Image for A class act: the therapy school for children raised in Delhi’s red light district

A class act: the therapy school for children raised in Delhi’s red light district

Those in the lower echelons of India’s caste system are more at risk of mental illness and substance abuse. Can a trauma-informed therapy programme help slum children find a better life?

Those in the lower echelons of India’s caste system are more at risk of mental illness and substance abuse. Can a trauma-informed therapy programme help slum children find a better life?

On a balmy spring morning in Delhi, 21-year-old Rohan Balan (main picture) sings in a park, too immersed in his music to notice his steadily growing audience.

“Four years ago, I was an angry teenager in a Delhi slum,” he says, his impromptu concert having come to an end. “Today, I’ve composed more than 100 songs; I’m making a music video and life is looking up.”

His friend Sohail Khan – also 21 – smiles in assent, because his story is similar. The son of a sex worker, he grew up in a brothel. He worked in food delivery, graduated from college, pursued his passion for dance and today has managed to extricate not only himself but also his mother from the red light area. “I often wonder: would my life have taken this course had I not connected with Project Phoenix?” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Balan and Khan are among the first batch of teens to graduate from Delhi-based non-profit Light Up’s flagship programme Project Phoenix. The one-year preventative mental health programme works in some of India’s most under-served communities: slums, children’s homes and red light areas. During that year, participants undergo one-to-one therapy, group exercises, and perhaps most innovatively, training to develop their social and emotional learning (SEL).

“That year transformed my life,” Khan says. “I used to be acutely self-conscious about my mother being in the sex trade. It was here that I learned to understand, even accept, my circumstances and move beyond them.”

Project Phoenix is unusual. This isn’t only because it targets young adults from low income and vulnerable communities in India, a country that has barely 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 population. Its theory of change is unusual too: staff work with those who have experienced extreme inequality in childhood – those most at risk of developing problem later in life – and teach them life skills that will help them better protect themselves from mental illness. “We work to enhance their social and emotional learning, which will help them understand, and then address their problems,” says Juhi Sharma, who founded Light Up in 2017 and launched Project Phoenix four years later.

Nipping mental health disorders in the bud 

Sharma walks through the narrow lanes of Sanjay Camp, a slum hidden within Delhi’s well-to-do diplomatic enclave Chanakyapuri, where many of Project Phoenix’s alumni live. Until seven years ago, she was working at an international PR and communications agency after having graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business. A visit to a homeless shelter on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi urged her to pivot. “The emotional vocabulary [of the homeless people] was so poor: they had no words to express or identify what they were feeling,” she recalls. “Even a layperson like me could see how important it was for them to have the words to describe their emotions – but this crucial life skill isn’t taught in India at all.”

Light UP’s founder Juhi Sharma launched the non-profit to ‘enhance social and emotional learning’. Image: Smita Sharma

Sharma quit her job and founded Light Up. Over the next few years, the organisation gave 1,300 SEL classes, impacting more than 76,500 people. In 2021, Project Phoenix grew out of the learnings from this work. The one-year programme uses group activities including art, theatre, movement, creative writing, music and games to provide trauma-informed therapy and social-emotional learning in a way that is tailored to children. Trauma-informed therapy helps them to recognise hidden challenging emotions like anger, frustration and low self-esteem, and to develop constructive responses. Parents also attend some sessions to understand what their children were going through, and how best to help them cope.

“At Project Phoenix, our SEL training is built around actual challenges that students face,” Sharma says. “For example, we worked with very shy and under-confident students to develop effective communication strategies, and with others to learn to express their feelings constructively.”

Khan discloses that before Project Phoenix, he was putting in unnecessarily long hours teaching in a dance studio. “I hesitated [before] asking for better work hours, thinking I was lucky that they’d even employed me,” he recalls. “Project Phoenix taught me negotiation skills and time management and boosted my self-confidence. I was able to reduce my work hours thanks to that.”

Sohail Khan, who grew up in a brothel, says Project Phoenix helped him process his anger. Image: Smita Sharma

Khan and his cohort also learn about their own right to safety, dignity and empowerment. This helps prevent long term mental health challenges, Sharma says. Research shows that in India, people who have borne the brunt of social conditions like caste, patriarchy and class are predisposed to mental health disorders and substance abuse.

