Mental Health and… Children’s Workarounds
Yashna Vishwanathan is a therapist with non-profit Ummeed Child Development Center, which works with children with disabilities or at risk of disabilities, and their families. She co-curated a book on the mental health ‘jugaads’ or workarounds that children with disabilities have come up with. (See the end of this piece, for bios of the three co-curators.) Jugaad features children’s gems and tips. Jugaad also has a lovely, lively Instagram page. I spoke with Yashna about creating this book and the ideas that inspired it:
What sort of work do you do with Ummeed and how did that inspire your project?
I work as a full-time therapist with the mental health team at Ummeed. We hold individual and group sessions for children and young people with disabilities, as well as their families. We work with Ummeed’s trans-disciplinary team and use narrative therapy practices to respond to developmental disabilities, anxiety, depression, school-related difficulties, or trauma.
I was part of a one-year youth advocacy project by It’s Ok to Talk, an initiative by Sangath (a mental health non-profit). As part of my training, I had to initiate a youth community project in Mumbai from my learnings. We were toying with different ideas. We wanted to invite young people’s expertise and know-hows on mental health. That’s when Ummeed’s collaboration with Sangath began, with Jugaad.
The idea of creating a book out of it, alongside young people, appealed to us, so along with Raviraj, we invited young authors — young people from ages 14–20 experiencing developmental and psychosocial disabilities — to contribute their know-hows of mental health.
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What were some of the most interesting learnings from this project?
This project has been a very powerful experience for me.
One of the powerful realizations — rather reiterations — was that mental health illnesses are not and were never a part of our bodies, psyches or hearts.
Our mental health experiences are in response to how structures of ableism, neurotypicality, capitalism, patriarchy, caste and class hierarchy, gender binary and heteronormativity make us feel unworthy and undeserving; render us small and invisible. These systems go on to construct every day living that is exclusionary, and can impact one’s mental health and sense of control over their life.
While these systems do shape young people’s lives in a way that’s often not supportive, young and very young people also respond and resist, with hope. They are never passive in the face of adversities.
And they have what Michael White calls ‘insider wisdom’ to navigate through an unjust world.
Jugaad captures that young people have know-hows, ‘jugaads’, do ‘little’-big things to respond to injustices.
What’s some of the work you want to do now, going forward?
It’s been heartwarming to see people responding to Jugaad, and copies reaching so many places across the country and overseas. People who have asked for copies range from other young people with disabilities to mental health professionals who are supported by the Jugaad community in their work with young people, and even just anyone.
People reach out to us and talk about how it’s moved them, how they find themselves in the experiences of the young people and how Jugaad has made it possible for the conversations around mental health accessible in some ways.
People connect to our Instagram page @mentalhealthjugaad to contribute their jugaads to take care of their mental health. We hope to continue to have this space for conversations.
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We have been sharing the Jugaad model at different professional contexts: schools, palliative care centres, service providers in conflict zones.
They have been exploring how to unpack young people’s know-hows about managing difficult experiences. And in this journey, Raviraj and Ananya were able to co-create another ‘Jugaad’ with mothers of children with disabilities of ways in which they take care of themselves.
The young authors of Jugaad have taken the conversation forward in their schools and colleges, hoping to influence a culture of viewing young people as holding expertise in managing their mental health.
We also have been working on Hindi translations of Jugaad. It will be out soon, and we would love to see Jugaad being translated into multiple languages.
Are there any works of art that inspire or resonate with you, as you approach your work?
My work is highly influenced by narrative practices, Indian and South-Asian feminist movement and poetry. Narrative practices, founded by Michael White and David Epston, are rooted in the socio-political realm that influences people’s identities and the stories that are dominantly told about people and communities. My community of narrative practitioners hold the belief that people are not the problem. They work to make alternative identities visible, while challenging unequal structures that render some identities ‘problematic.’
In the past few months, I have been able to explore womxn writers and poets from South Asian contexts who have been largely absent from colonial, mainstream feminist movements.
The understandings and writings of Mia Mingus, Yumi, Vicki Reynolds, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Saima Ammar are learnings I take into my workspace.
They inform my understandings and musings about working with young people with disabilities, especially disabled girls and women.
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Lastly but most importantly, my work with children and young people themselves give me a rich archive of their ‘jugaads’, their understandings of how the world should be, their hopes and values of how they want their lives to be.
Are there any misconceptions or things you wish people knew about young people and mental illness?
One misconception is the idea, the dominant narrative, that young people need to be told what is good for them, especially if they have disabilities.
Ideas that young people with disability “may not be able to make far in a career,” that they need to be made decisions for by others around them, when all along, young people have been navigating through an ableist, medicalized world with their ‘little’-big know-hows that tell us about their hopes of being in this world.
Sanket, one of the Jugaad authors, is a young person with muscular dystrophy and a wheelchair user. He’s spoken about his exclusionary experience in school. His classroom was on the topmost floor and his father would carry him along with his wheelchair and that brought feelings of fear, anger, uncertainty for Sanket and concerns for his father.
He found it difficult to stay back in the class as a 7-year-old during the recreation period and engage himself through the 45 minutes of the period.
Simran expresses in the book that she finds it uncomfortable to hang out with people who hold a different socio-economic status as that of her and sometimes that makes her feel small, invisible.
Darshana prefers being asked, or to make decisions for her own self rather than others taking over her decisions because of her disability.
These exclusionary practices exist in different forms and cause young people mental health distress and difficulties, much different from dominant understandings of how mental health issues occur inside a person’s body and mind.
Bios of the co-curators of Jugaad:
Yashna is a mental health worker who works with children, young people with disabilities and their families. Her work with people is influenced by intersectional feminism, marxist theories and disability justice movements. In her work with people and communities that are socially, culturally, politically marginalized, she hopes to rescue their resistances, hopes and values in the face of adversities. She’s a mother to two cats and a few plants. She’s often found reading poems or books to them or singing to them. You can find her on Instagram @yashna.vish or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ananya is a visual storyteller and illustrator with a big appetite for books snacks. She is always exploring newer ways to tell a story, and newer ways to hide from the camera. With every project she takes on, she gets herself a picture book to add to her growing collection. You can find more of her work on Instagram @ananyabrokerparekh or contact her at email@example.com.
Raviraj Shetty, a unicorn believer, a picture book hoarder, a time traveller, loves Mary Oliver and happens to be an occupational therapist who uses narrative practices in his engagement with communities, chosen families, families, children and individuals. He also teaches and supervises community health workers, professionals and students of Narrative Practices. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or his Insta handle @rantingchaos.