We loved catching up with Mental health ambassador Roxie Nafousi, international singer and entrepreneur Ananya Birlaand ambassador for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group Cassie Snelgar who hosted a panel discussion at the One Young World Summit. The event united over 1,800 young leaders from all over the world with guests such as Naomi Campbell, Amal Clooney and Akon attending. The ladies hosted a panel discussion around the stigma around metal illness.
Ananya discussed her work with MPower, the charity that she launched with her mother to empower individual suffering with mental health illness by delivering care, treatment, and support to their families. Roxie is an emotional health advisor, and ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation, a British charitable organisation that provides information, carries out research, and campaigns to improve services for people affected by mental health problems. It’s Roxie’s mission to openly discuss mental health and use yoga, meditation and philosophy to help others. Cassie discussed the damaging effects of social media to our mental health and wellbeing, using her own account of over 800k followers, Cassie engages her followers with more responsible and positive messages. This is only one topic Cassie covered as she is also an ambassador for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group , Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group.
Tell us a little more about yourselves?
A: I am a singer-songwriter and mental health campaigner born in India. A few years ago, whilst studying in the UK, I started to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. In spite of being scared to reach out for help initially, I was able to get the support I needed to get healthy. When I returned to India and saw how difficult it was for other people who were suffering, I felt a responsibility to help so I launched Mpower. We campaign to stamp out the stigma around mental illness in India and provide amazing care for people living with mental health issues who have historically been ignored or discriminated against.
R: I am a blogger, yoga teacher, writer and ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation. I live in London and I’m on a mission to make the world a happier place!
C: I am the designer and creative director of sustainable fashion label, CASLAZUR. I am also the Editor of the digital platform THE X CARTEL. With a collective following of over 700K on Instagram, I felt compelled me to educate myself on the potential negative effects of social media on our mental health and raise awareness on how we can use it as a force for good. Earlier this year, I joined SADAG (South Africa Depression and Anxiety Group), the largest mental health support group in Africa, as their official Youth Ambassador.
Please tell us about how you came to be involved in One Young World?
A: Since founding Mpower, I have made it my mission to advocate and discuss mental health at every opportunity! So I saw One Young World as a great opportunity to spread our message of stigma-smashing, and share ideas with others who are fighting the same battle across the globe. Mental health affects people from every country and every social background. It’s something that we share in common across the globe. Some of the problems we have in India are unique (for example there are less than 4000 psychiatrists to treat a nation of 1.3 billion people, even though we’re ranked as the most depressed country in the world) but many of the solutions are universal. I was delighted to be invited to speak at OYW and help everyone work towards progress together.
R: All of us are from very different parts of the world, we wanted to come together to show that the stigma that exists around mental health is a global problem. Even though there are certain challenges around mental health that are particularly prevalent in each of our home-countries, there are so many problems which are the same. We are all really lucky to have a public platform, and it is so important to use that to highlight issues like this.
C: As Youth Ambassador for SADAG I was really excited to get the opportunity to join Roxy and Ananya on the One Young World stage to talk about how we can eradicate the stigma around mental health. It was an amazing chance to share the struggles that compound the issues of mental health in South Africa, as well as the innovative ways in which the SADAG team is dealing with them. Our suicide helpline takes over 600 calls a day from people who are struggling with mental health which shows how incredibly important the work they do there is. And all without any support from the South African government.
Explain the idea behind One Young World?
A: One Young World brings together thousands of young leaders who are working to accelerate lasting, positive change around the world. I think over 190 countries were represented this year. It is such a fun event, and you get to meet incredibly inspiring people to discuss solutions to the biggest problems we face in the world and share ideas about how our generation can make the greatest positive impact on society. I learned so much from the event. It is being held in London next year which is like a second home to me, so I can’t wait to go back!
R: OYW is an amazing annual event which brings together hugely impressive individuals from every sector, including celebrities, politicians and philanthropists. This year they had people like Amber Heard, Akon and Naomi Campbell as well as inspirational young changemakers from all over the world who are talking about the amazing work they are doing to address some of the most pressing issues in their countries.
C: I think that everybody should aim to leave the world a better place than they find it, and One Young World exemplifies that attitude. It is an amazing and unique event which brings together people from every corner of the world to talk about the solutions to the biggest problems facing us today.
The One Young world summit was a huge event, tell us about it?
A: The summit is broken down into various sessions, this year they were: Environment, Health, Education, Human Rights and Poverty Alleviation. We then had representatives from huge companies, charities, universities, as well as celebrities and world leaders come and debate and share solutions on the sessions most relevant to their expertise and experience.
R: It has been going on for a while now and it gets bigger every year. Each day is really different and it’s a combination of networking, going to hear speeches and debates, meeting amazing people. It sounds quite formal but there are loads of fun events which make it such an open and easy place to connect with the other people there, all of whom are super interesting.
C: The One Young World summit is an incredible platform for anyone who is looking to make a positive difference in the world. It’s like a one-stop shop for young people who are taking action on the issues they feel passionately about. Opening up discussions on how to affect change with the people who actually have the power and influence to help make it happen.