Khan believes the sessions help him realise that he had some unresolved anger towards his mother. “Therapy made me realise the lengths to which my mother had to go, just to raise my brother and me,” he said. “Slowly, my anger at her being a sex worker was replaced by respect, and this gave me a lot of mental peace.”

Breaking trauma’s generational cycle

Amit Sinha, the founder of Jamghat, a non-profit organisation that runs shelters for street children, says that when Sharma initially described Project Phoenix to him in 2021, he was sceptical. It seemed like a lot of hard work for little outcome. “To my surprise,” he says, “our children [who attended the Light Up programme] thrived during the year with Project Phoenix. Some gained a sharper focus, some became calmer and most of them became more understanding of each other.”

One of them was Tanisha Gandhi, who is now 21. “I was in care homes all my life, and when I had to navigate the real world as an adult, it was a shock,” she says. “I had crippling shyness and so much anger that I couldn’t make a single friend. I often lay in bed for days on end, and wondered why I was alive.”

Tanisha Gandhi, who grew up in care, tackled her suicidal tendencies through Project Phoenix in Delhi

Tanisha Gandhi, who grew up in care, tackled her suicidal tendencies through Project Phoenix. Image: Smita Sharma

Her mentors at Project Phoenix helped her cope with her anger and impulse to self-harm, and set attainable goals. “Until then, I’d never really expressed my emotions or shown affection for anyone,” she says. “During therapy at Project Phoenix, when I finally cried, I just couldn’t stop.”

The breakthrough gave Gandhi the confidence to apply for an internship at a non-profit organisation, and later, a job as a project coordinator in another non-profit in Mumbai. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the last two years,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without this support.”

How empathy and self-awareness help

Researchers have found that school-based socio-emotional learning programmes can prevent depression, anxiety and suicide among adolescents, and help to boost adolescent mental health, social competence and academic achievement. In recognition, those behind India’s National Education Policy 2020 declared that schools must incorporate SEL to “develop good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy”.

The state government of Delhi even introduced a Happiness Curriculum to integrate social and emotional activities into the school day. But in practice, Indian schools rarely teach real-world skills like effective communication, empathy and ethics. Those from economically and socially vulnerable backgrounds have even poorer access to such training, Sharma says, even though their need will be particularly acute.

Women make samosas in Delhi

Meera Devi and daughter-in-law Rinki Devi run a shop selling samosas at Sanjay Camp. Image: Smita Sharma

But meeting this need is not easy, especially in a country where one in seven people experience mental disorders of varying severity, but over half of those who need it cannot access psychiatric care. Raising funds, Sharma confesses, has been tough.

“Many in my team have experienced burnout, because the work is emotionally intense,” Sharma notes. “While the project has received funding from UK-based Ember, which mentors and funds community-based initiatives in low-resource settings across the world, we’ve no resources to spare for our own therapy.”

Given that the trial cohort was just 15 participants and lasted the whole year, the model has, so far, been energy and resource-intensive Sharma says. Looking forward, they plan to increase cohorts to 210 people, so that the entire programme costs about £160 per person.

Slowly, my anger at my mother being a sex worker was replaced by respect. This gave me a lot of mental peace

Given that an estimated 49% of urban Indians live in slums, the task at hand is huge. But the returns, the World Health Organization has analysed, are worth it. For every $1 (80p) invested in scaling-up the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders, the return is thought to be $4 (£3.10) in terms of health and economic benefits.

This is borne out by the life trajectories of Project Phoenix’s alumni. Khan has become a role model in the red light area in which he grew up in, inspiring others to follow suit and forge better lives for themselves. Gandhi is excited about continuing working in the social sector: “I’ve benefited so much from Project Phoenix, now it’s my turn to give back”.

Meanwhile, Sharma plans to train more than 1,000 grassroots leaders who could join her mission to enhance the social and emotional learning of young people in underserved communities over the next four years. “The Indian child rights and justice system is broken,” she says. “Perhaps we can put some of the pieces back together.”

Main image: Smita Sharma

Developing mental wealth is a series produced by Positive News and funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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