How Umang Sheth is rewriting the narrative on mental health and identities

21 March 2024
Chaithra MJ Written by Chaithra MJ
Chaithra MJ

Chaithra MJ

Chaithra is a freelance content writer with a love for existentialism. She is passionate about...

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People think mental health issues can be cured by yoga, meditation, or holidays. While these can help, they are not cures for serious conditions that require medical treatment. The main challenge is overcoming stigma: if physical pain demands medical attention, so should mental pain. Mental health requires acceptance, understanding that the brain, like any organ, can have issues.

Umang Sheth is a key figure in promoting queer inclusivity and mental health in organizations. From kickstarting Gay Bombay and setting up The Hugging Club of India to co-founding Mr and Mr, his projects show his commitment to change and support within the community.  Umang’s story is one of resilience and commitment. We chatted with him about his identity crisis, his advocacy for mental health, the fight for LGBTQ rights, and more.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. What personal experiences led you to become an advocate in this space? 

Growing up, I realized that there was something wrong with my parents, my mom and dad. My mother was not a regular mom; she would talk to ghosts and spirits. I loved her, but I used to be ashamed of her.  My father had a gambling habit and would not come home for days. 

So I went through this whole family of dysfunction, and I became a parent to my parents.

As a young boy, I would take my mother and dad to a psychiatrist. With all this, I happened to be effeminate. I come from a background where mental health and the LGBT community both were an embarrassment.

I spent a lot of years blaming my parents. I blamed them for whatever happened with my career, relationship, or confidence. My self-esteem was below zero.

But the turning point in my life was when somebody told me very profoundly that my mom did not choose schizophrenia. Schizophrenia chose my mom. 

It was a process. I got a mentor and got into Buddhist philosophy, which helped me take responsibility. I couldn’t keep blaming my parents. The idea is to accept whatever is there and make the best out of it. So it was a journey. And instead of trying to change other people, I changed my response. I realized I had a choice. 

Can you tell us about the Hugging Club of India?

The death of my friend Vishal Tandon, who died by suicide due to depression, pushed me to start the Hugging Club of India. This lack of open space for discussing mental health, societal judgment, and shame drove me to create a platform for candid conversation. My experiences of shame and embarrassment and realizing many others face similar feelings fueled the initiative. 

Launched in Kolkata on 2nd October 2017, it began in a café, inviting people to openly discuss their mental health. Everybody has a story, and they want to share it. When people started saying – “I’ve tried to end my life thrice,” “I have anxiety,” “I have childhood trauma,” – it encouraged others to open up. 

Stories were shared on social media, and the movement grew, expanding to homes, psychiatrist offices, schools, and colleges, with figures like Ira Khan joining events.

I want to dive deep into the Gay Bombay and the Mr. and Mr. initiatives. Can you tell us about them? 

Being gay was synonymous with sex, and I realized it’s more about our sexuality than just sex. So, I started Gay Bombay in 1998. At that time, it was a big taboo. People were scared. Gay Bombay was the first place, a support group where people became comfortable with themselves. They realized that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is just a minority. This was a place where people felt comfortable and told, went home and said, “Hey mom, I’m gay. I don’t want to get married. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not abnormal.”

I hosted meet-ups for parents of gay people where they could meet and talk because they go through a lot of guilt, often holding themselves responsible and wondering if their upbringing was faulty. I hosted Gay Bombay parents meet for years. I gave them a space where they felt okay and assuaged their guilt.

We conducted a lot of events, picnics, parties, relationship meets, speed dating, brunches, alternate sexuality, and alternate Sundays.

How Umang Sheth is rewriting the narrative on mental health and identities

The reason for starting Mr and Mr was that, unlike straight people, we don’t have a life roadmap or milestones. Straight people get engaged, marry, raise children, and become grandparents. We’re often lost, leading to mental health challenges, loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. That’s why I started Mr and Mr to offer a healthier way to find a life partner. 

A friend registered on a gay matchmaking site that turned out to be fake, nearly leading him to end his life, so I wanted to create a safer alternative to toxic dating apps.

Mr and Mr provides a process with background verification and therapy to prepare for a relationship, followed by finding a match, conducting a relationship assessment, and offering relationship coaching to sustain it. This filters out those who are not serious about commitment. 