The power of the voice and talking about these issues is crucial in tackling the stigma, can you tell us about your personal experiences of any of the more delicate issues?
A: From a young age, people are taught that they should strive for perfection and that failure isn’t really an option. When I struggled with anxiety, I was so nervous that people would undermine my abilities if I spoke about it and label me as someone who ‘can’t cope’. We need to make sure everyone understands that mental illness is not a personal failure and it doesn’t make you a write-off.
I think that the stigma around it is the main cause of people not reaching out for help, so it is amazing to see prominent people in business, politics and music opening up about their battles with mental illness. Musicians like Demi Lovato, Sia, Adele and Selena Gomez have all referenced the difficulties that they have faced, and I think that can be a source of great reassurance to their audiences. It will encourage people everywhere to be more comfortable with having conversations about it.
Being able to talk openly is the first step towards making things better. Every conversation is breaking down the walls of ignorance and stigma in society. I want to help us get to a place where people consider mental illness on a par with physical illness – and be as comfortable seeking support for depression as they would for a broken bone.
R: I started to suffer from depression after I left university and it lasted on/off for around 5 years. It wasn’t something that was discussed then, I knew I felt sad and low a lot of the time but I didn’t know why or what I could do to help. Then I started to open up about it, I wrote an open letter on Marie Claire online and basically told the world how sh*t I really felt behind the smiles on Instagram. From there I realised that I was not alone, there were SO many people going through the same thing. It was actually pretty common! So then I was really able to find help and in turn begin to help others.
C: Growing up in South Africa I had a close friend who suffered from mental illness. Due to the stigma and miseducation around mental illness, he ended up seeking help from a Sangoma (traditional African healer). The result was incredibly damaging and the alternative treatment he received left him with lifelong disabilities. I have always felt that I failed him in his moment of need. Whilst many mental illnesses are not preventable, the stigma which surrounds them is and if he had felt safe enough to talk to me or reach out for help his story could have potentially had a very different and less heartbreaking outcome.
Social media can be a huge influence on our mental health, what are your views on it?
A: Some people use social media to show off their supposedly “perfect lives” and you can’t help but compare yourself with them… You start to strive for this unattainable image of perfection which can be terrible for emotional health. It exacerbates depression, anxiety, eating disorders and issues with body image. However, social media can also be an incredibly powerful force for change. For people with mental health issues especially, there are amazing support communities and influential people talking openly about their issues and making massive progress in getting rid of the stigma that exists around the world.
R: I think social media can be great in many ways – it keeps us connected to friends, it can motivate and inspire us and it is fun to use a lot of the time! But the dark side of it such as cyber bullying and making constant comparisons of our lives to other people’s can be really damaging for our mental health. That’s why I believe it’s really important to be mindful of when we use it, how much we use it and why we are using it!
C: Social media has the power to spread information and content which can either be incredibly helpful or damaging depending on how it is used. The main power it has in terms of mental health is that it can either be responsible for encouraging or eradicating the stigma around mental health.
Stigma leads to prejudice, discrimination, fear, and mistrust, impacting how people with serious mental illness are treated by others, including landlords, employers, members of the criminal justice system and even healthcare providers. Perhaps the most serious consequence of stigma is the barrier it creates for people who are too afraid to seek the care they need. I would like to encourage people with influential platforms to share the message that it is totally ok to not ok. With 1/3 of us experiencing mental health issues in our lifetime it is not an isolating issue but rather an incredibly unifying one. We need to work towards an open social dialogue without the fear of cyberbullying and judgement.
Our audience is a student based audience. What would you say to students struggling in any way with studies, social life, mental health etc? Where do you advise students to go to for help?
A: My own battles with mental health started when I was at university. I know first-hand that it is one of the most difficult periods of life for it to hit you. You’re far away from home for the first time, you don’t know anyone and there’s pressure to achieve academically and socially. Sometimes it feels like society says you should be always happy and functional and coping smoothly, and that showing sadness or stress is a sign of weakness. This is far from true – it’s common and completely human to experience a mental health issue. I recommend that anyone who is struggling should reach out for help, nothing is worse than keeping things bottled up. When I was at university in the UK, there were various helplines and organisations you could reach out to, and your GP will be able to guide you in the right direction. The best thing you can do if you see someone else struggling is to be there for them, just listen and don’t judge. For many people, just being able to speak about what they are going through and feel like they have support is so helpful.
R: Firstly, speak to your friends – I bet so many will be going through the same thing! Then I would speak to someone who is older than you who you feel you can trust to speak openly and safely. Advice is always available from the people close to you! If things do get bad and you feel that symptoms of depression and/or anxiety are not shifting then please do go to your GP. The NHS is amazing and they will definitely be able to help you.
C: The most important thing to do is find someone who you can talk to. Sharing your feelings is an incredibly powerful way to not only help yourself but also open the channels for other people to step forward and share that they too might be struggling with the exact same thing. If you do not feel safe enough to open up in your own community there are some really great online resources. At SADAG we have ‘Facebook Friday’ live chats where you can ask a trained psychologist and psychiatrist any questions you may have. Another great platform is the Headspace website.