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It's been 5 years since Dear Zindagi and yet stigma around therapy abounds

Mini

Gauri Shinde’s sensitive, important film starring Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan released today five years ago. Since then several celebrities have spoken publicly about their mental health journeys, trying to raise awareness. But despite it and all the hullaballoo around it on social media, little has changed on the ground.

It's been 5 years since Dear Zindagi and yet stigma around therapy abounds
Dear Zindagi, which released today five years ago, was arguably the first major Hindi film to show a person struggling with mental health in regular, everyday light.
Unlike its popular predecessors that showed mental infirmities as exaggerated histrionics (Smita Patil’s Kavita in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1982 film Arth) or a person suffering from it as a villain (Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul Mehra in Yash Chopra’s 1993 film Darr), Dear Zindagi neither pitied Alia Bhatt’s Kaira nor spouted any value judgments on her. It just let her be as she realises and addresses her unresolved traumas. And in doing so, it became a guiding light showing a country, largely unaware and misinformed about mental health, the magnitude of the problem, and how to navigate it.
It’s been five years since Gauri Shinde gave the world this sensitive, important film. Since then several celebrities have spoken publicly about their mental health journeys, trying to raise awareness. But despite it and all the hullaballoo around it on social media, little has changed on the ground. People are still skeptical about seeing a therapist or talking about their mental health socially. Families still see it as an embarrassing anomaly best hidden in the attic.
Dr. Reva Mehra, a scholar of English Literature, was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1995 when she was in Class 11. “In India, anyone under the entire spectrum of mental ill-health is summed up under one umbrella term—pagal. If a Parveen Babi dies of schizophrenia, she’s pagal. Meanwhile, someone who’s got clinical depression is also pagal,” she says.
“The first time my family acknowledged that something was not right with me was when I tried to hurt myself as a teenager. It was then that my mother finally took cognizance of the fact that what I was going through was so extenuating that I was forced to do what I did. In a family where no one else is as mentally vulnerable as you, they don’t quite acknowledge that you have a problem. Any kind of ailment which does not manifest itself in symptoms that are obvious to others is misunderstood. If you’ve not had a fever, you’d not understand it. If you’ve not had COVID-19, you won’t get it. The same is for mental infirmity. If you have not experienced it, you can’t imagine what it’s like.
“For so many years, I have been trying to get through to them. What people see me doing—my stellar academic record, my professional success—are the things they understand. My mental vagrancy, no one does or wants to,” Mehra adds.
Tanya Saxena, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who has been taking therapy for four years now, has a similar story to share. “I tried telling my family about it but they are not ready to listen. My mom ignores it and my dad cannot care any less. Every time I try to broach the subject, they tell me I’ve gone mad. It’s pointless. Forget my family, even my cousins my age don’t get it. They have not gone through anything that’s even remotely similar. They are happy in their cocoon and don’t want to break out of it,” she says.
Not just among family, which is a person’s first social unit, insensitivity around mental health abounds at every social tier. “I was in college dealing with clinical depression. I was under medication and all people saw was that a vehicle from a ‘mental hospital’, where I was kept under observation for seven days, came to drop me at my house. Suddenly, I was the butt of all jokes in college. In those three years, they never let me forget that something such had happened to me,” says Mehra.
Even professionals from the medical community judge. “The portfolio under which my counselor at Santokba Durlabhji Memorial Hospital in Jaipur operates is drug rehabilitation. Nasha Mukti. Each time I walk in and pay at the counter, the people sitting on the other side gauge me silently, thinking I’m some kind of an addict,” says Mehra.
“The first thing doctors ask me about is my lineage, trying to trace my mental ill-health to my ancestry. Is mental ill-health inherited? Is there a gene that causes madness? In fact, the way they have been tracing it, they tend to believe it’s more of a female disease than a male disease,” adds Mehra.
Riri Trivedi, an integrated regression therapist, clinical hypnotherapist, and the co-founder of Wellness Space, Ahmedabad, agrees that little research is happening in India in psychotherapy. “It is a very new field where you do trauma work, you release it from the body, you reframe in the mind. Unfortunately in India, there is no awareness around powerful techniques like regression, inner child work, empty chair, and parts work.”
