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Breaking Stigma and Empowering Youth: Interview with the Founder of Be Free

Meet Shan Kundu, a 22-year-old born in Birmingham to Indian parents. Shan battled with depression and anxiety during his school years, but the lack of support from his all-boys school and the heavy stigma surrounding mental health in his community made it harder for him to speak up. As he grew older, Shan realised he didn't want others to go through the same struggles he faced. So, he created a digital platform to share people's mental health stories.


Fast forward to when Shan began studying medicine at university, he decided to start the Be Free Campaign, a mental health charity, in an evidence-based fashion that grew alongside his maturity. Registered with the charity commission in 2019, Be Free Campaign's mission is to give people the tools they need to look after their mental health and well-being to live happier and more fulfilling lives. The charity aims to improve the system around mental health care, break down the stigma that reduces access to support and health services, and work with schools, universities, and community organisations to empower change and improve mental health curriculums.


Q: Can you tell us about Be Free and what the organisation does?


Shan: Be Free is an innovative mental health charity that's about equipping people with the tools they need to look after their mental health but also support others. We're almost a disruptor in the mental health space – we don't like to sit back and be quiet. At the time of starting, it was very small and stigma-breaking. Now, we do a lot of work across the country making mental health campaigning, school-based work, counselling, mental health provisions for schools, mental health-based programs, literally anything.


“The reason we exist is stigma and lack of conversation. People need us. There’s a need from a school perspective and a children’s perspective. For us, it’s a charity led by young people for young people - around 85% of our charity team is under 25.


“I’ve spent many times being in rooms with senior charity leaders who are all white, middle-aged people. There’s nothing against them, they’re fantastic, but I was the youngest and darkest person relating to a mental health charity. If we want to change the way things are, we’ve got to change from the roots. My mission is to diversify the sector and ensure it’s not just about all of us being able to share our voices.


Image Credit: Shan Kundu


Q: Can you talk about the inspiration behind the name Be Free?


Shan: The idea for the name was being free from that stigma. I felt quite trapped, and it was almost like, how can you be free from that?


Q: Can you tell us about the different levels Be Free works on?


Shan: We split our work into local, regional, and national levels. On the national side of things, we do a lot of campaigning work. We work closely with the Department for Health and Social Care; we work with 10 Downing Street and organisations in the national remit.


Q: What is the need for Be Free?


Shan: It’s very easy to sit back and not do anything about it because they worry about the impact it will have, but over time people will also echo the same message and back it. There needs to be a big push on collecting information and evidence – ironically, what we need to do is listen. It’s not just about reducing the number of suicides that occur but improving the quality of life of people. People can change; they just need the tools to do so.”


Q: Can you talk about Be Free's work in mental health education in schools?


Shan: The key thing here is early intervention. Primary school children could be given the tools to build up that emotional intelligence. That doesn't mean telling them about suicide, but for me, it's about educating children on what emotions are and what they feel like. If we can get that part right, then we can be more communicative of those emotions, and it becomes normality for them to be saying it.


Q: Can you talk about Be Free's work in training teachers?


Shan: We do a lot of training for teachers and how they can talk to their students. What I've seen is fear. They're scared that mentioning suicide is going to cause an increase in the rates of suicide. But actually, we've got to make it less scary. Talking about suicide reduces the rates of its occurrence - there's no correlation for talking about it and increased rates of suicide. From a teacher perspective, there is a lot of fear. How we go about that is starting that conversation and being less scared of getting it wrong. I guarantee they wouldn't be scared if they were talking about physical health.


Interviewer: Can you tell us about the policy side of things and what Be Free is campaigning for?


Be Free representative: This issue at the moment with the policy side of things and part of what we're campaigning for is a lack of cross-sector collaboration. At the moment we're campaigning for a collaborative approach because it will empower all of us and all children together. We've got to focus on early intervention and cross-sector collaboration. We were working with Sajid Javid on a Mental Health Strategy, but that was scrapped in replacement for the Major Conditions Strategy. Mental health needs to be a standalone thing. We can't group it with things like smoking and diabetes because there’s so many factors for each of them. The second we put them all together, it’s going to become a lot harder to give mental health the attention that it deserves – I’m not saying it deserves more attention than the others but it’s already marginalised and under a reduced amount of attention. There’s a lack of focus on young people from a government perspective across the board so it needs its own plan – that’s what we’ll be campaigning for continuously.”


Q: Can you tell us about the children's book that Be Free is finalising with its publishers?


Shan: We're just finalising a children's book with our publishers. It introduces emotions because we noticed that a lot of the formulation of our emotional process occurs around 5-7. If we can build up children's emotional intelligence and understanding that we all have emotions, then over time, we can build up the idea and take people across that journey of their mental health. 'The Night We Saved the Moon' - children go on a journey to bring light back to the moon because, just like humans, we can lose our light sometimes.


To find out more about the Be Free Campaign, click here.

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