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Healing the mind

Neerja Birla launched MPower to help remove the stigma attached to mental illness. The clinic that came up along the way is now planning to expand into a chain.

Think mental health clinic and you conjure up scenes from the 1970s classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the white-uniformed nurse Ratched faces off with Jack Nicholson and other inmates planning a rebellion at a mental institution. But at MPower, a paediatric counselling centre on Mumbai’s Pedder Road, you won’t spot a white jacket or straitjacket. In fact, it looks more like a startup office: bright walls, a mural of simulated clouds on the ceiling, and staff poring over MacBooks.

Launched by Neerja Birla in May 2016, MPower is the first such clinic to offer therapies based on dance, art, drama, and pet keeping besides clinical treatments. So far, it has treated 200 patients and held 7,000 consultations. Birla, who has a degree in psychology, founded MPower with around Rs 10 crore in funding from the Aditya Birla Education Trust and built a 33-member team. (Her husband is Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya 
Birla Group.)

According to the World Health Organisation, access to mental health-care facilities in India is difficult, with just 4,000 beds available for a population of 1.2 billion. Besides, mental illness is stigmatised, making it more difficult for patients and their families to come to terms with it. Often, mental illness is left untreated.

MPower began as a campaign to promote awareness on mental health issues and the centre in Mumbai emerged as a follow-up. “While running two schools, I realised that mental health was an integral part of a child’s overall well-being,” says Birla, who had earlier set up the Aditya Birla World Academy and The Aditya Birla Integrated School.

With the MPower centre, her aim was to spot mental health problems early and provide holistic remedies using collaborative, non-aggressive therapies. The centre also supports families, teachers, and caregivers in understanding the issues of the patients better.

Fees start at Rs 1,500 for a counselling session and around Rs 4,000 for a diagnostic evaluation. But through MPower-The Foundation, the clinic also supports patients from low-income groups.

MPower plans to set up centres in Pune and Bengaluru and become India’s first mental health clinic chain. Franchising was one of the options for scaling up, but Birla abandoned it because she felt that maintaining high standards would be difficult without having ownership. Eventually, she decided on running them herself.

Dr. Ashit Sheth, a senior psychiatrist who has been practising for 40 years, says that similar facilities exist, but not on a scale as MPower’s, which offers a range of services under one roof, the kind single-doctor clinics can’t—MPower has six doctors and two dozen counsellors on call. This takes care of a huge issue, as patients don’t have to wait weeks to get an appointment with a top-of-the-line doctor.

Birla says that although MPower charges fees, her foremost aim is to provide a specialised service. “I’m here for the long run.” Even if it doesn’t turn a profit, she doesn’t mind.