In recent times, various forms complementary and alternative therapies have been adopted by people going through mental health issues, owing to therapeutic benefits. Let’s introduce ourselves to alternative therapy and learn how it can aid mental health.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we have Elizabeth Donahue, Associate Chair of the Art Therapy Program at Antioch University, Seattle. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist. She enjoys working with her clients to find their voice through artistic expression.
Beth- Thank you, Valerie.
Valerie- Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today.
Beth- Oh, I’m happy to be here.
Valerie- Let’s start with you telling us what Alternative Therapy for mental health is and how it compares to conventional psychotherapy.
Beth- Yeah, so I think many people are familiar with how conventional psychotherapy works. You go to see your therapist and you sit in your office and you talk with them and they listen and maybe they would give you some feedback or some advice. And that works really well for a lot of people but other people maybe don’t have the words to express their emotions, or maybe the things that they need to talk about are a little too hard to talk about, maybe too traumatic. So that’s where alternative therapies can come into play. Art Therapy, Drama Therapy, Clay Therapy, Music Therapy- these are all ways for people to rest their thoughts and emotions through different media rather than through just talking.
Valerie- Right. You said that you can express yourself through different media apart from just talking. Is that the only reason that one would consider Alternative Therapy or could there be other reasons as well?
Beth- There could be other reasons! Some people might find that they enjoy creative expression, that the simple act of art making or music making is therapeutic in itself. They might find that being guided through their creative activities by an art therapist or a music therapist might be beneficial.
Valerie- Okay. Like you just told us, there are various forms of alternative therapy for mental health. There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and a lot more. How would we know which form would help us best express ourselves?
Beth- I think one option might be to consider which one you enjoy engaging in media. If you are a person that likes to draw or paint, then Art Therapy might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy using your body and movements to express yourself, something like Dance Movement Therapy or Drama Therapy might be more appropriate for you. I think the best way to choose is based on what you’re already interested in.
Valerie- Right. So I consider myself to be somebody who does not draw, who does not dance, who does not sing very well either. So taking all of this into consideration and if you want to try out Alternative Therapy, is it necessary for you to have an inclination towards one of these specific things or can you try it out regardless?
Beth- Such a good question! Yeah, of course. The job of an art therapist or a drama therapist, the alternative therapist, is to help you express yourself through these different mediums and they can assist you. Say maybe you want to express yourself through dance but you’re not a dancer. You’ve never taken a dance class and you don’t know anything about it. Their job is to help you obtain the skills that you need to express yourself. They might show you a couple of dance moves or a few poses, to help you express yourself. It’s the same with art or drama therapy.
For example, to be an Art Therapist, you must be a trained artist yourself. So you know how to use the different art supplies that might be present and you can teach the person who’s with you, your client, to use those supplies as well. So you don’t need to do anything! The other cool thing is that art therapy or music therapy, these aren’t about creating fine works of art that might hang in a museum. Their purpose is the journey itself so the creation of the artwork is what’s important and not really the end result. You don’t have to worry about not making something that looks beautiful, you just worry about making something that expresses yourself.
Valerie- Right. I love that you said that the purpose is the journey. It’s not about what you create or the quality of the stuff that you’re doing but it’s about the process of doing it.
Beth- Yes, exactly. That’s totally true.
Valerie- So you are a registered mental health counselor. You chose to take an alternative form of therapy and work as an Art Therapist. What made you make this decision?
Beth- Well, there are a couple of reasons that I decided to be both, a mental health counselor and an Art Therapist. One of them is that I want to be able to support my clients in whatever way they want to express themselves and so sometimes that means through art, and sometimes that means they do just want to just talk, and I want to be able to support them in doing both things. The other thing is that there’s a little bit of a technical issue in the United States. In most places, you can’t be licensed as an Art Therapist, you need to also be licensed as a mental health counsellor in order to work with people. So I thought it’s a good idea to have that background as well in case I want to work in various settings. So really, I wanted to make sure that I was able to support and help the largest number of people and I didn’t want to limit myself to only doing alternative therapy. I wanted to be able to do both.
Valerie- That’s beautiful, that you wanted to help as many people as you could and also take the interest that you have in art and use that to help people.
