The therapy school for children raised on Delhi’s red-light district

Apr 15, 2024 | News

The lower castes in India are more susceptible to mental illness and drug abuse. Can a trauma informed therapy programme help slum kids find a better future?

Rohan Balan, a 21-year-old singer from Delhi, sings in the park on a balmy morning in spring. He is too absorbed in his music to even notice his growing audience.

“Four years back, I was a young angry man in a Delhi slum,” says he, as his impromptu show comes to an end. “Today, i’ve composed over 100 songs; i’m making a video and my life is looking better.”

His friend Sohail – also 21, smiles in agreement, because his story was similar. He was raised in a brothel as the son of a sexworker. He has worked in food delivery and graduated college. He has also pursued his passion of dance. Today, he is able to free himself, as well as his mother, from the red-light area. “I often ask myself: Would my life have taken the course it has today if I hadn’t connected with Project Phoenix?” says he. “I don’t believe so.”

Balan and Khan were among the first group of teens to graduate Project Phoenix, the flagship programme of Delhi-based non profit Light Up. The one-year mental health prevention programme is implemented in some of India’s poorest communities, including slums and children’s homes. During the year, participants receive one-to-one counseling, group exercises and, perhaps most innovatively of all, training in social and emotional learning.

Khan says, “That year changed my life.” “I used be very self-conscious of my mother’s involvement in the sex industry. It was in this environment that I learned to accept and even understand my circumstances, and move past them.

Project Phoenix is unique. It’s not just because it targets young adults in India from low-income and vulnerable communities, a nation with only 0.75 psychologists for every 100,000 people. Its approach to change is also unusual: Staff work with those who experienced extreme inequality as children – those at greatest risk of developing mental illness later in life. They teach them life skills which will help them protect themselves against mental illness. “We work to improve their social and emotional skills, which will help them better understand and then address their issues,” says Juhi Singh, who founded Light Up and Project Phoenix four years after.

Mental health disorders: avert them in their bud

Sharma walks through the narrow streets of Sanjay Camp. This slum is hidden in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave Chanakyapuri where many Project Phoenix alumni live. She worked at an international PR agency for seven years after graduating from Stanford Graduate School of Business. She was prompted to pivot after visiting a homeless shelter in Delhi, on the banks the Yamuna River. She recalls that the emotional vocabulary of the homeless people was poor. They had no words to describe or express what they were feeling. “Even I, a layperson, could see how crucial it was for the homeless people to be able to express their emotions. But this vital life skill is not taught in India.”

Light UP was founded by Juhi Sharma to ‘enhance emotional and social learning’. Image: Smita sharma

Sharma quit her job to start Light Up. Over the next few decades, the organization taught 1,300 SEL courses, affecting more than 76.500 people. Project Phoenix was born in 2021 from the lessons learned. The one-year program uses group activities such as art, theatre and movement, creative writing, and music to provide trauma-informed therapies and social-emotional education in a way that’s tailored to children. The trauma-informed therapy teaches children to recognize hidden emotions such as anger, frustration, and low self-esteem and develop constructive responses. Parents are also invited to some sessions to better understand their children’s experiences and how to help them cope.

Sharma says that at Project Phoenix, SEL training is based on the actual challenges students face. “For instance, we worked with shy and underconfident students to create effective communication strategies. And with others, we learned to express their emotions constructively.”

Khan reveals that before Project Phoenix he worked unnecessarily many hours in a studio teaching dance. “I hesitated before asking for better hours, thinking that I was lucky to have been hired,” he recalls. “Project Phoenix taught my negotiation skills, time management, and boosted confidence. I was able reduce my working hours because of that.”

Sohail Khan, a man who grew up as a child in a prostitution ring, says Project Phoenix has helped him deal with his anger. Image: Smita sharma

Khan and his cohort are also taught about their right to safety, dignity, and empowerment. Sharma says that this helps prevent long-term mental health challenges. Research indicates that in India people who have suffered the brunt of social conditions such as caste, patriarchy, and class are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders or substance abuse.

