If you look around, you notice that mental health is increasingly becoming a prevalent issue in the country. You see news articles telling you that India’s mental health issues are a “ticking time bomb” and that depression is on a steady rise. We decided to ask some Indian women about their first experiences of seeking help and going to therapy, and this is what they had to say.
Sunita Rodrigues Saldhana, 52 years, writer and creative writing teacher, Mumbai
My first session of therapy was in the early 90s. The very idea of therapy was different back then. My husband and I had fixed an appointment with a couples’ counsellor to address our marital troubles. So, it wasn’t even an individual session. I was fairly apprehensive when I reached the therapist’s office. My therapist was a fairly young woman, who was unmarried and had no children. I was unsure how someone who had no idea of what it’s like to be married or have children, could understand what I was going through.
But the moment the session started, I realised she didn’t need to go through similar experiences to step into my shoes. She asked me empathetic questions about what I felt and what I wanted to do. I told her about me being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The fact that she kept her calm through it made me feel like it was okay to feel this way. She didn’t trivialise my emotions. I felt much better. Even though it was a dual therapy session, she paid careful attention to both of us individually. During the individual period of my counselling, she made a rule that I should not talk about my husband or children. Just myself. She encouraged me to talk about where I stood with my dreams and what I alone felt.
My initial nervousness receded and I realised how much potential therapy held for my mental state at that point because a single session of therapy helped me get perspective about my marriage and how I see myself in it. I’d been close to a nervous breakdown and my first therapy session, albeit with my then husband, gave me hope that I could take control of my own life.
Reethu GL, 27, dance choreographer, Chennai
I was forced to go to therapy in early 2012 because I had attempted suicide. I had a breakdown, my father had just passed away and one week after my father’s death my boyfriend dumped me. I didn’t know what to do, so I was recommended for therapy.
During my first session, the psychiatrist asked me a series of questions and diagnosed me with an adjustment disorder and anxiety issues. He asked me questions to see if there was a pattern in my behaviour. I told him about my relationship and father, so he figured out that the depression was majorly because of my boyfriend breaking up with me. He showed me a few pictures, and asked me what I thought about it. They were just misshapen colours, circles, squares. He showed me about four or five pictures and asked me what I thought about it and I told him they were all very colourful. He asked me to write or draw something, I told him I don’t feel like doing it. He didn’t persist.
He also kept asking a lot of questions to figure out if I have odd, extreme behavioural issues, or if I just lose my temper sometimes. In the end, he also explained that I’m not suicidal, it’s very momentary and when two major things happened in my life at a time I just couldn’t control myself. I kept telling him again and again I was feeling very guilty, as the only daughter in the family, with a single mother to take care of; that I was ashamed of what I’d done and had no intention of doing it again I kept crying throughout the session through all his questioning. Not how I imagined a therapy session to be like.
Soundari Chelvanathan, 35, Domestic worker, Trichy
After my husband died, I wanted to stop working but I had to support my children, my unwed sister and brother so I had no choice. But when I went to my madam’s (employer’s) house in the mornings, I cried so much while sweeping the house, washing vessels, mopping the floor and even making food. My madam then talked to me and told me to stop crying and asked me if I needed help from a doctor. I thought she was talking about medicines but then she told me I could go to a “manothathuva nibunar” (mental health specialist or roughly translated to psychologist). I told her I wasn’t “mental” and she told me that it was also for those who have suffered a loss, want to vent or are having trouble going through day-to-day life. I hesitated but I agreed to go and kept it a secret from everyone.
The first time I had to go, I lied to my family saying I had to go to work early and went to my madam’s house. She then took me in her car to the doctor and left and said that she’d pick me up after an hour. I wasn’t sure what to do. Then the doctor made me sit and asked me questions. I was confused — why did she want to know about my life? She was asking too many questions and I didn’t know what to say or feel. I just kept silent for some time. The doctor madam offered me tea and asked questions about my husband. In a while, I burst into tears — all this was new to me but I felt calmed by her and started talking. For an hour, I talked to her about my husband and she told me what I felt was normal and soothed me down. I made a note of this and then I left, saying many thanks. The next day my madam told me this was weekly, but I told her I didn’t want to but that I would do my best to stop crying and start living.
