During the pandemic, Moner Bondhu is operating their services online. Photo: Abdulla Al Mamun (Arin)

The stories was first published in THE BUSINESS STANDARD. Click here to read the original publication.

Sheuly Begum (not her real name) is a 37-year-old RMG worker who has been working in factories for nearly two decades. These two decades have taken a toll on her, both mentally and physically. 

As she got older she felt she experienced more workplace hostility, and had been desperately looking for an avenue to channel her angst and worries. 

Almost on cue, "Moner Bondhu", a mental healthcare and wellbeing platform, held the first of their many mental health counselling sessions at the garment factory Sheuly works at.

Moner Bondhu was started in 2016 by Towhida Shiropa - a mental healthcare visionary who aims to keep working until all the social stigmas around mental health have been broken in Bangladesh.

Shiropa's goal is to provide people with accessible and affordable mental health care in a safe space that strictly maintains the patient's confidentiality. 

Moner Bondhu off late has been focusing on the mental healthcare of RMG sector workers. Since December last year, they have been collaborating with RMG factories to carry our counselling sessions for workers inside those factories. 

Additionally, Moner Bondhu last year was one of the five startups selected for the Youth Co:Lab Summit and have since been working with UNDP, in partnership with Citi Foundation, as part of their Covid-19 crisis response project to implement the 'Psychosocial Support' portion of the project. 

This project aims to provide free 24/7 telephone and video counselling for all. 

"We have preconceived notions in our mind," says Shiropa. "When Moner Bondhu was contracted by garment factories as their mental health partner, we went in with misconception that RMG workers did not know much about mental health issues."

However, working with 10 RMG factories as part of their outreach, they were surprised to see around 300 to 500 RMG workers taking Moner Bondhu's services within the first four months. 

"They (RMG workers) may not know the term 'mental health' but they understand its implications perfectly. Many RMG workers were very concerned about things like their children's screen time," Shiropa said.

Shiropa and her team also observed anger issues among their RMG worker clients, which oftentimes resulted in domestic abuse. 

"They had never meditated before joining our workshops but they told us that meditation relaxed them and helped them sleep better. Even after going home, they used to practice meditation and gave us feedback over the phone," Shiropa said.

Many of their clients from the RMG factories used to call Moner Bondhu's hotline number and talk about their thoughts even during the shutdown.

Many RMG workers have trouble in their personal relationships, many suffer anxiety over financial concerns, some are troubled staying apart from their families and the desire to visit their families back home. 

"Many times their families do not understand their work and contribution, and this hurts them. Their family might be dependent on their earnings but they do not appreciate them as much, and end up taking them for granted," explained Shiropa.

To tackle such feelings of helplessness and mental dissatisfaction, Moner Bondhu emphasises self-care practices so female RMG workers can arrive at their workplaces without feeling rushed and anxious about the rest of the day.

"We teach the basic self-care tricks so they can prepare themselves before coming to work. Moner Bondhu focuses on relaxing exercises female RMG workers can do for a few minutes before leaving home for the day," Shiropa said. 

According to feedback received by Moner Bondhu from their clients, many female RMG workers are worried about reaching work on time. 

"And so we teach them the process to set their minds before coming to work. We teach them management processes that can make their work-life a bit easier to deal with," she added. 

For some RMG workers, concerns revolve mostly around their children. 

"We observed that most women do not speak up about their issues in front of everyone. Their concerns also largely revolve around their children. But they do not stop to think about their own wellbeing," Shiropa said.

Shiropa was inspired to start Moner Bondhu driven by personal reasons.

She had lived through her mother's sufferings from acute depression. 

In 2015, Shiropa's mother was suffering from acute depression and being her caregiver helped Shiropa understand the importance of educating people in Bangladesh about mental health issues.

The magnitude of the importance of a healthy mental state sank in further when Shiropa's mother was cured of the depressive state, and the stress of the journey back to a better life was experienced by both the caregivers and the patient. 

"Due to our work and social lives, we had certain responsibilities other than accompanying a patient 24/7. This made me realise that we need a non-biased, gender-sensitive and confidential platform to help people suffering from these problems," Shiropa said, while talking about how Moner Bondhu came into being. 
Today, Moner Bondhu is playing an important role in helping thousands like Sheuly to cope with mental issues during these trying times. 

Moner Bondhu provides psychosocial support with its over 100 empathetic, non-judgemental and non-biased psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health workers. 

"This is why I named Moner Bondhu as such - to ensure our clients that we are their friends," Shiropa said. 

"I never wanted to associate my venture with classist tropes, such as offering my services only to the rich and keeping out of the less fortunate's reach," she elaborated.

Seeing that Moner Bondhu was being received positively, Shiropa wanted to incorporate her platform with SDG goals and it fell under the SDG 3.4 model.

Shiropa believes that accessible mental healthcare is a basic human right. 

"Like education and mainstream healthcare, I want everyone to be able to have access to mental healthcare. I will continue working as long as this has not been ingrained into our social system," she continued. 

Very recently, Moner Bondhu received a prestigious award from SNV Netherlands, which was supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and DBCCI, to implement an intervention designed with the Inclusive Business Model to provide mental healthcare and wellbeing services to RMG sector workers.

Moner Bondhu is also working to create a healthy food corner, a recreation and a beautification centre for their support groups and clients in the factories. 

Mental health issues have become central after the pandemic and almost everyone's mental condition has taken a bad turn. 

What are Shiropa's suggestions to those who cannot visit or contact counsellors but are actively seeking help?

"I just want everyone to understand that there is no shame in taking help to address your mental health issues. It does not make anyone any less strong. Anyone should seek mental help to keep themselves positive and vibrant, not only while feeling low," suggested Shiropa, adding that people should create a safe space for those suffering from mental health problems since they may be in a vulnerable state of mind. 

"My focus is to provide expert services in the proper way," she said.

Along with actively working with UNDP, Moner Bondhu has been engaging on social media with awareness posts and animated videos to educate people about mental healthcare. 

Since the Covid-19 shutdown, Moner Bondhu has conducted over 80 webinars - all free of cost.

In December, Moner Bondhu is bringing the first-ever Covid-19 response mental health app.

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