She says people don’t know what will work for them. “They must understand that psychotherapists are different from psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychology as a stream of study does not equip its professionals to do any treatment. They can only do analysis. You can have 50 sessions with a psychologist, go for three years, and still not get any results. Because simply talking, rationalising, understanding, and intellectualising your problem cannot heal all trauma.
“Meanwhile, psychiatrists are medical doctors so influenced by the pharma lobby that they usually give only medicines which are a combination of four-five chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Your body should create them naturally but it doesn’t because of certain challenges and trauma. However, medicines don’t work at the root cause. They just numb you down. They do not help you overcome trauma, change your beliefs, or help you work on your emotions. This is what therapists do,” says Trivedi.
She adds that both psychiatrists and psychologists can help, provided you’re aware of what you need. “In severe cases, we do refer to psychiatrists as an emergency measure. Meanwhile, in mild cases, psychologists and counselling can help. But if you have trauma, PTSD, or trauma-related anxiety, depression, or panic attacks, then you should consult a psychotherapist.”
So what should someone looking for a therapist keep in mind? “I suggest people go to therapists who do evidence and research-based work, publish papers (especially in the fields of neuroscience, trauma, psychology, and physiology), and do clinical trials. When you go to a well-informed therapist, there’s measurability. For instance, we measure progress and change in our clients every four sessions. Unfortunately, most of the so-called healers and therapists don’t do any measurements. Therefore, it’s crucial that you check the therapist’s affiliations, certifications, and if they have published any papers. People go to the wrong professionals and then their trust in therapy goes for a toss,” says Trivedi.
The next question that merits attention is what should one look for in a therapist. Sidhartha Mallya, son of famed liquor baron Vijay Mallya, who recently released If I’m Honest, a book on his experiences with mental health, says you need to know what you’re comfortable with. “You’re only going to get out of therapy as much as you’re willing to put in. If you find someone you feel comfortable opening up to, you’re likely to get more help from them. It’s all about the connection. So if you can, try it out with a few therapists until you find the one you gel with the most,” he says.
Mehra agrees. “Your therapist should be able to listen to you objectively without any judgment. They should also speak very carefully. When you talk to someone struggling with mental health, no matter how happy or balanced they look, you need to weigh everything you say to them very carefully because they hold on to it. Moreover, a therapist needs to be empathetic.”
For Saxena, a therapist trying to invalidate your concerns is a major red flag. “They should think it’s OK and natural to feel the way I’m feeling. They shouldn’t make you feel like you’re a victim. Everyone you try to open up about your mental health makes you feel you’re mad or wrong or strange or inconsequential. You don’t want your therapist to make you feel the same way too.”
She also cautions against choosing a therapist of the opposite sex. “It’s very important that your therapist is of the same gender. A friend’s therapist fell in love with her. It wreaked havoc in her life. We share our most personal stories with our therapist, let out guard down, become vulnerable. It’s inevitable to feel a sense of closeness with them. Therefore, it’s better to not complicate the matters further,” Saxena says.
If you have been struggling with your mental health, Trivedi advises that you first try to work at it yourself before deciding to see a therapist. “There are several self-care techniques like EFT, self-hypnosis, meditation, and chanting, that can help. Learn research-based techniques that can help you manage, process negative emotions, and release them. If they don’t work out, then look for therapy,” she says.
“You can’t take therapy for your life. You need to rewire your brain, which has neural pathways that form out of repeated behaviours. If you want to change a behaviour, you need to change that brain pathway. It’s not going to happen by you intellectually understanding it,” she adds.
Trivedi, Saxena, Mehra, and Mallya all feel that it is experiencing shame, guilt, abuse, and social censor, especially when you are young, that starts it all. “We need to create an environment for children that allows them to be. Yes, you need to set healthy boundaries, but don’t be overly critical of everything your child does. When parents do too much of ‘do this, don’t do that,' children lose their authenticity and inner core self which is impulsive, creative, vivacious. This is when all these problems start.
“As a society, we need to learn to be non-judgemental. We need to understand that everybody’s life experiences and challenges are different. They make them who they are. Pause for a few moments before you react and assess why someone is doing what they are doing. If we do just this, it’ll help iron out a lot of our issues,” says Trivedi.
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