met my co-founder and best friend Harsh Songra when I was 16,” begins Aafreen reminiscing the good old days. Harsh was braving a developmental disorder and was working in the line of creating an application for parents to understand if their child was dealing with any learning disorders. The idea instantly appealed to her and that’s when she learned the importance of parents knowing about how their children were growing and learning.
“Earlier we were only dealing with developmental disorders – something that was apparent and noticeable. But what about the disorders that people couldn’t see? That’s when it struck me! There was so much stigma about mental health and illnesses. We needed to do something about it. The knowledge of it allowed us to broaden our horizons which also helped me develop an understanding of what I was going through. Later, I was diagnosed with chronic depression and high functioning anxiety.”
Taking tough Decisions
But the next question arose: how do you tell an 18-year-old that they have depression? Growing up, the conversation around mental health was extremely limited around Aafreen. Even talking about depression would attract negative comments. But eventually, she was able to speak to her parents and peers about it and how much it mattered to her. She goes on, “It took a lot of “unlearning” and clearing of misunderstandings on my part to expand the conversation and accommodate more people.”
“When I was presented with the offer to start a company from scratch, I had two options in front of me: either continue to go to a college where I was bullied every day or do something I had never done before but sounded equally thrilling. The choice was a no-brainer for me and I decided to drop out of college and move to Bangalore to start the company!”
When she began researching the state of mental health in India, she came across figures that were absolutely baffling. She instantly thought – “If so many people go through it, then why is nobody talking about it?” This realization of hers was followed by a promise she made to herself which was to talk to and engage with people around her about why mental health mattered.
“If I can’t talk to people around me then with what authority can I challenge someone else’s perception?” she thought to herself.
Slowly and gradually, she began opening up the conversation that would earlier happen in closed circles. This not only filled people with feelings of solidarity but also provided the window to clear misconceptions and be more inclusive. Clearly, getting people to talk about mental health has been a milestone for her!
“It is important to choose your battles wisely. If you are going to start an argument with everyone in your life then it’s going to get very overwhelming for you. For opening up to someone, I recommend start with people who may be misinformed but not entirely closed minded. I think it is okay to steer clear of those who may be unwilling to listen to you!”
Radiating Endurance & Simplicity
By this moment, all that I can think of is the experience and endurance that radiates from Aafreen. She sounds careful about the words she uses and rightfully, so. Her image has changed over the years. As a child, she was taken to be extremely impulsive and explosive, in contrast to her brother who has always been grounded and composed.
With her friends, she’s either always talking about mental health or sharing things about her life. Aafreen has a really small circle of friends who she holds closest to her heart. “These are people I rely on and can get very vulnerable with,” she adds. This is to say that mental health is indisputably an integral part of who is she.
“One of the movies I truly love is Dear Zindagi! The way it tackles mental health is simply brilliant and has a major impact on the way we view people and emotions. A book that I have currently picked up is “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Renny Eddo-Lodge which deals with racism and the everyday lives of people of color in the States.”
For most of her life, Aafreen has been a night owl. But as she’s growing up, she is learning the importance of taking care of her body. She is trying to transition into an early bird and waking up early has clearly done wonders to her! The time in the morning allows her to refuel before the day begins.
Aafreen strongly feels that it is important to understand someone else’s perspective of life, otherwise, you are just living in your own bubble. If you consume media or art that reflect only your opinion then it is just creating a wider echo chamber for yourself! Conversations around black lives, dalit lives, and trans lives need to expand to not only ensure inclusivity but also ignite a feeling of solidarity among the global community.
On Featuring in Forbes
From the way she speaks about equality and rights, it won’t be surprising to learn that Aafreen is someone who cares about everything far too deeply. She talks about the need to question our conditioning to make sure we are always doing the right thing, no matter how difficult it may seem. Her art and poetry are a reflection of everything she deeply resonates with. She is not only invested in her work but also in the impact it leaves. “I have never felt any sort of performance pressure. Being in a magazine or publication, no matter how reputed, has never been my goal. My only goal in life has been to successfully convince people about the fact that mental health is important,” she says.
For Aafreen, being featured in Forbes came as a surprise – it wasn’t something she was actively looking forward to! It just happened to be a by-product of her efforts. She is always looking to amplify the efforts she’s always been making. Her goal and journey have remained the same throughout. “When people look at me, I don’t want them to see someone featured in Forbes. I want them to see someone who is inclusive and welcoming, someone they can trust and rely on,” she explains.
“My brother and boyfriend have had the biggest influence on me. Growing up, I saw my brother hold his ground and be extremely focused on things he wanted to achieve in life. From him I learned about the need to differentiate between what deserved my attention and what didn’t. The way he formed his opinions and manoeuvred his way through life has been really grounding. My boyfriend Rohan, really puts himself out there and engages with people and expresses himself unabashedly. This has allowed me to learn that it is okay to take up space and be vulnerable. With him I can talk about everything that matters to me! Both these people have been monumental in shaping my worldview!”
In 2020, Aafreen is looking forward to people’s perspective changing. The lockdown has brought many issues to the forefront, people are learning what it is like to be isolated. She is definitely expected people to develop more empathy and kindness.
Superpower as a Woman
Aafreen’s superpower lies in practicing empathy in both her personal as well as professional spheres of life. “If you are only focused on what helps you get your work done, then you don’t become the person people might want to come to for things other than work. Because you are only doing things that benefit you,” she prompts. But when you work as a team and be empathetic towards other people, you understand the fact that everyone is just trying to get their work done. She goes on, “It is easy to get angry at someone who is calling you for an urgent task, but understanding that it also happens to be their responsibility, helps us deal with the problem better. Your approach and attitude change towards dealing with the task and also the person.”
In her concluding remarks, she gives a message to the readers:
“Don’t hesitate from having uncomfortable conversations. Of course, it is important to choose your battles and not engage with people that cause an imbalance in your stability. But it is important to question your conditioning, because you never know whose life you can end up changing. Like Dumbledore says, “Words are an inexhaustible source of magic.” So, your words can end up having a long-lasting impact. Don’t be afraid to question something – when you are trying to learn something, no question is a stupid question! Choose your words carefully and make sure you are engaging with the people around you. You owe it to yourself and the people around to learn: about yourself, the world and the history that has led us to this position.”
Aafreen’s passion to bring a change has moved her! Her relentless will to keep learning and growing is truly inspiring and we take the utmost pride in having her as part of #AmrutamFamily!
More on #AmrutamNari:
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