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Hugging away mental health stigma

Some 150 million Indians live with some manner of mental health issue. Despite this significant burden, stigma against mental illness not only exists: it is common. One group plans on changing this attitude, one hug at a time.


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Depression is becoming an ever more common illness in India, one that goes largely unresolved

Launched in Mumbai in October 2017, the Hugging Club of India (HCI) provides sessions which offer an open environment for individuals to open up about their mental health situation without fear of discrimination. The name ‘Hugging Club’ originates from the founder of the group: Mumbai-based advertising professional, Umang Sheth. “I love to hug people; it is therapeutic,” he said.

While the act may seem insignificant, the mental health benefits of such a small gesture are backed by scientific research. Studies have found that a hug can reduce the levels of cortisol — a hormone linked closely to stress levels — within the body. There is also evidence that the perceived social support network is a benefit when dealing with issues such as loneliness and depression.

Sheth decided to establish the group following the suicide of one of his friends from Hyderabad. “He was forty and couldn’t open up about his depression and loneliness,” he recalled. Sheth himself has had experience of mental health issues in the past. “My mother is a schizophrenic and father has bipolar disorder; I grew up feeling very ashamed and embarrassed about my parents. There are many people like me, who are struggling and do not know how to handle it.”

The Hugging club has expanded to have twice-monthly meetings in Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai. One session focuses on a more personal approach, with attendees discussing their issues among groups of their peers. The second monthly session attempts to connect individuals to psychiatrists and counsellors.

For many individuals, the prospect of receiving mental healthcare is all but impossible. Mental health care is received only by one in ten individuals that need it. This dismal figure entails that millions are left to fend for themselves, often poorly understanding their condition.

Making the situation worse still is the fact that slurs such as “insane, mad, or mental” are commonly used by many Indians to refer to those with mental health conditions. Stigma forces many individuals to hide their issues for fear of discrimination by employers and their community. Often abuse will be received from within their own family. For these reasons many who could potentially receive treatment and therapy opt not to, for fear of revealing their condition to their family.

An environment in which people can express themselves free of persecution is a considerable benefit to those who live with mental health issues. The Hugging Club of India is therefore a vital lifeline to many with mental health problems who live in fear of exposing their condition to others.


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