Khan believes that the sessions helped him realise that he still had unresolved rage towards his mother. “Therapy helped me realize the lengths my mother went to to raise me and my brother,” he said. “Slowly my anger towards her for being a sexworker was replaced with respect, and I gained a lot mental peace.”

Breaking the trauma generational cycle

Amit Sinha is the founder of Jamghat – a non profit organisation that runs shelters to house street children. He says that when Sharma first described Project Phoenix in 2021 to him, he was skeptical. It seemed like a lot to do for little return. “To my surprise,” says he, “our children [who participated in the Light Up programme] thrived throughout the year with Project Phoenix. Some of the children became more focused, others calmer, and most of them were more understanding with each other.

Tanisha Gandhi is one of them. She is now 21. “I was raised in care homes my whole life and it was a shock to me when I was forced to navigate the adult world,” she says. “I was so angry and had such crippling shyness that I could not make a friend. I would often lie in bed for days and wonder why I was still alive.

Tanisha Gandhi, a child in care, was able to overcome her suicidal tendencies by using Project Phoenix. Image: Smita sharman

Her mentors from Project Phoenix helped her deal with her anger and urge to self-harm. They also helped her set realistic goals. “I had never expressed my feelings or shown affection to anyone before,” she says. “During Project Phoenix therapy, when I finally started crying, I couldn’t stop.”

Gandhi’s breakthrough gave her the confidence to apply for a job in Mumbai as a project manager in another non profit organisation. “I am proud of what I have achieved in the past two years,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without this support.”

How empathy, self-awareness and awareness of others can help

Researchers found school-based social-emotional programs can help improve adolescent academic achievement, mental health and social competence. In recognition of this, the National Education Policy2020 in India declared that schools should incorporate SEL as a way to “develop good humans capable of rational thought and actions, possessing empathy and compassion”.

The Delhi state government has even introduced a Happyness Curriculum, which integrates social and emotional activities in the school day. In practice, Indian schools do not teach real-world skills such as effective communication, empathy, and ethics. Sharma says that those from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds have less access to this type of training, despite their acute need.

Meera Devi, her daughter-in-law Rinki and their shop at Sanjay Camp sell samosas. Image: Smita sharman

It is not easy to meet this need, especially in a nation where one in seven people suffer from mental disorders. However, over the half cannot access psychiatric treatment. Sharma admits that raising funds has been difficult.

Sharma says that many of his team members have suffered burnout because the work they do is emotionally intense. The project was funded by Ember, a UK-based organization that mentors and funds community initiatives in low resource settings around the world. However, we have no resources left to pay for our own therapy.

Sharma says that, because the trial cohort consisted of only 15 participants, and lasted for an entire year, the model was energy and resource intensive. They plan to expand the cohorts in the future to 210 participants, which will cost about PS160 for each person.

Slowly, I replaced my anger towards my mother for being a sexworker with respect. This gave me a great deal of mental peace

The task is enormous, given that 49% of urban Indians are estimated to live in slums. The World Health Organization has analysed that the benefits are worth it. The World Health Organization estimates that for every $1 (80p), invested in increasing the treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders, there will be a return of $4 (PS3.10).

The life paths of Project Phoenix alumni are a testament to this. Khan has become an inspiration to others in the red-light district where he grew. He inspires them to make better lives for themselves. Gandhi is excited to continue working in the social sector. “I’ve benefitted so much from Project Phoenix. Now it’s my time to give back.”

Sharma plans to train over 1,000 grassroots leaders to join her mission of enhancing the social and emotional education of young people from underserved areas in the next four-year period. She says that the Indian child justice and rights system is broken. “Perhaps, we can put some pieces back together.”

Smita Sharma, main image

The series Developing Mental Wealth is produced by Positive News, and funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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