Since signing with Universal, Ananya Birla has gained more than 21 million views on her first two singles on YouTube. Her last single ‘Meant to Be’ went Platinum in India, making her the first Indian artist with an English single to achieve that feat there.
As well as a successful musician, she’s also an admirable entrepreneur. At just 17, she launched Svatantra – a microfinance organization that helps empower rural women and make them economically independent.
Today, Svatantra has 140,000 customers and is one of the fastest-growing microfinance organisations in India.
Since then, she has started Curocarte, a design and interiors e-commerce platform, and Mpower, a mental health initiative that works towards dispelling the stigma associated with mental health illnesses in India.
What prompted you to found Mpower?
In India, mental health isn’t really acknowledged and there’s still a terrible stigma which means that people are scared to reach out for the help they need. As a result, depression and suicide rates are among some of the highest in the world – I recently read that there is a suicide attempt every three seconds.
Mpower was founded to provide people with the same access to help that I was so fortunate to have during my own struggles.
What are the goals of the organisation?
Our goal is to stamp out the stigma surrounding mental illness, raise awareness and provide world-class care for people who have been ignored or discriminated against.
We want people to consider mental illness as something that’s on a par with physical illness. We would also like to show that there is no shame in mental illness and that it does not determine your ability or right to contribute to society.
We have walk-in centres which provide holistic care solutions to anyone who is struggling, or their families who want to know how to help. We also run a number of events and initiatives – last year for example we had a cyclathon and also put on a couple of music concerts which brought together over 30,000 people. I am a big believer in the power of music, especially live music, to bring people together to support amazing causes.
In India, where the population is 1.4 billion and nearly 150 million people need mental health care, we have fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists
Is there a different attitude towards mental health in India compared to, say, the UK?
Mental health issues affect people from every nation and every social background: it doesn’t discriminate (although we do!).
In India, where the population is 1.4 billion and nearly 150 million people need mental health care, we have fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists. It is still this enormous taboo, fuelled by ignorance as well as both cultural and religious prejudices. Most sufferers won’t even admit they have a problem, with fewer than 10% of sufferers seeking help.
Have you ever struggled with your mental health in the past?
I have, yes. In my teen years, while studying at Oxford University, I struggled a lot with anxiety and panic attacks. I still have my low days now as well, when sometimes I find it tough to even get out of bed.
Did anything specific trigger this?
I had a really tough time at uni – even though I did enjoy the time spent there and grew a lot as an individual, between my studies, running my businesses back in India, working on my music and trying to maintain a social life, I was totally burnt out… Wanting to be a perfectionist didn’t help!
It is tricky to pick out the specific triggers, but I think that the environment I found myself in, and the pressure that I was putting on myself to succeed in everything I did definitely made things worse.
How did you deal with it?
It took me a while to come to terms with it all, but eventually, I was lucky enough to get the professional help I needed. I know from personal experience that the consequences of just ‘sweeping it under the rug’ are awful.
Back at uni, music was also a lifeline. I used to head to London every weekend and perform wherever I could. I always found a great catharsis in singing and songwriting; it helped me escape what was going on in my head. There are always new studies coming out about the relationship between music and mental health, and how it can be a really positive force when someone is struggling. It became my form of self-expression. Therapy helped too.
Today, I really value self-care. Little things like exercise, diet, meditation – and just making sure that I’m taking enough time for myself, which, for me, is easier said than done!
Everyone has different triggers and different needs. They could require therapy, medication, intervention in an unhealthy living situation. The point it that everyone deserves to get those needs taken seriously – mental health treatment should not be a luxury.
There is no shame in struggling with this stuff: in fact, around two in three people will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime
What advice would you give to someone struggling with their mental health?
First of all, I would reassure them that it’s OK not to be OK. There is no shame in struggling with this stuff: in fact, around two in three people will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime. It is normal to face a mental illness, it doesn’t make you abnormal or ‘crazy’. These outdated stereotypes need to be busted and no one should feel the need to tackle it alone.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, in fact it might be one of the bravest things they ever do. I would tell them to reach out to someone they trust and confide in them – and where possible, to seek help from a specialist.
A lot of young people in the public eye have spoken about mental health recently. Are young people more comfortable talking openly on the subject?
It’s very encouraging that young people in the public eye are speaking up about their personal struggles with mental health. In music, we’ve heard from people like Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Stormzy… the list goes on.
This frank, open discussion encourages young people everywhere to be more comfortable talking about mental illness, and to get themselves on the path to getting help.
How does somebody who doesn’t experience mental health issues understand what it’s like for those who do?
It’s really difficult for someone who doesn’t experience mental health issues to relate to somebody who does, and we can’t expect them to either. It’s nobody’s fault. Often they won’t know what to do or say, or else they try and reason with the person suffering and offer logical arguments or practical solutions. Instead of offering unsolicited advice, it’s best just to listen. To let the sufferer know that you are there, and to gently ask about what’s going on. Education is also key – reading up on the condition as much as possible. Knowledge is power in these kinds of situations.
Success to me is being able to carry on doing what I love and at the same time hopefully making a positive difference
What was the inspiration behind your recent single, ‘Unstoppable’?
I released the audio of ‘Unstoppable’ on International Women’s Day. I think it is a true feel-good anthem. I wrote it a few years ago, inspired by my Mum, to encourage women to see that these archaic gender stereotypes should never stand in the way of working towards what we want to achieve.
I truly believe that your gender doesn’t define you, and that being yourself is what makes you unstoppable. The video showcases iconic Indian women who have overcome gender role expectations to achieve absolutely amazing things. I hope that people can watch this and feel empowered.
What are you hoping to achieve in the coming years – both as an entrepreneur and a musical artist?
Currently, success to me is being able to carry on doing what I love and at the same time hopefully making a positive difference, all in the most authentic way.
Next month, I’ll be releasing my debut EP, which features artists from all over the world and is going to be backed by Island Records UK alongside Universal Music. I am so excited to share it with everyone.
Follow Ananya on Instagram @ananya_birla