Beth- Well, thank you! Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been wonderful.
Valerie- Could you give us an insight into what happens in an Art Therapy session?
Beth- Sure! A number of different things might happen. A person might come into my art therapy room and just sit down at the desk and just pick up some supplies and start expressing themselves that way, right away. Sometimes I am just a compassionate witness to the art-making and we don’t really talk at all. They make art and they find that therapeutic and maybe we’ll talk a little bit at the end of the session. Another way though can be that a person comes down in my office and they sit down and they’re really struggling to tell me about something. They really feel like there’s something they want me to know but they don’t have the right words and they’re kind of frustrated that way. And so I might ask them to pick a colour and draw whatever shape comes to mind first. Then we start there with something really simple, and then we might move on to a far more detailed picture that helps us both understand that they’re trying to say. Is that helpful?
Valerie- Yes but this actually made me think of another thing- the tasks that you’re talking about like trying to ask them to draw a shape, it’s all so abstract that I don’t understand how you can actually make sense of stuff like that and help people. How do you do that? Or is that something you’ve been trained to understand?
Beth- That’s a really good question! So no, say I ask somebody to pick a colour and draw a shape. They picked green and they drew a square. I’m not going to know what that means just by looking at it but what I would do is ask the person who drew it to explain it to me. I might say- Well, I noticed you chose a bright colour of green. Can you tell me what this reminds you of? When you look at this colour of green, what else do you think about? And then I might ask- I notice you drew this shape. What does this shape remind you of? What do you think of when you use this shape? When’s the first time you saw that shape? – And so by association, the client starts to explain why they chose the colour and shape and then we might get to something deeper, something more about the issue that they want to talk about. One thing people think art therapists might do is find meaning in other people’s artwork and be able to read their minds by looking at the art but we don’t do that at all. We ask the clients questions.
Valerie- So it’s really digging deep into what and why your client has chosen something and trying to understand it from their perspective, taking into account what they’ve drawn or what they’ve chosen to draw.
Beth- Exactly. That’s exactly right.
Valerie- That’s interesting. So in your life, you are an Art Therapist to all of your clients but when you feel low or when you need help, is art something you turn to as well?
Beth- It is something that I turn to as well. I find art-making to be really soothing. I do two kinds of art- I do textile work, which is about repetitive motion, so embroidery or cross-stitch, something that is really concrete and takes a lot of the same motion over and over, and I find that doing that kind of activity can be really relaxing. In the other kind, I don’t need to relax, I actually need to get energy out and so I draw on really big canvases and make really big artwork so that I’m moving my limbs a lot to express myself and that helps me release some emotion, when I need to do that.
Valerie- Right. So is a lot of Alternative Therapy engaging in repetitive motions that can try to calm and soothe you?
Beth- It is for some people. That’s a thing that works for me. For other people, it can be more about engaging with the materials itself. I’m thinking about a little girl that I worked with years ago- she liked to work with clay and she really liked to just grab the clay and squish it between her fingers and have that experience of just feeling the clay, and that’s how she releases tension. She just really squished that clay, tore it to pieces and then she felt relieved from that, she felt better.
Valerie- Right. Another question I want to ask you is that you’ve introduced us to Alternative Therapy, what it is, when one should consider using Alternative Therapy but can it replace conventional psychotherapy or does it work as something that complements it?
Beth- I think it depends on the client. Yes, it can absolutely be the only therapy that people are using, it can replace conventional psychotherapy for a lot of people. For some other people, maybe depending on the diagnosis, they might need both kinds. They might need both talk therapy and an alternative therapy to support that.
Valerie- So when we talk about Alternative Therapy, we have music, art, dance, drama, there’s so much. Is it something that somebody can try at home or is that different from actual alternative therapy?
Beth- You have so many good questions! Yes, absolutely. People can engage in alternative therapies at home. They can engage in art-making, dance, music, clay therapy, they can do all of this at home and they are therapeutic. But what makes it Art Therapy or Drama Therapy is having a trained alternative therapist, somebody trained with you in the room, because that is what takes it to the next level and makes it a therapy rather than just therapeutic. Am I making sense?
