October 10 was World Mental Health Day. Posts on mental health were flooding social media. The ones who wanted to express their views on this very pertinent subject, hosted webinars and wrote articles and blogs. While all this is heartening, it is definitely not enough.
Yes mental health issues are no longer in the closet today and the understanding of what actually constitutes sound mental health is indeed evolving. But is our social ecosystem mature and equipped enough to help people who are undergoing mild, moderate and severe mental distress or psychological issues?
Let me simplify this question: It is one thing to openly say that we are a society that is committed to mental health but it is quite another thing to actually extend timely and appropriate help to the ones around us in distress. In the words of Shikha Sharma (name changed on request), "As a doctor I always knew that my colleagues have the right comprehension about psychiatric issues. They do well understand that a perfectly normal person can require the intervention of a shrink during a stressful life phase. So recently, while I was going through a prolonged phase of feeling low, I decided to confide in a colleague who is also a close friend from my medical college days. I had consciously decided to confide in her instead of going to a professional counselor or psychiatrist, owing to my hectic work schedule. However, I was shocked and upset to see how because of her conventional thinking she nearly made me feel ashamed about myself for feeling about something in a certain way."
The first point that emerges here is that generally as a society and as individuals, we Indians are a very judgmental lot. This deters a lot of people around us to confide about their problems and conflicts. Consequently, these people isolate themselves socially, magnify the problems in their heads and eventually ruminate on self destructive and even suicidal thoughts.
Before you offer a knee jerk solution and say but one must always confide in a professional counselor or psychiatrist, let me tell you that it does not always work this way for an overwhelming majority of people. For one, professional help entails money and not everyone who is in need of counseling can afford the sustained therapy sessions that are required. Second and this is a bigger one: not all counselors are equipped to handle patients with complex issues.
"The problem is many counselors generalize patients and offer very straitjacketed solutions," says Radha Bhattacharya who had undergone counseling some years ago. "For instance some counselors automatically and wrongly assume that career success is inextricably linked to the mental well being of a man or woman who is single and apparently confident and independent. My counselor in Kolkata was visibly scandalized when I told her that my depression was an outcome of my celibacy and not connected to work related conflicts. She actually looked uncomfortable when I added that despite my pressing need for sexual intimacy, marriage or even serious relationships was not an option for me at the moment," Radha recounted.
Generally as a society and as individuals, we Indians are a very judgmental lot"The dynamics of our social system have undergone tremendous change particularly in the past decade and half," says Reshmi Bhatta, a sociologist. "Society is a far more complex entity today than what it was fifty years ago. And within this complex system it has become more complicated for individuals to find their space, identity and self worth."
Reshmi's assessment is something that all of us will largely agree to. This should make us think about a very pertinent question: Has the domain of psychiatry and clinical psychology kept pace then with the changing times? "Well yes and no. I would say that the advances (courtesy research and investigations) have largely happened in the domain of psychiatry that deals with the medical aspects of mental health," says Dr N Phukan a very senior psychiatrist from Guwahati.
"Today we definitely know a lot more about chemical imbalances and impacts of endocrine disorders on mental health. Broadly speaking, the role of a psychologist or clinical counselor is to treat people who are not experiencing emotional or mental distress because of any biological impairment. The expertise and efficacy in doing this hence varies from counselor to counselor," he observes.
While clinical counselors do have some standardized questionnaires and assessment tools to ascertain the patient's overall psyche and mental condition, his/her job really starts when the patient starts sharing. "Every person is different and therefore the first responsibility of the counselor is to listen carefully and understand how exactly the patient is affected by the problem or situation that he/she is facing. A good counselor should be genuinely empathetic and be able to connect seemingly unconnected things while the patient is talking about himself/herself," says Dr Phukan.
Therefore all you folks reading this (laymen and mental health experts): Going forward let us pledge towards improving mental health in our society with a little more empathy and understanding.