The Clownselors

Spandana Datta

Talking to the founder of Clownselors, Sheetal Agarwal, on the impact of medical clowning and challenges of working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

May is recognised as Mental Health Awareness month. The concept of a Mental Health Awareness month came into being in 1949 in the US. It was initiated by an organisation called the Mental Health America, previously known as National Association for Mental Health. The idea is to raise awareness and educate the masses about mental illnesses and to reduce the social stigma around mental health every year in May. It aims to initiate an active dialogue about suicide and its prevention, an issue that is seldom discussed. As Glenn Close says, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well.” The theme for Mental Health Awareness Month, this May is “Tools 2 Thrive”. “Tools 2 Thrive” lays out practical tools so one may effectively manage one’s mental health and increase their adaptability, irrespective of the circumstances. 

“Clownselors are a volunteer-based group that practice medical clowning. To get an insight into their work of medical clowning, what it entails and the inspiration behind it, we reached out to Sheetal Agarwal, a sociologist, a social anthropologist by training, lecturer by profession and the Founder of Clownselors.”

In India, organisations are endeavouring to not only create awareness around mental health but also actively improve people’s mental health conditions. Clownselors is one such organisation. They are a volunteer-based group that practice medical clowning. While medical clowning is a common practice in the west, it is steadily gaining popularity in India. To get an insight into their work of medical clowning, what it entails and the inspiration behind it, we reached out to Sheetal Agarwal, a sociologist, a social anthropologist by training, lecturer by profession and the Founder of Clownselors.

“Medical clowning is a therapy to aid in the healing process of patients at hospitals using dance, music, magic, drama, etc to reduce pain and anxiety.”

“Medical clowning is a therapy to aid in the healing process of patients at hospitals using dance, music, magic, drama, etc to reduce pain and anxiety”, says Agarwal. Speaking about the importance of mental health in hospitals, she explains: “The focus of hospital care is usually on improving the physical condition of the patients while overall well being is normally neglected. Mental health goes hand-in-hand with physical health, but is rarely considered. Medical clowning focuses on the overall well being of a patient. It is a distraction therapy that demystifies and humanizes the whole hospital environment for children & adults. The concept of medical clowning is that no hospital bed should deny a person his/her right to be happy. Clown doctors create an enabling and supportive environment through interactive play and humour that facilitates a patient’s adaptation to the hospital setting and improves their acceptance of medical procedures and staff. Medical clowning also helps reduce stress and fear in guardians and hospital staff.”

“It involves hospital ward visits from ‘clown doctors’ who are specially trained clowns.” 

Medical clowning aka clown care is a healthcare facility. It involves hospital ward visits from “clown doctors” who are specially trained clowns. Medical clowning is the brainchild of Patch Adams, a doctor and a clown! As a social activist, Adams believed that creativity, laughter and joy served as a catalyst in one’s healing process. He devoted forty years of his life to ameliorate the American healthcare system as he brought medical clowning into being.

Referring to its establishment as a “beautiful accident”, Agarwal talks about the inspiration behind Clownselors: “Clownselors came into being by itself, a beautiful accident. I was at a Moved By Love retreat in Ahmedabad in January 2016, where a woman named Dhara introduced herself as a medical clown. I grew up fascinated by circus clowns but heard the term ‘medical clown’ for the first time. I was intrigued so I looked it up on the Internet. I loved the concept of medical clowning and loved the idea of sharing smiles and reducing the pain of those who are suffering at hospitals. I wanted to try it myself. I contacted Dhara enquiring about medical clowning groups in Delhi but unfortunately, there were none. I was keenly interested and so, I would enquire constantly until one day, she suggested that I start medical clowning in Delhi. I said no way… I have no background in theatre and I have always been an introvert. How could I possibly start something like this?”, initially hesitant, Agarwal decided to go ahead with it.  

On how it started, Agarwal says: “Days passed but the thought of clowning stayed. One night I posted a random status update on Facebook, asking how many people would like to share smiles and give a purpose to a simple smile? I got 33 responses. I needed 15 volunteers and hospital permission to start clowning. I wrote to the Health Ministry of Delhi seeking permission to clown at a government hospital. They liked the idea and a meeting was fixed with the director, Dr Anup Mohta of Chacha Nehru Baal Chikitsalaya. He loved the idea and gave us permission. We were supposed to have a workshop that could not happen. On 9th July 2016, 5 volunteers dressed as clowns entered the hospital singing and dancing, the whole atmosphere changed. We started with OPD and covered the entire hospital spread over five floors. When we came out I could not stop smiling. I was smile hungover and so were the volunteers. Clownselors was born!”.

“Clownselors comprised merely five volunteers in the beginning. But today, the scenario looks different with Clownselors spreading smiles almost everywhere: ‘We have had 200 plus people volunteer at different clowning sessions and there are about 16-18 regular volunteers. We not only clown at hospitals but all kinds of vulnerable spaces like old age homes, orphanages, slums, refugee camps and the like. We also organize awareness campaigns using clowning as a medium. We conduct Free Hugs Campaigns, clowning workshops and sessions on stress management and team building’.”

Clownselors comprised merely five volunteers in the beginning. But today, the scenario looks different with Clownselors spreading smiles almost everywhere: “We have had 200 plus people volunteer at different clowning sessions and there are about 16-18 regular volunteers. We not only clown at hospitals but all kinds of vulnerable spaces like old age homes, orphanages, slums, refugee camps and the like. We also organize awareness campaigns using clowning as a medium. We conduct Free Hugs Campaigns, clowning workshops and sessions on stress management and team building.” 

