Ms. Tawhida Shiropa, Founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu in an insightful conversation discussed her journey, current activities and future plans with Bonnishikha Chowdhury of MBR Team.

MBR: How did the idea of Moner Bondhu come into being?

Tawhida Shiropa: Before I started Moner Bondhu, I worked as a journalist in The Daily Prothom Alo for 13 years. I was in charge of the lifestyle supplement, Adhuna, which had a confession box, where thousands of people wrote about their inner struggles. These people mostly suffered in silence due to issues of mental health which needed professional help. Reading these letters, I gained an elaborate insight about the dire need of mental healthcare in our society.
In addition to my experience as a journalist, a personal experience propelled me further to start Moner Bondhu. A few years ago, my mother suffered from severe depression. Seeing her suffer up close and going through that struggle as a family made me determined that I have to do something for the mental health sector of our country and thus came the idea of Moner Bondhu.

MBR: What is Moner Bondhu’s business model?

Tawhida Shiropa: Moner Bondhu earns revenue through paid television, online and in person counseling, paid workshops and events, webinars and online group sessions and various projects. Moner Bondhu’s motto is to provide accessible and affordable mental healthcare and well-being services to everyone all over Bangladesh. For that reason, our counseling sessions are reasonably priced and we give concessions to those who are unable to pay the full session fees. We do not deny anyone our service due to financial reasons.

MBR: How the response was in the initial stage and do you think our country people are enough aware about mental wellbeing?

Tawhida Shiropa: Generally speaking, there is not enough awareness about mental health and wellbeing in our country. Beside the lack of awareness, there is a lot of stigma and misinformation about mental health. People suffer in silence, because they fear that if people know about their mental health struggles, they will be judged and labelled as “Pagol”. But since we started in 2016, we have conducted numerous awareness events and campaigns to raise awareness. Our radio show has been on air since 2016 and has had over 400 episodes. In January 2020, we launched our weekly live TV show where people can call and speak to our counselor directly. With all these efforts put in, we have seen an increase in people’s awareness and willingness to take professional help for mental health and well-being. The level of awareness and knowledge about mental wellbeing in our country is far from ideal, but we see a change in the positive direction.

MBR: In an age of technological advancement and increasing internet accessibility, how do you intend to make the services of Moner Bondhu more available to the general people?

Tawhida Shiropa: We are providing tele and video counseling all over Bangladesh. We have served people from at least 30 districts, in both urban and rural areas. And this has been possible due to technological advancement and access to the internet. We are also holding online live sessions on important mental health topics regularly, where our counselors talk about these important issues and interact with the people watching these sessions. We are also regularly publishing video contents, write ups, tips for mental wellbeing and social media posts which are helping the general people to know more about mental health and Moner Bondhu’s services.

MBR: How many subscribers does Moner Bondhu have currently?

Tawhida Shiropa: So far, we have reached 10 lac people through our online platforms, 1 lac people through our events, workshops and group sessions and we have served over 4000 people.

MBR: What challenges does Moner Bondhu face in general?

Tawhida Shiropa: The biggest challenge that Moner Bondhu faces is the lack of people’s awareness about mental health and the need for professional counseling. To tackle this challenge, a big portion of our effort goes into awareness raising through our online platforms, events, Radio and TV shows.

MBR: Considering the Covid -19 situation, what kind of support services are more in demand?

Tawhida Shiropa: During this COVID-19 outbreak, many people are staying at home and minimizing their face-to-face social interaction. This has caused a lot of stress, panic, anxiety and depression among people. So people are availing our tele and video counseling sessions, as face-to-face counseling is not always possible in this circumstance. We have also released some free guided Bangla meditations on our social media platforms and website, which have become very popular. Our clients are now requesting live online mediation sessions.

MBR: What are the future plans for Moner Bondhu?

Tawhida Shiropa: First and foremost, Moner Bondhu wants to reach more and more people all over Bangladesh. We do not want anyone to suffer in silence, we want them to know that we are here to help. We are currently developing the first ever mental health App in Bangladesh exclusively for COVID-19. We are also creating online courses for personal and professional development of individuals, which will soon be launched. All of our work is based in research, so we want to continue our research and publish important research articles for all.