Valerie- Yup. That makes sense. Another question I wanted to ask you is that with the Pandemic and so much going on, I’m sure you must have a lot more clients coming to you because there’ just so much going on in the World that’s making everyone so uncomfortable. At the end of it all, I’m sure you must be going through a lot of long days right now but how do you unwind? How do you take care of your own mental health to make sure that you’re not burning out and you can still help the clients that come to you?
Beth- That’s a lovely question. Well, the first thing is that I see an Art Therapist myself. I have an Art Therapist that I see and work with and I think it’s really important for all therapists, counsellors, healers to have their own person that they can talk to and make art with, if that’s how they express themselves. So that’s one way. Another thing that I do is try to engage in activities that are totally different from art therapy. So I’ve really gotten into cooking in the last six months or so. I was a person who ordered takeout a lot but now I have cooked things from scratch in my own home and it’s good! It’s a soothing activity and then I have nourishment at the end, I have something to eat.
Valerie- Right. Well, Beth thank you so much for talking to us today about Alternative Therapy because it’s something that we’re going to try to explore now with every episode that we have and we’re going to try to get in-depth into the therapies that we discussed today. Thank you so much for actually coming here and spreading light about Alternative Therapy and how it can be used. Also, a very nice thing I liked that you said at the end was that you have your own therapist as well. We always need someone to talk to and share our burden with and I think that was an absolutely beautiful note to end this on. Thank you so much for coming today.
Beth- Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing the rest of the episodes in the podcast. Valerie- Sure, thank you.
In our country, safety has always been a major public health concern. While it’s disheartening to see cases of abuse almost constantly flashed on our television screens, stigma around the issue prevents us from talking about it or discussing the personal trauma that one battles.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie.
Today, we have Viji Ganesh, Personal Safety Coach and Educator. She volunteers and works as a freelancer promoting awareness and prevention education about Child Sexual Abuse and imparting sexuality education. She is here talk to us about the impact that child sexual abuse has on one’s mental health and how we can help contribute to a safe space for children.
Viji- Thank you, Valerie. It’s such an appropriate time to do this because just yesterday, Child Safety Week ended. November 14th being Children’s Day in India, November 19th being International Day of Abuse Prevention and November 20th being International Children’s Day. We had a week-long session on creating awareness about this particular topic. It’s so apt that we’re doing this today. Thank you for this opportunity.
Valerie- Thank you. It’s amazing that you spent the entire last week and actually, most of what you do is to promote a safe space for children and create awareness about child sexual abuse.
Viji- That’s right. I’m mostly into primary prevention, which is to get people to talk about it more and help child children and empower them to get into protective behaviours- to protect themselves from abuse and also to not become abusive.
Valerie- So, when we look at statistics in India, it shows that around 110 children are sexually abused every single day. You can see around us that a lot of people may not even be aware of the fact that such acts are committed, or we choose not to talk about them because we find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. When you look at the people affected by it, it is so difficult for them to talk about it because of so much stigma that’s associated with it, or sometimes it happens at such a young age that they don’t even understand what’s happening to them. What are your views on this?
Viji- Child sexual abuse is rather disturbing, abhorrent and most often an unimaginable crime for most of us but the unfortunate reality is that it exists and does keep happening. Many people say that only of late, the incidences have increased but I wouldn’t agree with that because it is only now that the reporting has increased. It has always been happening but thanks to social media, the reporting has increased now. As you said, there is a lot of stigma around this, most of us are in denial. Most of us are also uncomfortable and inhibited from talking about this. That is where primary prevention comes in. The response to child sexual abuse should be handled with a view to increase awareness rather than to be in denial. It may seem very daunting and we can get overwhelmed by itbut let me assure you, the fears, concerns and inhibitions are all very relevant and cannot be wished away. We have to deal with it so that we can empower our children effectively, address this issue to prevent it and help survivors heal.
You are very right when you say there is so much stigma around this, mostly because when a survivor speaks up, they are most often not believed or are shamed. They are blamed and asked questions about what they were wearing, till what time they were out, and other typical questions. So most often, they prefer to keep quiet and suffer in silence. But we need to speak up about this. Not only the affected or the survivors, those who are not affected should also have the same amount of empathy towards it and only then can this issue be addressed in its totality. It starts with the community. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to address this issue. All of us have a role and responsibility in addressing this issue, is what I feel.
