If you happen to be at Khao Galli, near Ram mandir, or a mall, or at a local park in Bhubaneswar on a Sunday evening you will find a group of Rotaractors holding placards offering ‘Free Hugs,’ or an invitation saying ‘Let’s talk,’ and even positive affirmations such as ‘This too shall pass’. All these are part of RID 3262’s Rotaract initiative to spread mental health awareness and help people feel better.
It was DRR Abhilash Boitai’s idea to start a mental health awareness programme in his district. “It’s not unusual to experience mood swings after being through Covid. It can take a while to process what we’ve been through — sickness, loss of a family member or friend, loss of job, low or no income. We wanted to reach out to everyone and let them know that they are not alone and that together we can all get through the bad times,” he says.
Talking about the initiative, project coordinator Durdana Begum, says, “we were inspired by the original Free Hugs campaign, a social movement involving individuals who offer hugs to strangers in public places. The hugs are meant to be random acts of kindness — selfless acts performed just to make others feel better.” The campaign was started in 2004 by Juan Mann, an Australian, and it became famous internationally in 2006 as the result of a music video on YouTube which had 78 million views.
Durdana explains that 100 Rotaractors throughout the district formed local teams, designed posters and selected different hotspots in the city where they could approach people and offer them ‘free hugs’ or lend an ear to listen to their problems. At a recent mental health awareness event Rotaractors broke into an impromptu dance and invited passersby to join in. “Everybody danced their heart out and we too felt very energetic after that. This wasn’t part of the campaign but it was fun,” she says.
Rotaractors across the district have completed close to 10 rounds of mental awareness campaigns like these at different places. “People whom we haven’t met before in our lives opened up to us about their biggest problems in life, because they knew we wouldn’t judge them and we, being a third person, were distant enough to see the bigger picture.” A young man who recently had a breakup shared his story with Durdana and “after talking to me he said, ‘I feel like the weight has been lifted off my chest. I feel a lot better’.”
Satyabratra Kar, zonal Rotaract representative says, “we need to create a chain of events like this across our Rotaract districts. Covid lockdowns have brought a sense of fear and anxiety around the globe, leading to short-term as well as long-term psychosocial and mental health issues… therefore, leading to higher suicide rates. I urge every district to plan mental health awareness programmes.”