Welcome to Vol.7 of 'Behaviour Change Matters’. In this edition, we share how a tele-counseling service is meeting mental health needs of anxious young people; how use of tribal language is helping counter COVID-19 vaccine resistance in remote communities. And we have featured Vijay, Gujarat C4D team lead who will soon become a Phd. “Doc”.

Sid Shrestha
Chief - C4D, UNICEF India

21 OCTOBER 2021

Prize-winning poster from a university event to mark World Mental Health Day, October 2021. 

The mental health of children and adolescents is more important than ever as communities in India continue to tackle the impact of COVID-19. The disruption to routines, education, recreation, and concern for family income and health is leaving many young people feeling uncertain about the future and socially concerned about their families and well-being. 

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, UNICEF’s Communication for Development team organized a month-long campaign to promote mental health awareness. Activities included the Youth Ambassador Summit, self-help mental health dialogue series, and writing and drawing workshops at universities. The campaign culminated on World Mental Health Day. This was an extension of an earlier initiative, 'Muskurayega India'  (‘Keep Smiling India’), a mental tele-counseling service that was launched in April 2020. A total of 3,200 calls were received till June 2021. The initiative is organized in collaboration with 36 universities and in partnership with the National Service Scheme (NSS) and the Public Health Foundation of India.  

According to the calls data, 54% of callers had concerns related to academics and career. Women callers were nearly half, and the share of rural young people was 48%. A college student who goes by ‘Meera’ found in the tele-counseling an opportunity to receive support and overcome personal challenges. She says, ‘’I thought my classmates were avoiding me. The counselor asked why I felt this way. He made me realize that being an introvert is my strength. He encouraged me to study well and followed up regularly. This helped me pass my exams with excellent grades”. Other cases required more support and professional counseling.  

Dr. Rashmi Soni, NSS coordinator from Lucknow University, recounts the story of a female caller who was undergoing psychiatric treatment for over a year and a half. Counseling revealed that she had career-related anxiety, which was triggering mood swings. Comprehensive counseling sessions have helped her regain confidence. According to the ’State of the World’s Children’ report launched in early October 2021, 1 in 7 adolescents in India reported often feeling depressed or having little interest in undertaking activities. Forty-one percent aged between 15 -24 years said that support is needed to address mental health problems. 

Vaccination camp at village Pargotilaiya, Giridih, September 2021. Photo credit: Aman Kumar Sharma

In Giridih tribal district in Jharkhand of eastern India, no one showed up for the COVID-19 vaccine this June. The area witnessed a mass refusal of the vaccine due to misconceptions surrounding its adverse effects that may impact their livelihood.  

UNICEF’s partner NGO Society for Community Health-Oriented Operational Links wondered about the reasons behind such resistance and ways to address them. Community volunteer-led household visits revealed that village residents only speak the tribal language of Santhali.  

With the help of local tribal youth volunteers, communication material in Santhali was developed as a priority and meetings with community representatives were organized.  A few months later, another vaccination camp was organized. The difference? People lined up to avail the vaccine this time.  

“The use of Santhali and involvement of local leaders such as teachers and elected representatives has made a world of difference and improved vaccine acceptance,” noted Biraji Hansda, Anganwadi Worker, at the local community development center.  

Ambiya Devi, a local resident who changed her mind and took the vaccine, said “Learning about COVID-19 in our language helped us understand how dangerous the disease is. We discussed it among ourselves and decided to go for the vaccine.”  

In July 2021, UNICEF launched a communication campaign targeting 5 million people across remote tribal communities with key messages on COVID-19 vaccination. The purpose of the campaign is to ensure ethnic indigenous groups are not left behind, have access to the lifesaving vaccine, and an equal shot at a healthy, fulfilling life. 

