Malika Noor Mehta© HelloIndia

Malika Noor Mehta On Mental Health And Leading The Change

The young scion of an illustrious family rooted in culture and politics may have diverged from her expected path by championing the cause of mental health. Yet, Malika Noor Mehta believes she’s carrying forward the most important legacy passed down from her parents: their values.

Her academic credentials are impressive, to say the least — Smith, Harvard, Columbia. Yet, Malika Noor Mehta is the most unassuming scholar you will likely meet. She dislikes discussing where she studied but is eager to share her learning.

The daughter of cultural activist Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum) and public policy luminary Vikram Singh Mehta, Malika’s passion lies in a different realm — that of mental health.

Working at an online platform, InnerHour (now Amaha), during the pandemic as a content strategist, she quickly realised she wanted to counsel people, prompting her to return to university at age 32 for formal training in psychology and mental health.

In 2023, she earned a dual Master’s in Education (Ed.M.) in Mental Health Counselling and Psychological Counselling at Columbia University. Back in Mumbai, she has started her practice. “I have always needed to be on the ground. By that, I mean, I need to work with the people I am trying to help,” says Malika.

In Conversation With Malika Noor Mehta

HELLO!: Malika, you left India for boarding school in the US after Class 9. Despite spending your formative years in the States, you’ve remained a proud Indian at heart. How did you strike that balance?

Malika Noor Mehta: “As a nine-year-old, my parents enrolled me in Kathak classes. By the age of 12, I had also started learning Bharatnatyam. They were not just dance forms for me; they were avenues through which I explored and better understood the rich history of our country — my dance teachers ensured that! Those initial learnings grounded me in something inherently Indian.

Over the years, my love for classical dance transformed into an enduring and amusing adoration for Bollywood dance (and music) — I’ve recently returned to training in that! I think another major factor was my family. My parents are deeply rooted in India. My father hails from Udaipur, where our extended family owns a beautiful ancestral haveli. Regardless of where I was in the world, I always spent New Year’s Eve there. My great-grandfather founded the Udaipur-based NGO Seva Mandir, where I volunteered. These experiences strengthened my bond with India.”

H!: You come from a family rooted in the arts and politics, yet you chose to forge your own You come from a family rooted in the arts and professional path. What are some of the life lessons you’ve learned or obstacles you’ve faced along the way?

MM: “My grandfather was a diplomat and Foreign Secretary to India. My nana was a Muslim scholar and leader in the Congress Party. As such, I grew up surrounded by discussions on the state of the world, politics and human rights.

By the time I was 21 and graduating from Smith College, I knew I was interested in public service and public policy. The biggest obstacle I faced was understanding that no issue is black and white; to create change, one has to let go of preconceived notions and engage with individuals across the aisle. While I hold strong opinions, I strive to listen to all sides — a lesson and obstacles at times.

I think I have imbibed my value systems from both my parents, even if I did not follow exactly in their footsteps. My mother is a powerhouse. I respect her immensely for what she has created in this city. My deep love for reading (I studied Comparative Literature in college) and photography comes from Amma. I have learned many lessons from her about determination and perseverance — she has fought against many odds to ensure the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum thrives. My father, Vikram Singh Mehta, runs a public policy think-tank called the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CESP). He is a passionate, deep thinker who writes extensively, reads voraciously, and tries to help others in any way he can. I believe my inclination towards public service comes from him.”

Malika Noor Mehta©HelloIndia

H!: You’ve mentioned that Teach for India (TFI) opened your eyes to the importance of integrating mental health and educational programming, saying “the two go hand in hand”. Could you elaborate on this statement?

MM: “As a TFI fellow, I taught Classes 3 and 4 in a government school in Mumbai. My students were some of the most resilient individuals I have ever met — imagine trying to get to school when your home has just collapsed from monsoon flooding or trying to learn when you’ve just lost your baby sister to dengue. How could anyone focus on learning English or Maths at such a time? I could tell you a story about each of my students and the obstacles they had to overcome just to get to the classroom, let alone learn!

If a school is not equipped with counsellors to help children manage their emotions, deal with trauma, and simply get through the day, it’s unreasonable to expect them to excel academically. Even if a student hasn’t experienced an objectively traumatic event, just being a child or academic expectations. Parents, teachers, and school administrators must help kids cope with these pressures by normalising the act of seeking mental health care.”

H!: You’ve said pursuing a double Master’s at Teachers College, Columbia University was the most fulfilling decision for your career. Why?

MM: “I have always needed to be on the ground, working with the people I am trying to help. While I strongly believe in the importance of wise and thoughtful policy, I think that one can only craft such policy if they have lived the grassroots realities of whatever they’re trying to address. Columbia trained me in how to be a therapist, how to counsel clients, how to diagnose disorders, and ultimately how to work with the grassroots realities of the mental health field. I have many dreams about what else I will do with my degree — whether it is returning to the West Bank to counsel people there or help with mental health programming; whether it is heading to the border of India to work with refugees there; or whether it is working closely with schools (my first love) and helping integrate academic work with mental health initiatives... I have so many dreams!”

Malika Noor Mehta©HelloIndia

H!: During your residency training at Columbia, you practised under supervision as a therapist in NYC. What are the biggest similarities or differences you’ve noticed working overseas compared to here in India?

MM: “People are people, no matter where we live or what nationality we hold. As such, the symptoms of a particular disorder present similarly in India and the US. However, the reasons why a disorder manifests in the first place are likely to differ between countries. Cultural norms, upbringing, education levels, socioeconomic status, and other circumstantial factors, play crucial roles.

Among some of the significant differences in the field, I would say that the US has grappled with the concept of mental health for much longer than India and has a more nuanced approach to the topic. They have stricter guidelines for therapists, more extensive training opportunities in the mental health field, more licensing bodies, and avenues, making it a more developed sector there. there. I do not doubt that India will catch up in this regard.”

H!: You recently married restaurateur Sameer Seth. Do you offer your input into his business, or do you subscribe to the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth”?

MM: “Oh, no! Definitely not! If I may say so myself, Sameer and his amazing co-founder, Yash Bhanage, are brilliant. They have contributed so much to this city, and I am so proud of them. I don’t think they need my input, but I truly enjoy being a fly on the wall during their brainstorms.”

H!: Lastly, what do you do to unwind?

MM: I adore my golden retriever, Maximus Floofius (a ridiculous name, I know!). You’d likely find me hanging out with him at home. I have several favourite activities — reading, writing (I have a column on mental health in Mint Lounge) and amateur photography. I also love Pilates and have the best trainer in the world: Meghna Thaker. I enjoy walking or swimming too.”

(Photos: Manish Mansingh; Styling: Anushree Sardesai; Make-Up & Hair: Hritika Thadeshwar)

This is an excerpt from an interview published in HELLO! India’s upcoming issue. To get your hands on the latest issue, click here!