It was a scene in the Bollywood film 3 Idiots that drew Angel D’Souza to the subject of mental health. In the 2009 film, an engineering student dies by suicide after his professor fails him. In the moments leading up to his death, the student is seen in distress despite the best efforts of his friends to make him smile or forget about his score.
D’Souza was barely 8 or 9 back then. “As a child, I didn’t understand the concept of death,” the 20-year-old from the northern Indian city of Mohali told VICE. “All I knew was that if I had been there, I’d have talked to him. I’d have helped him out.”
On November 23, as D’Souza launched a cafe dedicated to mental health, she felt like her life had come full circle. “I always knew I wanted to start some kind of helpline for people who are lonely, sad, or have nobody to talk to,” she said. “I want to normalise talking about mental health. There’s still so much stigma around it.”
The latest National Crime Records Bureau report documented an increase in suicides in India between 2019 and 2020. The data also showed that on an average, 31 children (aged 18 years and below) died by suicide everyday in India in 2020 – an 18 percent increase from 2019. Recent studies have put India among top countries with the highest cases of depression too.
Cheekily called Your Sugar Daddy, the cafe serves food of all kinds, from American diner-style offerings to Korean and Indian dishes. The name came from her own love for baking, but with a purposefully cheeky edge to it. “Most of the names of cafes are so normal, so cliché. I wanted something unique, even if it’s a bit edgy. It catches people’s attention,” she said.
The name even got her blocked on Instagram barely two weeks since she opened her account, but she got it back once her website went live. “There were also some moments when some middle-aged uncles asked me why I’ve named my cafe so,” she laughed.
For the majority of Indians, mental healthcare is a luxury, made more so by increasing social and gender inequities. The National Mental Health Survey 2016 found that over 10 percent of Indian adults – around 150 million people – were living with a mental health disorder. The survey also estimated that between 70 and 92 percent of people in need of mental healthcare didn’t have access to quality services. The pandemic, which hit India starting March 2020, is exacerbating the crisis.
All this while India is estimated to have only 9,000 psychiatrists – or one doctor for every 100,000 people. On top of that, the Indian government is estimated to have a mental health budget that allows less than a cent per mental health patient.
D’Souza’s initiative might just be a drop in this dark, murky ocean. “But it’s a start,” she said.
D’Souza is currently a third-year Psychology student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and is completing her degree online as she straddles her academic life and managing the cafe. Her project, in fact, was spurred in part by the pandemic last year, during which she faced mental health issues herself, but found healing in cooking and serving people during multiple lockdowns.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to listen to people’s problems,” she said. She ran a delivery kitchen for a year and a half before opening the cafe.
“So in the cafe, I’ve introduced small mental health concepts, like I play a game with my customers where they look at cards printed with optical illusions. I then help them interpret what they saw, and why they saw it.”
There are also puppies in the cafe, she said, because puppies are therapeutic, of course. She also organises motivational talks and art therapy sessions.
“Many people assume that when we say mental health, it means ‘crazy,’” she said. “While my parents are very supportive, some family friends said they wouldn’t come to a place like this, and that mental health is too heavy a word, or will be perceived with stigma.”
But a lot of young folks like her have been very supportive, she says. They send her messages on Instagram about having played her games and tried her food. “I just want to destroy taboos around mental health, you know. It’s as simple as that.”
There are similar initiatives around the world too. For instance, the Steam House Cafe in the U.K. converted itself into a crisis point for those with mental health issues, and allows meet-ups, socialising events and other kinds of support with the help of a team of six professionals and some volunteers. Another one, called Frazzled Cafe, also in the U.K., gives space to anyone who is, well, frazzled.
The cafe is steadily gaining a following. “I’d say that this place is an experiment,” said D’Souza. “I think it’s going to work out.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
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