Mann Mela, a digital and travelling mental health museum shares first-person stories of trauma, self-acceptance, recovery and growth
It is Persepolis in colour and set in India — Imphal to Mumbai. Sadam Hanjabam has made a quasi-graphic novel of his journey in self-acceptance, from rising out of a mental health crisis to establishing Ya_All , a youth and queer-led and -focussed organisation in the North-eastern region of India.
The illustrations are part of Mann Mela, one of India’s first digital museums dedicated to sharing personal, autobiographical stories of mental health, from youth across India, in the age group of 18 to 35. “Overcoming my trauma and sharing my experiences on mental health and inclusion have been very overwhelming,” reveals Sadam. Started by Sangath, Mann Mela is a step forward from its initiative, It’s Ok To Talk, the latter being a blog of mental health diaries.
Through sharing people’s experiences, Mann Mela hopes to tackle common misconceptions around mental conditions, break stigma associated and encourage seeking help.
“We wanted to capture first-person narratives but by utilising new media formats to talk about it in a much more nuanced way. That means using illustrations, film, interactive videos, VR and so on,” says Pattie Gonsalves, project head at It’s Ok To Talk and founder of Mann Mela.
If Sadam’s story is in an illustrated form, Chandigarh-based Tarini Chawla’s story of being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, is in lightly animated chapters, voiced by her. Eight others are to join Sadam and Tarini’s, and released monthly on the Mann Mela website.
Since April, Pattie and her team travelled to five places: New Delhi, Goa, Bhopal, Ahmedabad and Imphal, and held group discussions of 72 people with lived experiences of mental health needs. A team of seven young mental health advocates and four mental health professionals, consulted with 38 participants from 10 cities that included technologists, artists, mental health experts, and researchers. “We also held a national mental health artist-in-residence programme with 10 young artists selected through a national application,” adds Pattie.
Each story takes three to four months to create; the interviews are transcribed, scripts are written, and the video or artwork is created. “The person whose story it is, participates as much as possible, whether it is by lending audio or by reviewing and writing parts of the script,” she says.
Well before the launch of this digital museum — before the pandemic struck — Mann Mela was envisioned as a travelling museum that would take the conversation of mental health from city to city. “The online museum was supposed to be more for archiving the artefacts we displayed in the physical spaces, but as things stand right now, we are going digital-first,” says Pattie.
A prototype of the museum, hosted in Goa in February, is a precursor to what the travelling museum will eventually entail. “We wanted it to be an immersive space, where people can interact with other people’s journeys and feel like they are getting to know the other person better.”
A human library of sorts: corporeal. “For example in the (One Day in the Life Of…) stations, we recreated a section of this person’s bedroom with different objects, and headphones were provided to listen to audio cues, of that individual telling you their story. So it feels like you are with them.”
However, now, when the museum travels again, things would have to be changed. Six people in a booth, sharing headphones, touching a screen, will be out of the question. “Like museums all over, we will have to innovate,” says Pattie.
Underlining the necessity of relaying personal stories of mental health, she says, “People understand those much better than an intellectual sounding PSA [public service announcement]”. Moreover, she adds, that it helps take into account the varying socio-political realities in the country. Growing up in a conflict-embattled area, or being of a certain sexual orientation influences mental health in separate ways.
Alongside the stories, they also have learning resources, similarly illustrated in an easy-to-understand-and-share manner in both English and Hindi. “It tells you that if they have recovered, you can too. That kind of solidarity encourages people to seek help,” she says.
But even when you do want to seek help, is help readily available in India — a country that has far less clinical psychologists than it has psychiatrists? Perhaps not, “which is why,” says Pattie, “we want to train non-specialists to be able to provide first aid. We want to equip young people with life skills that allow them to help themselves and people around them before they need to leverage external support.”