Even though it was one of the wettest days in Mumbai, a small group of visitors turned up for a one-hour evening session on “emotional hygiene” that Ira Khan conducts at a community centre, located in a charming two-storey building in Pali village. After playing a video about “How to leverage dopamine and motivation, the 25-year-old Khan — founder of Agatsu Foundation and daughter of filmmaker-actor Aamir Khan and producer Reena Dutta — steered the conversation towards “self-regulation” and ways of boosting our dopamine levels.
Diagnosed with clinical depression nearly six years ago, Khan made a series of confessional posts on social media, saying how her parent’s divorce affected her and how she developed other mental health issues. Her personal processing of pain is the reason that she has set up the Agatsu (which means self-victory) Foundation to reach out to other young people who are battling similar issues. It runs a community centre and clinic as a safe space for many like her. Khan recalls that the symptoms of her mental health condition surfaced when she was a Class XI student at Lilavatibai Podar High School. However, when she was away from home, studying Liberal Arts at the University College of Utrecht in the Netherlands, she would keep her family in the dark about it. “I would cry for eight hours straight without pausing and sleep most of the time,” says Khan. Then came a stage when she stopped eating. “That’s when I realised I needed to talk to someone about it. I visited a general physician in the Netherlands, who prescribed antidepressants. I got a little better. But soon my condition worsened. This time, I consulted a psychiatrist. Later, I was diagnosed with cyclical depression,” says Khan, who dropped out of college in 2016, took a gap year, returned, only to drop out again before returning to Mumbai for good in 2018.
After going through five years of regular therapy and medication, she is now aware of her “cycle” of mental troughs and can manage them better. Khan shares that every 10 months, she suffers from “a big dip” even though she has “shorter dips” throughout the year. “I’m doing so much better now but I will be on medication for a while,” says Khan, who in 2019 decided to work in the mental health space to heal others. What consolidated her resolve to speak about her mental health publicly is music maestro AR Rahman’s admission of coping with “anxiety.”
Khan set up her company in March 2021 with her parents on board, who have been a source of constant support. But she felt too overwhelmed herself to run it and by the time the community centre was ready in September 2022, she was in bed. “My depression episode started in July 2022 and lasted longer than the previous ones,” she says. Today, she treats this episode as a lesson. “I realised that before diving into work to help others, I have to be mindful about my mental health first,” she adds. Khan believes that she “systematically walked into” her mental condition and hopes to “systematically come out of it.” Elaborating, she says, “As a child, I was fascinated by on-screen protagonists who are strong but a bit broken inside. Yet, they save the world and everyone loves them. These melancholic protagonists suppress their feelings. I told myself from the age of five to bottle up my emotions so that people would love me.” Now she feels her younger self may have looked like “a smart five-year-old who was not smart at all.”
When Khan was making the blueprint for Agatsu, it became a 30-page document, featuring everything on her wishlist. “But dad asked me to take it easy and set a geographical boundary. He advised me to focus on our Bandra centre first. That’s when our teams carried out a door-to-door campaign in the neighbourhood as well as Kala Ghoda and Sassoon Dock areas. The clinic has five therapists offering professional help while
the community centre provides a space for making connections, sharing experiences and learning,” she says.
Throughout the week, facilitators conduct peer support sessions, art workshops, workouts, dance classes and discussions among others. Most of these sessions are free though the centre is open to donation as well as suggestions regarding its activities. “The emphasis is on experiential learning and getting more people involved. Everyone is in the mental health spectrum. The way we are taught to brush teeth to avoid cavities, we should also be paying attention to our emotional hygiene. We suffer from emotional injuries all the time. So many people develop distress and disorder for reasons other than biological,” Khan says.
Nineteen-year-old Amman, who suffers from depression and anxiety, comes to the centre for therapy once a week because he finds it “a safe place” where he can open up about his struggles, something his friends can’t relate to. Describing the team as “gatekeepers,” he shares that they offered to create a “safety plan” for him to control his suicidal thoughts. Says Smritee Paul, who is in charge of the community centre, “Those who come are sincere. They are making a choice about how they wish to live their life.”
At different stages of her life, Khan wanted to pursue different interests. “I wanted to be an artist, chef, writer, cashier and librarian. I wanted to direct a film, hoping to do that as a mature 40- or 50-year-old. However, after being diagnosed with depression, it became clear to me that I want to work in the field of mental health,” says Khan, who is aware of the perils of exposing her frailties in a public space. Though active on Instagram, she chooses not to read the comments. “Hate comments don’t bother me. I know my father is a public figure. If someone doesn’t like that (her lineage), I can’t do anything about it,” she says. Over a period of time, she has built her list of dos and don’ts. She has discovered that talking to her fiance (Nupur Shikhare) helps. So does taking a shower and using a body scrub which gives a tactile feeling. “I no longer have late nights. If I don’t sleep properly, I cry the whole day. I get emotionally burnt out if I hang out for a long time with my friends. So, I try to limit that.” Though she loves playing football, she had to stop doing that because her friends mostly play at night. No complaints though. “I have to make choices and decide what’s important for me.”