By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab
When Tawhida Shiropa came to Dhaka from a small town in Northern Bangladesh, she had nothing with her but her ambition to do something big, something great. It was not an easy journey. But with the establishment of Moner Bondhu she can now proudly say her social enterprise has helped thousands of people and is changing how mental health is regarded in her country.
After obtaining her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, she started working as a journalist with one of the leading national daily newspapers, Prothom Alo.
In 2015, her mother suffered from depression. And going through the journey as a family, she experienced firsthand the importance of professional mental health care. At the same time, at Prothom Alo, she oversaw a supplement which included a confession box. Everyday thousands of people wrote to her about their mental health struggles.
These two experiences rekindled her ambitions to make a difference. It became a dream to make mental health care and well-being services available to all. An idea which in 2016 led to the creation of Moner Bondhu.
She started with her network. Like-minded people who also wanted to make a difference and were willing to dedicate their time to the project without financial compensation. With few people interested in mental health care it was difficult to find any investors. While they received some smaller donations, Shiropa ended up using her personal savings to realize her dream project.
Their first breakthrough came in 2017. Moner Bondhu received iDEA funding from Startup Bangladesh – a government initiative to support a new generation of young entrepreneurs – which provided them with a much-needed boost. Soon more grants and other forms of support followed.
One of these was Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, which Moner Bondhu became a part of in December 2019.
“Youth Co:Lab is a network of amazing people, mentors and friends from around the world. (..) [it] has enriched my life and improved my entrepreneurship skills. (..) Youth Co:Lab always cared. (..) Yes, a bunch of very good people. And I have to say with a heart of gold. Gold people.”
With all the advice and support, Moner Bondhu grew into what it is today.
At the basis is the 24/7 hotline number that can be reached from WhatsApp, email, a regular phone call or a range of other communication tools. The number is available for people from Bangladesh and abroad. And services are available in various languages.
Callers will connect with a first responder. These are people with a background in psychology, but who are not counselors yet. They have the knowledge and training to accommodate mentally distressed people.
Some of the callers are not looking for counseling. They just want to talk. Or vent. If a caller indicates they are interested in counseling, the first responders will connect them with the right counselor depending on what issues the person is facing.
Before COVID, Moner Bondhu offered different modalities of support. One being in-person sessions, for which clients had to pay themselves. The other being online sessions for which clients were charged only a minimal fee.
“You know, some people they do not have enough money to pay for in-person sessions. We charge, though it is really very minimum, we charge a little. So that the client is accountable for his and her sessions.”
However, this changed with COVID. Initially the pandemic posed significant challenges for Moner Bondhu with all in-person activities being suspended. But Shiropa and her team did not let themselves be stopped so easily.
In March 2020, with the support of their Youth Co:Lab mentor in Bangladesh, in just a couple of days, Moner Bondhu established an online platform that provides free online tele-video counseling. In the period from March to December 2020, they received over 18,000 calls from all over the country.
They have also become an implementing partner for the UNDP COVID-19 Crisis Response Project, focusing on psycho-social support. As part of the project, they are promoting a holistic approach to mental healthcare, among others through an online course. Certified by Moner Bondhu it is the first ever 40-hour online mental health course in Bangla. They also recently produced a new publication, ‘Stories of Healing and Healthy Mind.’
Additionally, the pandemic has helped to increase attention for the importance of mental health and well-being support. While the numbers of people reaching out for help continue to grow, there are still many stigmas to break. Something which Moner Bondhu has been trying to do since the beginning.
They run both a radio and a TV show in which experts answer live questions. They also have various very popular social media accounts with content such as an animation, with a highly popular character named Mitu, videos and a range of other tools.
“(..) [it] is very interesting, I think I can share, people are following our page, but they do not want to like our page. Because if you like our page, I think in their mind, they are saying, if Shiropa likes the page, then Shiropa has mental health issues.”
Shiropa always had a clear goal of what she wanted to accomplish with Moner Bondhu. To provide accessible and affordable mental health services for all. She always knew it was not going to be an easy journey. And some key challenges remain.
In addition to the stigma and lack of awareness, mental health is a very neglected sector and not like others. This has led to challenging negotiations with investors.
But despite it all, her ambitions remain. The same ambitions she came to Dhaka with all those years ago. She wants Moner Bondhu to become a household name, and a leading force for change.
“Because Moner Bondhu in English actually means Friends of Your Mind. So even when people feel low. And they want to reach out to a friend. I want the first name that comes into their mind to be Moner Bondhu.”
And to upcoming social entrepreneurs and changemakers Shiropa says, “Never, never give up the cause you want to achieve with your social enterprise. (..) And bring all the efforts and confidence to make it happen. (..) if you consider the barriers, the challenges as your best friends, [they] will guide you to come up with new innovations.”
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.