An ambulance driver leaves to pick up a patient in Naroda, Gujarat. Representational image Sujay Reddy/UNICEF India/ 2021 

“I don’t usually wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) kit as it is uncomfortable. The doctors in the  ambulance drivers’ training made me realize it is my responsibility to prevent spreading infection to others, so I will do so from now on,” said ambulance driver Muniyappa from Bengaluru of Karnataka State in south India. Dozens of drivers like Muniyappa have attended COVID-19 awareness sessions organized  by UNICEF’s partner NGO Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM).  

When the second wave of COVID-19 hit India in April 2021, ambulance drivers say they spent the night waiting in the ambulance with COVID-19 patients on oxygen support until they were allotted a bed in a designated hospital. As frontline workers (FLWs), the drivers are vulnerable to infection on duty unless they are provided protective kits and comply with COVID-19 health protocols.  

To address this issue, UNICEF engaged the union of ambulance drivers in comprehensive training. Sessions included the role of FLWs in COVID-19 response, prioritizing patients for transport, and most importantly, safe transfer of patients following appropriate precautions as well as the importance of the vaccine and how it works.  

Elsewhere in Bengaluru, in Lakshman Rao Nagar slums, daily wage workers, including taxi drivers, refused to participate in awareness-generation sessions as they struggle to make a living as their community recovers from the second wave’s impact. The key to community access and acceptance here was championing a taxi driver by recruiting him to mobilize the community. Gaining the community's trust was achieved through one-to-one discussions demystifying myths and emphasizing the role of COVID-19 appropriate behaviors in protecting livelihood. According to Dr. Gowthami of SVYM, a single taxi driver has since mobilized 30 young people to join community engagement activities. To ensure the community has access to the vaccine, camp hours have been adjusted to serve until late night, with the registration process supported by community mobilisers.  

In Bengaluru, UNICEF efforts have contributed to vaccinating 16,000 people from most at risk and marginalized groups between July and September 2021 while 9,000 households participated in surveys.

A community mobiliser explains COVID-19 appropriate behaviours and need for vaccine during a house to house visit in a slum in Bengaluru, Karnataka. Picture courtesy: SVYM. 

Vijay belongs to Chennai, grew up in Bhubaneswar, and worked many years in Delhi before moving to Gandhinagar, Gujarat. His work over two decades involves engaging with communities on social change. Interestingly, his journey in UNICEF began in the human resources section in the India Country Office in Delhi where he was responsible for staff development and training. He also worked briefly with UNICEF offices in Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Vijay is currently pursuing a PhD in understanding how individuals and organizations innovate for social change. He calls it “the balance of people, planet, profit.” He has been part of an international group that explores ‘inner work for social change’. Ask him to elaborate and he explains inner work as use of reflective practices such as mindfulness. Vijay is fascinated by the scope of behavioural sciences whether it is engaging communities for practicing lifesaving behaviours or engaging teams in organisations for improved performance. “There is no one tool or one method that applies. Every context is different. We cannot go with a template; it has to be an open slate. As change agents, we need to see what role we can play in making the shift happen,” he reflects. For leisure he reads birth charts and dabbles in astrology!


STATE OF THE WORLD'S CHILDREN 2021: UNICEF's flagship report this year focuses on promoting, protecting and caring for children's mental health. UNICEF, October 2021

THE SOCIAL NORMS ATLAS is a collective effort led by the Social Norms Learning Collaborative to foster awareness, understanding, and the ability to address a variety of social norms as they relate to development outcomes and hence to enhance efficacy of behavior change programmes. Author: C Davin, May 2021

Youth volunteers fight COVID-19 pandemic in tribal districts in Chhattisgarh, Story on the Yuvodaya initiative in Bastar district, UNICEF, September 2021

IEC WAREHOUSE: As schools reopen, new materials promoting COVID Appropriate Behaviours and the new normal include posters and videos in Malayalam. UNICEF Assam has produced 'Kiting High', a book for children in English and Assamese.  

The documents disseminated by Behaviour Change Matters
do not necessarily reflect an official position by UNICEF.

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