Valerie- Very true. When you spoke about the amount of stigma that’s associated with it that so many children prefer to suffer in silence as opposed to being questioned and shamed, in relation to this I wanted to ask you that people who face child sexual abuse often battle psychiatric disorders mostly because of stigma, suffering in silence and the after-effects of trauma. This may extend and reflect largely on their adult lives too, at times. Could you elaborate on this for us?
Viji- Yeah, sure. Most often, ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are by people known to the child. Stranger danger is no longer a real danger. Not all strangers are dangerous and not all known people are safe. In most CSA cases, it is a known person that commits this crime. That is the first difficulty that a child faces- not being able to accept that it has happened by someone they trust, like and have to live with in the same house, sometimes. That’s where it all starts. The confusion and emotional conflict that they have with the person. As a child, they suffer a lot. It can lead to a fall in academics, eating disorders, bed-wetting, sexualized behavior or becoming introverted. It could manifest in many ways but these should not be looked at in isolation, they have to be seen together.
But as an adult, it can manifest in varied complex ways. There could be physical symptoms which disappear after a while which could be treated and medically addressed but there are a lot of emotional aspects that an adult survivor could go through- anxiety, depression, PTSD and emotional distress. Some of them could even suffer from eating disorders. They could even have externalizing behaviours such as substance abuse, alcoholism and in some cases, can also become abusive themselves, but not all abusers have a history of being abused so it has to be seen in isolation. The fact that ninety percent of these cases are of abuse by trusted adults leads them to trust issues, issues in interpersonal relationships and may also become revictimized in several relationships. They may be in a self-blame mode thinking that they did something which is why this happened to them. The system doesn’t respond to tell them that it’s not their fault, that it was never their fault. We always tell parents that to encourage disclosure, first listen and listen actively. In fact, we tell the parents that if they suspect that some child is on the threshold of disclosure, the first words that you should say is “It’s not your fault”. Once we start from there, the healing journey becomes easier. That’s how it manifests. The effect of CSA could be very complex and long lasting.
I would like to quote a particular incident that happened in my workshop- a 63 year old grandmother had brought her granddaughter for my workshop in Hyderabad, around 8 years ago. After the session, I was quite overwhelmed listening to her tell me that she wished she had these kinds of workshops and education when she was growing up because she was also abused as a child and at 63 years old, this was the first time she was talking about it. That kind of jolted me, to realise that somebody could live uncompromisingly as an adult, with this in the background. One of the ways they deal with it is to push it to the back-burner, but you never know when it will erupt. Broadly, these are the effects that it can have on a functional adult. Sometimes, there could be a compromise on adult functionalities- they could appear to be normal but you don’t know what they are going through within. There is so much more to it than what I can tell you during this brief podcast.
Valerie- Right, but thank you for spreading light on this for us. You are someone who is deeply involved in the cause of child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, like you said, you host plenty workshops to spread awareness about this. How important would you say reaching out is for those affected by it? When you come across someone affected by child sexual abuse, what is your approach and interaction like?
Viji- In nature, everything is resilient with an attitude to bear with all to heal and spring back to life. The first thing a survivor should have is the bravery to ask for help. That’s the bravest thing that one can do and it opens up a floodgate of options for them to start their healing journey. Which is why we keep reminding them that it’s not their fault and that they should ask for help. You do not have to define yourself by what happened when you were a child, when things were out of your control. It’s just like if you meet with an accident on the road, if you break your knee, you get surgery. You do not define yourself by the accident or what your knee has undergone. If you have the same perspective about abuse as well, it is easier to heal but even as I say that, I am aware that the two are not comparable situations but what’s important is that we do not define ourselves by what happened to us as we were a child, when things were out of our control. It is very difficult but it is not impossible to start our healing journey towards closure.
This is where our society comes in to work on the stigma attached to it. In newspaper headlines, when they report incidents of abuse, it is always the victim that’s highlighted and not the abuser. We need to change that narrative. The blame needs to shift from the victim to the abuser. That in itself gives acceptance and can help start the path to healing.There are many ways to deal with the trauma from sexual abuse, there is no one solution that would fit all. Some people could spring back to action soon, some people could put it on the back-burner and live a normal life, some people could do things positively and help heal others. There are various ways to heal and that journey starts with the bravery to ask for help. That would be my message to all survivors- ask for help.
