Why many Indians don't trust mental health advice
The mental health industry has been growing in India as awareness increases. But many who don't fit into social norms say their experiences seeking help have left them feeling invalidated
A student based in Mumbai sought therapy after coming out to her family as a lesbian.
"It was a terrible time in my life. My father had disowned me, and I was guilty all the time. I felt I was letting my family down," Alina, using an alias, told DW.
The 25-year-old said seeking help had left her feeling invalidated, uncertain and low in self-esteem.
Therapist told me to apologize
"My therapist at the time told me that my father only wants what is good for me, and I should apologize to him. This made me feel as if I should be ashamed of my sexuality." After a couple of sessions, Alina stopped seeing the therapist.
"I have now luckily found a supportive queer community and a better therapist," Alina added. "A lot of counselors and therapists advertise that they are queer-friendly, but they really are not. This is quite dangerous to the mental health of so many individuals, especially those coming from traditional or restrictive families."
As India's top court debates same-sex marriage, the Indian Psychiatric Society extended its support for the cause of equal rights. In 2018, the umbrella body issued a statement saying homosexuality is a variant of normal sexuality and not an illness, adding that members of the LGBTQIA+ community should be treated equally.
However, some practitioners still carry outdated views when it comes to sexuality.
"Psy disciplines are historically based on social norms, and treatments were used as a way to correct or punish," says Raj Mariwala, director of the Mariwala Health Initiative. "Women used to be diagnosed with hysteria. There are remnants of it even now. The average just happens to be cis heterosexual and able-bodied. The discipline has not looked beyond making practitioners structurally competent, and there are massive gaps in the care provided," he told DW.
Rising mental health awareness
According to estimates by the World Health Organization, 56 million Indians suffer from depression and about 38 million suffer from anxiety disorders. Mental health awareness is on the rise, especially in urban India. A study by UnivDatos Market Insights showed that the mental health industry is expected to grow at an annual rate of 15% for the years 2022-2028.
Sriram, 30, shared his reasons for not having children with his psychiatrist.
"After a few sessions, when the topic came up again, she said I didn't want kids because I was selfish. I didn't understand how it impacted me at that point in time. It was only when I went to a different therapist that I was able to understand what a terrible experience I had," he told DW.
"She also discarded my porn addiction as normal. I wouldn't recommend her to anyone. She would often share stories of other patients with me, which meant she shared my stories to others as well," he said.
"Being single and, or, childfree, are choices that therapists are supposed to respect, just as any other choices that the client makes," Harini Prasad, consultant Psychologist at Chinmaya Mission Hospital, told DW. "But if it's a counselor who hasn't identified their biases and take supervision, judgments can creep into the work."
Ritika, a media professional, decided to get tested for ADHD as an adult. After going through a range of expensive and time-consuming behavioral assessment tests assigned to her by a mental health clinic, she got the results where there was no mention of the disorder. It only mentioned that she had generalized anxiety and mild depression, which she was already in therapy and taking medication for.
"I have struggled with neurodivergency my entire life, and I finally sought out the evaluation when every aspect of my life was being affected," Ritika said. "But the psychologist I consulted had no practical knowledge of the condition at all. Moreover, these tests attempted to analyze me in ways that felt hurtful and offensive. It said I struggle with communication and therefore have trouble forming lasting relationships. I work in the communications field, have a strong support system and have been with my partner for a decade. So I don't know where the assessment was coming from. They could have gotten more from just talking to me. It was not only useless but also harmful."
When Ritika questioned the lack of mention of ADHD, she was then informed that she "did not qualify" for it. "The entire process left me furious and invalidated," she said.
She later sought a consultation from a professional recommended by someone, and had a much better experience.
"Now I only seek out professionals who come personally recommended by someone I trust," she added.
The Mental Health Care Act, 2017, provides individuals with the right to make complaints about deficiencies in provision of services.
The Mariwala Health Initiative conducted a Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice course, through which they trained some 500 mental health professionals in India. They also listed the names of practitioners who have completed the course on their website. "Being queer, caste, disability friendly cannot be limited to one course. Professionals in the field should practice allyship and update themselves regularly and consistently," according to Mariwala.
When it comes to "bad therapy," professionals say people should not let this discourage them from seeking help.
"Clients need to trust how they feel around the therapist, counselor, psychiatrist. The same person may not be a good fit for everyone who needs support. Ask for credentials, ask for what approaches the counselor uses and what their consent policy is. Most importantly, you — the client — should feel respected, your choices are respected, and communication is respectful," said Prasad.
If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/.
Edited by: John Silk