“Although an effective practice, medical clowning can be intimidating for some, especially for those with coulrophobia. Furthermore, a ghastly portrayal of clowns in movies and books has led to a negative perception of them. Agarwal explains: ‘We respect each individual and their experiences and engage with them according to their needs.’”

Although an effective practice, medical clowning can be intimidating for some, especially for those with coulrophobia. Furthermore, a ghastly portrayal of clowns in movies and books has led to a negative perception of them. Agarwal explains: “We respect each individual and their experiences and engage with them according to their needs. If a person is scared of clowns, we try not to bother him/her but engage with people around them, which makes them comfortable, eventually.” A challenge like this can be tough to handle but the volunteers at Clownselors have managed to navigate their way around it. “When parents see their child engaged and happy after days, it immediately changes the perception of a clown in their head. We have had so many experiences where parents were initially suspicious and slightly uncomfortable too. But when their child smiled, they thanked us with tears rolling down their cheeks.” 

With the onset of a global pandemic, medical clowning groups, worldwide, were affected deeply. Like everyone else, Clownselors was hit hard. “Coronavirus disrupted all our clowning sessions”, Agarwal expresses with grief. “Since March 2020, we have hardly been able to visit hospitals as hospitals are allowing doctors and staff and not medical clowns. We have lost our projects at hospitals like Apollo.” 

“COVID-19 also gave us opportunities to spread our wings and reach every part of India through virtual sessions. We conducted sessions on mental health at universities, stress management sessions for corporate sectors, clowning workshops for children and adults and clowning sessions for children at different shelter homes.”

Though the impact was rough, her team has managed to make the most out of the situation with their virtual sessions. “COVID-19 also gave us opportunities to spread our wings and reach every part of India through virtual sessions. We conducted sessions on mental health at universities, stress management sessions for corporate sectors, clowning workshops for children and adults and clowning sessions for children at different shelter homes. We made videos and sent them to COVID-19 patients to cheer them up and their families. We also made videos on the importance of self-love and self hugs and making mundane tasks fun during the lockdown. We also conducted clowning sessions at migrant shelters during the last lockdown. This April, we were invited by the government of Meghalaya to conduct clowning at various hospitals in Shillong. We even clowned at a Covid ward at NEIGRIHMS Hospital, Shillong.” 

“People are quite receptive to mental health awareness especially once they experience a shift. When a simple act of smiling or laughing reduces the anxiety levels or when a child is not eating and starts eating after engaging with a clown, it changes the perception of the guardians.” 

Globally, it is the youth who have taken an initiative to create and engage in a dialogue about mental health awareness. But are most people receptive to their ideas? “People are quite receptive to mental health awareness especially once they experience a shift. When a simple act of smiling or laughing reduces the anxiety levels or when a child is not eating and starts eating after engaging with a clown, it changes the perception of the guardians.” But are the elderly equally receptive? Agarwal confirms, “At old age homes, the receptivity is higher as they crave human interaction and feel so much better after playing with the clowns. After a clowning session at an old age home, an old lady told us that it was the first time in her life that she had laughed so much and felt absolutely elated!”. 

“Even in 2021, the stigma around mental health is massive. It is this social stigma that prevents people with mental health issues from getting help, which in turn, makes their issues even worse. As individuals, we can grasp and discuss the gravity of good mental health. But as a society, do we practice what we preach? ‘Unfortunately, people are not aware of mental health. The stigma attached with mental health is real’, says Agarwal.”

Even in 2021, the stigma around mental health is massive. It is this social stigma that prevents people with mental health issues from getting help, which in turn, makes their issues even worse. As individuals, we can grasp and discuss the gravity of good mental health. But as a society, do we practice what we preach? “Unfortunately, people are not aware of mental health. The stigma attached with mental health is real”, says Agarwal. However, there is a shift in perception when patients respond positively to medical clowning. “We have heard doctors, patients, guardians say there is no point of this therapy, and medicines will do the work. But when they see the impact they believe in the power of such therapies and also how physical and mental health are interrelated.”

No endeavour comes without its challenges and for Sheetal Agarwal, a couple of challenges are inevitable, even today: “Since Clownselors is a volunteer-based group, one of the challenges we face is the availability of volunteers. Secondly, hospitals like the idea but are not willing to pay so sustainability is always a challenge.” 

Although Clownselors is a fairly recent initiative, they believe they possess the “zeal to heal” people. With their mission to improve the overall well-being of people, Agarwal says anyone can volunteer with them. “People can volunteer with us by registering on our website. People can help spread awareness about our work through social media and help us get connected with hospital authorities. People may also contribute and donate to our organisation.”

Although Clownselors is a fairly recent initiative, they believe they possess the “zeal to heal” people. With their mission to improve the overall well-being of people, Agarwal says anyone can volunteer with them. “People can volunteer with us by registering on our website. People can help spread awareness about our work through social media and help us get connected with hospital authorities. People may also contribute and donate to our organisation.”

With medical clowning causing ripples of positive change worldwide, more and more countries globally are considering it as a complementary approach, along with medical treatment. Clown doctors have infused hospital corridors with laughter and positivity, leading to an improvement in the health of most terminally – ill patients. Maybe laughter, truly, is the best medicine. 

Spandana is an English Literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time. She is a Staff writer at Bol Magazine.

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