“We all need to learn how to use the instrument that is our mind,” Minal Mahtani shares the importance of opening a dialogue on mental health to support one another and how small shifts in wording can make an impactful difference.
So you ran multiple health tests and came back positive for an anxiety disorder or depression. You’re desperate to lift the heaviness off your chest but the expense and the scarcity of counselling puts you off. Fear not, Minal Mahtani, founder and CEO of OCD and Anxiety Support Hong Kong (OCDAHK) has been a pillar of strength to many facing mental health adversities.
What is OCDAHK?
OCD & Anxiety Support HK is a registered charity in Hong Kong dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with mental health problems. By providing free support groups and affordable counselling, OCDAHK builds a sense of community where OCD and AD sufferers have a voice to express how they feel and reduce the stigma associated with such disorders in Asia. They also provide mental health education to schools, health clinics, workspaces, and disadvantaged communities to raise community awareness.
Knowing how rare it can be to find free support groups conducted in English in Hong Kong, this NGO has an outsize impact.
Sit down, take a deep breath, and tune in to our chat with Minal Mahtani
What inspired you to pursue psychology and launch OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong?
I was always interested in the human mind and learning more about what makes people tick. Why do people think and behave the way they do? I pursued psychology to be able to connect with others on a more personal level. In fact, my degree helped me pinpoint what I was feeling when struggling with anxiety – it was like a case study on myself.
I started OCD and Anxiety Support Hong Kong in 2014 and offered support group meetings to sufferers of mental health disorders, specifically OCD and anxiety. I launched this NGO after battling an anxiety disorder myself in my late 20s – it was extremely challenging, I never thought I’d get through it. Simple, everyday activities were so tough to do.
I wanted to seek treatment here in Hong Kong but there’s a shortage of English-speaking counsellors and psychologists, and if you do go to one, it costs anything from $1,500-$3000 per consultation. And you need a number of sessions to actually feel better.
At least 12 months to get a consultation, where’s the sense of emergency here?
The public healthcare hospitals in Hong Kong do so much for us but it can take 12-18 months to get an appointment. And if someone’s really struggling with depression, they would be on the verge of breakdown or worse, suicide, before even going for their appointment.
I eventually went to the United States for treatment and slowly after recovery, I transformed into a more courageous person. I then trained to become a counsellor to help others get through mental health adversities. But I wanted to do more to change the narrative around mental health in Hong Kong and that’s when I formally set up OCD and Anxiety Support Hong Kong.
It started from monthly support groups to building a community together where we took care of each other. We became a registered charity in 2018 and began our community outreach programs.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in launching your charity?
Back when I started, people in Hong Kong didn’t know what World Mental Health Day was. When people heard the words “mental”, they associated it with being crazy, violent, and out-of-control behaviour. And people had all sorts of misconceptions, i.e. mental health disorders were contagious!
So the real challenge was the lack of knowledge on mental health and societal stigma. People who hadn’t gone through mental health disorders would straight up ask, “Does that mean you’re normal? Is there something wrong with you?”
Also, when running an NGO, there is no job that’s too big or too small as an executive. You do everything from running errands to deal-breaking decisions for the company and sometimes that was a personal challenge for me when I started off.
I first came across your organisation on MeetUp. How have you approached raising awareness and building community around mental health issues in Hong Kong?
I was exploring different platforms to get the word out there – whether it was Facebook groups, my database, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We also put posters up on Wellcome and ParkNShop, but MeetUp did really well, which we didn’t quite expect! Ultimately, I think word-of-mouth helped the most in getting us recognised.
It’s definitely different when you attend support groups as compared to going for one-on-one therapy sessions; you feel like you’re not alone and that there are people who can help you. A support system is what you need to overcome your hurdles, and I’m so thankful to have the community we have built today.
How has the pandemic affected the way you host your support groups?
COVID-19 has just turned everyone’s life upside down. There has been a rapid increase in the number of people facing anxiety and depression. There have been pros and cons with support groups. When we held them in-person, it allowed more interaction amongst the members and friendships were formed; I held informal social gatherings at the last 20 minutes of the session.
All of that’s harder on Zoom. Sometimes we’ve had people come in crying and they really wanted someone to hold on to physically. None of this can happen via Zoom. If someone is rocking or fidgeting, you can’t see that for online sessions, it’s just harder to pick up on behaviours when it’s online.
On the other hand, the plus side of online sessions is that we can reach people across the globe. Zoom also allows people to not expose their identity if that’s their preference due to social anxiety.
There is often a reticence to talking about mental health in Hong Kong and Asian communities in general. Parents do not understand the pressure their children can face in today’s competitive world. We rarely address the issue of suicide amongst students. How can we encourage parents and educators to address this issue in Hong Kong?