Jeethi, 27, Senior HR consultant, Mumbai
I have never had a problem talking to strangers but when it comes to personal matters, there is the fear of being judged and not being taken seriously. But in my first session, my therapist made me feel at ease and comfortable to speak at my own pace — a complete professional who patiently listened and understood me.
We always take such good care of our physical health, but do not give importance to any kind of the trauma that the mind goes through. We think that we can manage and it is not a big concern, but after a point we can see it start to affect us much more than expected. As you get older, you feel more inhibited to ask for help. I strongly believe that it is never too late to seek help when we need it.
Shirisha P, 42, HR professional, Bangalore
Working has been a constant struggle for me. My husband was in the Indian Air Force and we were shifting too often for me to stick to one job long enough. After 12 years, I made the decision to pursue my MBA in Pune — living with my 2 small children and away from my husband. But in spite of my qualifications and being older than my peers, finding employment at campus placements was no easy task. I have not been able to stick to one job for more than 2 years and with time I began to get anxious and depressed. I was facing an identity crisis about not being able to hold a stable job. I am very close to my son and he recently moved out of our home to pursue his education. My husband and daughter follow their own routine and I started to feel quite lonely. It was at this time that I realised that I needed to let everything out and find someone to talk to.
In my first session, the therapist had me fill out a questionnaire with questions about myself and my marital life to get a sense of my personality. That session was about me letting it all out — telling her how I felt, how confused and upset I was about not being able to stick to a job, the large time gaps between jobs, the prejudices I had faced on account of my age, being a woman and being married. She did not try to tell me what I had to do but instead tried to understand my thought process. She has given me several tips on how to control my feelings of negativity and helplessness whenever I am overwhelmed and this has really helped me. While these negative thoughts have not gone away completely, at least now I know how to keep myself in check when I feel it coming on.
Sandhya Menon, 37, Journalist and Editor, Bangalore
I was diagnosed with BPD (borderline personality disorder) in 2012 by a psychiatrist in Chennai. On my first visit to her office I was a nervous wreck. I was having multiple mood disorders and breakdowns for two months and was desperate to get diagnosed. I suspected that I have bipolar disorder.
The psychiatrist I went to came highly recommended. But it was the worst experience with her. She said that I didn’t have bi-polar (which is treatable) but BPD (which can’t be cured, just managed). She said it so nonchalantly. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal to her but I was extremely tense about it. When I asked her about how to manage this, she just told me to read a book or look up on the internet about BPD, which is the worst thing you can ask a patient to do. Here I was, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had BPD and this shrink was telling me about it like all I had was a tan on my skin. I tried to probe further but she just kept insisting that I read this and that. Why did I have to go to her if I wanted to look shit up from the internet?
She was very insensitive to my condition during my session. I asked her if she had dealt with cases of BPD. To give examples of the cases she’d handled, she went into details of her patients. Who does that? She even started character-shaming them by describing how one of her patients ‘slept around’. What had any of that to do with her mental illness? I immediately distrusted the shrink. It was already on edge but this just infuriated me. I never went back to her. Soon after, I found another therapist in Bangalore and haven’t looked back since.
Vinal Jain, 30, Artist, Bangalore
I called up a therapist four years ago to talk to them soon after I moved in with my in-laws after marriage. I was suddenly trying to understand a woman’s role in a patriarchal system (I became a feminist after marriage!). I was thinking about all kinds of things: stereotypical ‘women’s role’ and expectations in society, always having to be sari-clad instead of what you want to wear. The pressure that the older generation tries to impose on someone who has liberated ideologies. I was thinking how a man could be torn between the age-old drama between his mother and his wife. I used to talk to my mother and friends about this issue, and they gave me their own perspectives. I wanted to seek a professional perspective, from someone who was meeting people from different walks of life. I knew they wouldn’t be community specific, but gender specific to such issues. So I called a telephone service I knew about for help. It wasn’t much use: We spoke for half an hour, I really just vented, and felt better. I didn’t call again though.