- 10 Mar 2022
Truly understanding what someone goes through is not easy, but there are those who go the extra mile to make people feel heard, and their stories deserve to be shared and celebrated. Meet Raj Dagwar, a compassionate listener whose patience stems from the battles he fought against depression. Raj, a 23-year-old engineer from Pune also known as ‘Pune's People Whisperer’ runs an inspiring initiative to battle against depression. One can easily find him on F.C. Road offering people ₹10 in exchange for their stories. He offers people an incentive to step forward and talk about stories that bother them, to spread awareness about prioritizing mental health and seeking help without hesitation. Confiding in a stranger can work wonders, and sometimes, all you need is a listening ear!
It is believed that no one can understand a person's situation better than those who have been through similar situations. Raj's motivation behind this initiative exemplifies this. As someone who has been lonely and vulnerable when he was depressed, Raj understands the value of being heard and understood, and he aimed to be that person for countless others. When Raj first noticed his unhappiness, he found it hard to reach out and talk to his friends and family. He felt like he would be misunderstood, ridiculed, and made fun of, maybe even yelled at. His fear led to Raj keeping things to himself and feeling more alone than ever. Until one day, he found it within himself to open up to a psychologist. “When I was in depression, I wanted someone to understand how I felt. But I realized that no one would understand, including my parents”, says the 23-year-old. Recalling his experience about opening up to his psychologist, Raj shares how he realized the power of sharing our feelings and the pleasure of being heard without any judgment. “The day I opened up to my psychologist, I realized 90% of my problems were solved. I felt light like never before”, he said in an interview with Giving for Good Foundation.
Other than his battle with depression, what was happening around him played a major role in launching this initiative. Raj spoke about people who weren’t aware that what they were going through was depression. Many were dismissive of their feelings saying depression was ‘just an excuse to hide laziness’. Lack of resources and low accessibility to mental health professionals only add to the trouble. Raj notes that most people want their friends and family to get better, and be happy, but find it hard to accept ‘depression’ as a valid reason for their dissatisfaction with life. He wanted to reach out to as many people as possible, and that gave birth to the ‘Listeners Army’. “With the lockdown came news of people taking the wrong steps. This made me wonder about all that I could have done to reach out to people who were fighting internally. That might have made a difference”, adds Raj. Although he is shy, all these experiences have made Raj courageously step out of his comfort zone and his efforts started to show promising results. “People were opening up to me and the initiative was quickly getting a lot of attention, so it seemed right to add in volunteers to reach out to more people. I started in Pune, but gradually volunteers from different cities joined in, including Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Orissa. Then I thought of shifting online to reach anyone and everyone across India”, adds Raj.
The most challenging yet empowering encounter for Raj was with a girl who called him out of the blue. She told him that she was standing on her rooftop with a knife and planned to either cut her wrist or jump off! Raj had to choose his words with caution to calm her and ensure that she was safe. Soon, he helped her seek professional assistance and realized what it meant to save someone who is willing to risk it all. Raj believes there is no substitute for professional help and emphasizes on the importance of the same - “We can only listen and empathize as friends, but we cannot bring them out of difficult situations. It’s like first-aid.”
Raj plans to take his initiative to the next level. “With the help of ‘Listeners Army’ I want to make India #DepressionMukt in 5 years. There will be volunteers in every city and district who will help people talk about their feelings without being judged. Together, we can make a huge difference.” Raj personally experienced the taboo of mental health. His biggest challenge when working with people was the misconception and lack of awareness surrounding mental health. People were attached to damaging stereotypes propagated by society, and the taboo surrounding these topics was still strong. When he first started consulting a psychologist, words like ‘psycho’, ‘mental’, and whatnot came his way. All his experiences fueled his desire to raise awareness around mental health. Along with his Army, Raj is now building an online platform where people can reach out to them, share their feelings, and talk about what they are going through. A proud moment for him and his team was a session they held over Zoom, with over 200 participants who reached out to the Listeners Army to talk about their struggles with mental illness. He hopes to continue this endeavor and break the taboo surrounding depression.
Apart from lack of awareness, Raj talks about another existing challenge in terms of mental health. “There are very few people who seek professional help. The demand is less, so the cost per session is high which not every student can afford. So, we joined hands with different organizations who provide therapy sessions at an affordable price like ₹250 per student”, he said.
Raj is grateful for everything in his life, especially for being able to help people. He’s grateful for his family, for being alive, for the food he gets to eat, and for the many strangers he gets to listen to. He believes it’s a gift to be able to help people, and he’s thankful for the opportunity to give back to society, even after all he’s been through. Managing work along with this unique initiative is not a piece of cake. “I can’t really recall the last time I did something for myself but knowing that my initiative is helping so many people keeps me going”, he said. Raj's message to the youth is - “No matter what the situation, there is always a way out of it. Always reach out for help. Also, if you notice that someone you know is behaving a little strange, reach out them without hesitation. Let them know that you’re there when they need someone to hear them out. Your small act of kindness can make an unimaginable difference.” Giving for Good Foundation wholeheartedly respects his tireless efforts and truly believes that small acts of kindness can change lives — let's commit to making a difference!
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Puja Das
I'm Puja Das, a freelance writer & LinkedIn personal branding specialist. I'm from Assam, and a postgraduate in English. When I'm not busy building impressive personal brands on LinkedIn or writing for my clients, you'll either find me lost in the world of dancing or writing for myself.