‘Orange Room’ Destigmatizes Mental Health Issues
Orange Room has evolved into a conversative community space with a promising project to mainstream and destigmatize mental health issues
In the famous Iranian short story, ‘To whom shall I say hello’ by Simin Daneshvar, the lonely protagonist Kowkab Soltan is advised by her doctor to scream out loud at trees and go for walks to relieve herself of anxiety and depression. Well, it was in the 1900s and chances are the advice came from the author herself and no doctor.
A century later, the listening trees that Daneshvar wished for have probably come true, albeit in the form of a cozy little room with its bright orange walls. A keen ‘listener’ here will let you sprawl on lazy cushions and sip a cup of coffee while letting you pick up the pieces of your life.
Sherin Noordheen opened this place in July 2019 in Thiruvananthapuram and as she puts it ‘slowly but steadily’ it has evolved into a conversative community space with a promising project to mainstream and destigmatize mental health issues. “Orange Room is a tiny comfy space where people can come, sip coffee and talk. This is an experimental project by Let’s Live, an NGO. The main focus is suicide prevention and creation of mental health awareness,” Sherin says.
“We kicked off in July and we work through unhurried, relaxed conversations stretching over hours, with my part being the listener. Having a listener, I know, could have saved many unfortunate choices made by those battling mental health issues. While I survived my depression through support and self help through yoga, mindfulness and even hectic workouts, I know not many of us get such opportunities. So I thought my experience may come in handy for many others.”
After quitting her technology career Sherin took up a leadership programme at Kanthari International Institute for Social Change. The core idea behind Orange Room was mooted there. She launched ‘Monsoon Cafe’ on the campus as her first experiment in taking the gastronomical route to create awareness on mental health issues. “The menu featured drinks and snacks mapped on to the mental health prism. So when we get a chance to explain why something is called a Bipolar Shake, our mission takes form,” she says.
The evening cafe was envisaged as the antithesis to the medical facility where the patients go clandestinely. Here, over food, both those with mental distress and those without come together on the same platform. “When we talk unassumingly over food in an open space, our minds open up; the teller becomes less inhibited and the listener becomes more receptive,” Sherin says.
“Whether with Monsoon Cafe or Orange Room, one of the major outcomes is this inclusive community we build. One where the mentally distressed don’t feel alienated or left out and the rest of us are ready to address the care needs empathetically,” she adds.
For Sherin, Orange Room is a miniature version of her ultimate target – HalfWay Cafe. “My focus is on young adults aged below 29. That’s the window when informed decisions can make a great difference. HalfWay Cafe, which we will see happening in a span of around two-three years from now, will be a space where youngsters can come, hang out and discuss troubling mental health issues without the fear of being judged,” she says.
It will be a space where conversations will destigmatize mental health and active listening and positive psychology will be forged. “This is the first phase of Orange Room and we will wind up activities for a while to take stock of how good we have been so far. Our future projects need investments and we will have our prototype readied based-on this six-month experiment. It could evolve and we may launch back with a chapter in Kochi with a bigger, better or an entirely different model after the evaluation. With time I hope my positivity champions, Aish and Arjun, here will be able to take over and thereafter I want to shift my focus to advocacy, policy-level interactions and awareness,” Sherin adds.
Working with people, she says, helped her identify specific areas to focus on like awareness on ‘reasonable accommodation’ to let people cope with their illness while keeping their careers safe, and transparent counselling rooms for children to protect them from abuse.
Speaking about how she sees the mental health support system in the present day, Sherin observes that auxiliary support to help one come out of difficult times is imperative, noting that requirement for people to overcome difficulties are subjective. “For some it could be personal attention like what we offer, some are comfortable with telephonic counselling, online counselling and even chatbots. I would say, the more the options, the better,” she says.
Orange Room organises public sessions on mental illnesses and addictions on weekends. “Sometimes people come here just to identify if they are normal or if they should get help. Ultimately, the individual and the community need to work together. We help such people forge communication among them and they evolve their own support groups that extend beyond Orange Room,” Sherin says.
Sherin also notes that even a caregiver can come under undue stress dealing with mental illness. “That’s where awareness on one’s issues comes in handy for disturbed people. Just as care is necessary those who are being cared for should ensure that their caregivers are not drained out. This is also a positive outcome of awareness,” she signs off. A startling new study released in October said that half of millennials (ages 23 to 38) and a whopping 75 per cent of post millennials (ages 18 to 22) have quit their jobs due to depression, anxiety and similar mental health issues. The study was though, not without a silver lining. It said the affected population was also more open to seeking help and the employers were increasingly sympathetic to them and accommodative of the condition.