So far, 130 people have registered. Remarkably, three mothers sought suitable partners for their sons, showing that Mr and Mr is becoming like ‘’ for gay men to find love and companionship.

There are so many misconceptions even today in 2024 regarding mental health. How do you deal with this?

People think mental health issues can be cured by yoga, meditation, or holidays. While these can help, they are not cures for serious conditions that require medical treatment. 

Attributing it to past karma, or suggesting that you should go to a baba or fakir, doing pujas etc. won’t help. The main challenge is overcoming stigma. If physical pain demands medical attention, so should mental pain. Mental health requires acceptance and understanding that the brain, like any organ, can have issues. There is a stigma that if I can’t control my body pain, it’s fine, but if I can’t control my mind, I am weak. But the brain is also an organ that can fall ill like any other organ.

I invite people to my meet, Hugging Club, online or offline, where I call therapists and mental health experts to share their lived experiences to get people to change their minds. We want you to take the onus and power your life, change your response, and not hate people who hurt you. The influence of society, Bollywood, parents, peers, and upbringing have taught us these things. The idea is to claim the power back.

What critical gaps do you see in the mental health and LGBTQ+ spaces despite the many developments in these fields?

The ratio of mental health experts to people is highly skewed, with one good therapist for every 5000 people, leading to high costs for quality mental health services. There’s a need for greater awareness and more safe spaces for open conversations. With LGBTQ+, there is so much stigma, so much homophobia. So many educated gay men are getting married out of loneliness and societal pressure. There’s a lot to be done. 

We feel very guilty that we cannot give our families their dream weddings, but their suffering has nothing to do with us. It is about their own expectations of what an ideal life is like. And once we understand that we are relieved of our guilt.

How can we as a society make it better for everybody involved?

I’m not feeling fine, I’ll take an acidity tablet. I’ve got anxiety; I’m taking an anxiety tablet. 

Do I raise my eyebrows when you say you have acidity? Then why am I raising my eyebrows when you have depression? People fear your expression. That’s why they say they have a stomach upset instead of social anxiety. When I say, “I haven’t taken a bath for four days. I’ve been depressed,” it is important to see how society reacts because I am going through hell inside. 

My illness is not a character flaw, it’s a mental health issue.

If you understand this, you will be more empathetic, and more people will come out. Then people will stop saying I am fine. They will say I have got depression and am feeling horrible.  

How Umang Sheth is rewriting the narrative on mental health and identities
Umang was awarded the Global D&I Leadership Award by the World HRD Congress in 2024

You can create that connection where I can tell you I am not feeling good, I had a bad day, my boss shouted, or I am having a problem with my relationship, and I want to go to a therapist. 

I want society to make mental health issues as regular as diabetes or high blood pressure.

In the corporate world, can we create an environment where I can tell my boss that I need mental health sick leave because I’m not feeling fine? Can there be opportunities for those who took a career break because of mental illness? Can organizations have mental first aid, similar to physical first aid, in schools, colleges, and offices? 

Deloitte’s research shows that 68% of the LGBT community faces mental health challenges, with many leaving jobs due to lack of support.

Can the workplace be inclusive enough for individuals to express themselves freely, dress as they prefer, use preferred pronouns, and not worry about gestures affecting their performance?

A sense of belonging in the workplace can lead to a stronger sense of ownership and productivity. Progressive corporate policies can attract new talent and clients who value inclusivity. Corporations should move from awareness to advocacy, with sensitivity workshops, support groups, and helplines. 

What would be your advice to people who are suffering silently and who are struggling with their identities?

Self-acceptance – I did not choose to be gay; I was born gay.

There is nothing to be ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed about being gay. Just as someone might proudly state their child has green eyes, which 2% of the population has, we should feel pride in the 4-8% of the population that is LGBT. We are exclusive.

Once you accept yourself, society will follow. The lack of acceptance in society stems from beliefs and structures. What is not in the majority is not abnormal, it is just a minority.

Mental health is gradually becoming more accepted, with companies hiring therapists. 

In the Hugging Club, we invite mental health experts to discuss their own mental health challenges to show that everyone, even experts, can have mental health issues. This removes so much stigma. In this way we empower people and accept them for who they are.

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