Updated: Jul 21, 2022
Thanks for connecting with us Aarushi. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your passion for mental health advocacy.
"My name is Aarushi Kataria, a 21-year-old Mental Health Advocate from India and an alumnus of the Millennium Fellowship. I recently graduated from Ashoka University with 2 majors in economics and political science and will be heading to the University of Chicago this fall to pursue my master’s in public policy. As a Millennium Fellow, I ran ‘Letters to strangers, India chapter’ an initiative aiming to increase access to Mental health support and resources for young people.
I am passionate about mental health advocacy because I have personally struggled with generalised anxiety disorder for many years. As a child, the fact that I overworked and over-exerted myself was glorified as hard work, when in truth it was just a coping mechanism, because every time I was not working, anxiety took over my life. Things got particularly bad for me shortly after I started college and had to adjust to a new life in a new city with new people. The transition was very overwhelming, and I'd find myself constantly feeling like I didn’t belong in that new world. This was the first time in my life grappling with strange feelings of aloneness and impostor syndrome. I felt worthless and out of place among my peers, even though everyone at Ashoka had joined on merit and was fully deserving of their spot.
One day as I was going through my belongings I found a tiny package containing secret letters from my family and friends with reminders that they loved and cared for me, that they were proud of me, and that they’d always be a call away when I needed them. They shared their unwavering belief in my potential and expressed how proud I'd made them. I remember breaking down in my room, taking in that outpouring of love, realising many people saw the world in me, remembering that they existed and that they could see my worth even when I couldn't see it in myself. In moments of extreme anxiety, it's easy to forget these things. Those unexpected words of reassurance carried me through the most difficult days that semester, and I realised that I wanted to do this for other people too. That was the beginning of my mental health advocacy.
In 2019 together with a friend, I started the Bombay chapter of Letters to strangers. We organized physical events in Mumbai for young people to connect and open up, then the pandemic happened, the world shut down, and our work became even more important. We wanted to be the medium of exchanging letters with anonymous people digitally, offering our presence and support.
Every week we sent out letters, and every week we were reminded of just powerful words were. Our L2S chapter became a support system for many strangers whose lives had become unlivable in the wake of Covid-19, some coming to terms with the sudden loss of loved ones, others struggling with the difficulty of self-isolation.
Our goal was to ensure that every day at least one stranger felt a little seen, a little heard, a little loved, and a little less alone."
Powerful! Thank you so much for sharing. Why do you think these conversations around mental health are important, particularly among young people?
"In 2019, a shocking report found at least 1 in every 4 Indians faced some kind of mental health disorder, meaning that 25% of India’s 1.3 billion people were silently suffering. In my own home, where 4 people lived, that one person happened to be me."
Why are you focused primarily on offering support to strangers? Are there any particular reasons for this?
"The power behind opening up to a stranger or someone you don’t completely know is the understanding that there'll be no preconceived notions. When someone knows you they'll naturally have their own biases, but strangers take what you say at complete face value. 'You're not doing okay' is 'simply you’re not doing okay,' it's never ‘but you have such a loving family, you have such loving friends, how can you be unhappy?’ I think there's a powerful intimacy in knowing you can express yourself with no fear of being judged, gaslit or invalidated.
There’s also a certain reassurance in writing words and throwing them into the void, not knowing who will read them or at what season of life it will find them, but hoping that they will feel touched nonetheless. The writing process is therapy in itself. Many times we're overwhelmed because the feelings in our heads are completely shapeless, but when we put them on paper, they become concrete, making them a lot easier to process."
We want to create spaces where we’re fostering vulnerability and empathy, and where people know that if they come and tell us something, it is never going to be used against them.
Speaking about the Millenium Fellowship in particular. What led you to apply, and what part do you think it played in your journey?
I applied to the Millennium Fellowship after my friend told me about the project she was working on, and how the Fellowship had helped shaped her trajectory. learn how to network effectively, create and manage a project, and understand what it means to create impact.
While we’d already achieved some highs with our project, I felt we’d reached a point of stagnancy, but joining the Fellowship helped re-inject energy and inspiration. It gave me a network to collaborate with therefore helping us spread the work we were doing. I also learned the tried and tested ways of creating social impact, and how to become a better organiser and leader overall from the thousands of other young Fellows running incredible projects. Speaking with my cohort at Ashoka and others around the world, understanding how they were building their projects, balancing their challenges, and effectively collaborating, were pivotal to me being able to scale my project. The curriculum also stressed the importance of ensuring your work stays true to its roots and emphasised the need for values-driven leadership. Overall I think it gave me a very technical understanding of the social impact space. Using these lessons I was able to exponentially grow my team, from just 3 people, now L2S is driven by an incredible group of 80 members.
Lastly, do you have any final words of advice for Millennium Fellows and other young leaders in the community?
"Something that has been taught to me and that I want to share - have a list of things that matter, and don’t forget to put yourself on it. When you’re working in social impact, particularly mental health advocacy, you always want to be there for other people, to put other people first - don’t be that person. Pour into your own cup first.
Connect with Aarushi on LinkedIn.
Check out the Letters to Strangers India chapter website here.