I lost a cousin of mine when I was 8 years old and I was taken to the scene, and was and still am traumatised by what I saw. We all wished we had seen the signs earlier. But when you’re expressing how you feel internally, you’re often perceived as weak, and that’s one of the first things we need to change.
The moment a child is born, parents set their eyes for top schools and universities and prepare their child for an entrance exam to get into kindergarten. This pushes children into a pressure to always want to prove themselves, but they’re kids, they need to play and interact with others. With all the academic pressure, children feel scared to be themselves; they’re worried about judgement.
A lot needs to be done in schools to prevent rather than react. I would get invited to schols to give a talk after a student has commited suicide, but I think mental health needs to be part of the curriculum in schools. We need to teach children about the body and the mind, relaxation techniques, the importance of exercise, dealing with conflicts and negative thoughts, and so much more.
We need to talk to children about how they’re actually doing…
An open dialogue needs to be created to speak about emotions, and that starts with parents. Parents can share the pressure and hardships they faced at work on a particular day and in return ask their child, “How did your day go today?” and create a safe and trusted environment where kids don’t feel pressure to be perfect.
Also, it’s never too personal to ask someone if they’ve ever had the thought of ending their life. By doing that, you are not putting such thoughts on their head, instead they will know someone is concerned about them, which can ultimately save a life.
Sometimes people can tell there’s something off about their mental health but they’re reluctant to seek help. The reasons being how expensive it is in Hong Kong to go to a counsellor and that they see seeking help as a sign of weakness. How has OCDAHK helped change such perceptions in people who have attended your counselling sessions?
I think it’s important to congratulate the person when they first walk through that door, by saying thank you for wanting us to help you. Going through counselling and learning relaxation techniques can help increase your levels of serotonin. For those who come in completely shattered, I turn things around and say, “How amazing are you, for wanting a better you. And for realising that this isn’t something you know how to do. And how would you know if you were never taught it?”
Some of our support group members who healed mentally after our sessions would come back to act as a mentor for newcomers and those still struggling to get on their feet. It’s a selfless act.
There’s often a miscommunication and misconception about mental illness disorders. Many people aren’t able to differentiate between them and many undermine the toll it can take on a person’s life. With social media being one of the largest platforms for communication right now, how can we utilise it to spread awareness about mental health disorders?
It can be so insensitive when people simply say “Get over it and pull yourself together.” It’s important to keep an open mind when you want to help those struggling with mental health disorders. Listen, and I mean actively listen; listen to what they’re saying and notice their body language and habits.
Refrain from saying, “Is something wrong with you? The “you” can make people defensive and freeze up. Instead ask “Is everything alright?”
As for social media, to anyone who has wide knowledge of mental health disorders or has experienced them, sharing your words can be so impactful for other people. You don’t have to be a counsellor to share what you know, you can share your personal story, or share the signs and symptoms of anxiety, to help others understand what they’re experiencing. Sometimes people take the blame for what they’re facing or what their loved ones are facing, and here’s where education can make a big difference.
How can we get involved? What are some upcoming campaigns running this October?
Normally for our Green Ribbon Campaign, we would be out at Central handing out green ribbons to show solidarity to those battling mental health disorders. But due to the pandemic, we will be sticking to retailers in Hong Kong where people can contribute donations and pick a ribbon.
I’ll also be running mental health awareness weeks at different schools and delivering mental health education at workplaces. We also have the Unwind Your Mind Campaign, where we urge the public to think about what they do to relax and calm their mind. They will take a picture of their activity or write it down on post-it and tag us on social media and we’ll share it. By doing this, we’re hoping the community at large in Hong Kong will know there are different strategies out there to give yourself a mental health day.
We’re also hosting a range of wellness events throughout October, from yoga classes, guided meditation, art therapy, talks on nutrition and lifestyle, and more.
Find the full list of events here.
What future milestones do you hope to achieve in OCDAHK?
Rainbow of Hope is a new initiative that we’re hoping to launch by the end of this year. It’s set up in the memory of my late mother, who was my rainbow through stormy periods of my life. It will be for those who really cannot afford to seek mental help elsewhere. Each session will cost about $150-$200 and the certified psychologists are really acting from their heart and to spend their time to help.
In the long-term, I want us to have a residential treatment program. I’ve been to health clinics where people with eating disorders were force fed – a lot of the treatments we have today are old school and not effective. I want to bring in professionals who really understand the challenges we have today and who are up-to-date with techniques that we use.
My dream is to ultimately have people be able to seek the help they need in Hong Kong without flying off to another country, without breaking the bank, and without the notion that they’re weak to seek help.