Quiet Force - Neerja Birla

She’s elegant, understated, and impactful. Neerja Birla, who has used the power that comes with her last name for a good cause, has been making waves with the meaningful work she’s been doing to spread awareness about the importance of mental health issues.

You are known for your quiet grace and hard work in the mental health space. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from the limelight?
I’m a private person by nature and am happy to stay within my closed circle of family and friends. I prefer that the focus remains on Mpower and not on me or my family. And to be honest, I strongly feel that none of us need to be known as the wife/ husband/son/daughter of anybody. Our family must provide us with our support structure, but as individuals, we must each strive to have our own identity based on the strength of our thoughts, talents, and actions. What you do with your work will reflect on who you are as a person, and vice-versa.

Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
The way people perceive us is very different from the way we perceive ourselves. But the way I see it is that I’m generally intuitive and instantaneous in my decision-making. Whenever something is presented to me, there is something in my mind that immediately says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It either clicks or it doesn’t. I would like to believe that before I can get caught up in the perception of things, I try and listen to my own consciousness and decide how I feel about it instinctively.

How did your interest in the mental health space begin?
It’s strange how the universe begins to put things into place for you way before you become aware of it. As an educationalist involved with running two schools, I have had first-hand experience of seeing students face an entire spectrum of mental concerns – from bullying-related trauma to oppositional defiant disorder and studies-related anxiety and family-issues-related depression. And the problem has been compounded in many ways. There is, unfortunately, great stigma attached to mental concerns in our country – even amongst those who are highly educated. At the same time, those who are willing to seek help don’t know where to go. Mental health help is not so easily available in India. We have fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists to cater to a country of 1.3 billion. And so, the desire to do something in the mental health arena had been in my mind for some years.

What advice would you give your own children in order to be happy?
Clichéd as it sounds, I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to give my children both roots and wings. I’ve always told them to be true and honest to themselves. I’ve tried to teach them to value relationships over all else.We must all earn our stripes in this world. No matter what your antecedents are, life is never going to be a bed of roses. I heard this once: “To succeed in life you need a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” I believe that we must take our goals very seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously. And that’s what I’ve always tried to instil in my children. Having said that, there is loads that I have learnt from them as well, and continue to.         – as told to Suneela