Valerie- I think it’s beautiful that you said don’t define yourself by what happened. You don’t centre your life around one incident. I thought that was beautiful.
Viji- Thank you.
Valerie- How do you approach people when they come to you and show bravery to talk about what they have been through? How do you approach and interact with them?
Viji- Basically, it all comes down to listening. Abuse is all about power inequity. It’s never about a sexual act but about somebody more powerful doing something that you have no control over. That is the stage they are in which is why even a grown adult gets into patterns of revictimization and self-blame, and always look for validation in others. This is one of the manifestations. We try to tell them that now you are in a safe position, it is over and done with. We may even take them back to that memory or place or time and relive it at their level of comfort and get over the lack of power that they felt at that time, and feel more powerful about their current empowering situations. They say that even now, it is a child that’s trapped in an adult’s mind even now. When they think about the abuse, they think of themselves as the child which was abused then and not as an adult now. That is why we have to start the journey from there and overcome their limitations. Also create safe spaces now, surround yourself with positivity, positive people and safe people.
Valerie- Okay. Talking about the importance of safe spaces, could you elaborate on some personal safety lessons that one can learn at schools?
Viji- Schools are a great place for transformation. It is where every child spends two-thirds of their waitful hours. Be it disclosures or learning about safety measures, it all happens majorly in schools. Their resources for disclosure are peers and teachers. We advocate personal safety education for children right from kindergarten till the end of their school years. It’s a holistic life skill approach that we follow, that gives them the education that empowers them to take part in their own protection, with knowledge, assertive skills, and information. The basic problem with most children when it comes to child sexual abuse is the lack of vocabulary, we do not name our body parts correctly. To children, a hand, a forehead and a penis are all body parts when they are just two or three years old. It is the adult mind which thinks of these parts as reproductive organs to use for sexualized behaviours. To a child, a vagina or a penis is just another part like a hand or a leg. Our education proceeds by giving them the correct names of their body parts, teaching them their functionality and slowly, as they grow into adolescence, discuss sexuality education.
We teach them assertive skills by telling them that they are unique and special and have full body autonomy and they have every right to say “no” to any unwanted touch. It is not “who” that matters but the action. It could be anybody, it doesn’t matter but what matters is what they do, whether you like it and whether you want it. The commonly used terms of “bad” and “good” touch are not recommended, instead we should teach children about “safe” and “unsafe” touches. I would like to quote from one of my workshops- a small boy asked me “What if I feel good about a bad touch?”. Some of these touches could make them feel good even though they are intentionally wrong because these are all places filled with nerve centres and a lot of blood flow so it could make them feel good and pleasurable but they do not have the perception to know that the act itself is wrong so they could just stop with feeling that it makes them feel good.
We want to teach children that they have absolute body autonomy and the full right to say “no” to any touch that they do not like. Any form of physical affection should always be at the behest of the child and not the calling of an adult. We cannot make our children responsible for an adult’s emotion. We educate the parents to accept a “no” every now and then so that the children know that it all starts from home and that the significant people in their lives will accept it when they say “no”. Once you give them the confidence that they can say “no” and that it will be accepted in the right spirit, they will do it outside as well. Whereas if you tell them that they have to respect adults and listen to whatever they say, they will remember that and even if it is a wrong touch, they may think about it and stay silent.
We also teach them to build a robust support system of adults and communities by choosing their trusted adults, possibly parents, family and teachers, and also how to handle emotions like fear and anger, which are normally seen as negative emotions but we tell them that fear and anger are very positive emotions, which are like red flags. If you fear something, it means that you need to do something about it. It is an action point. If you feel angry, you need to act on that anger in the right way. We teach them conflict resolution and how to handle their emotions. Before telling them how to handle their emotions, we tell them to recognize and talk about their feelings. We do not know how to put a label on our emotions. Only when we know what we’re feeling will we be able to address and handle it. We also help build empathy because while every care is taken to prevent abuse from happening to them, we also need to ensure that they do not become abusive and that’s where empathy comes into play. The most important thing we teach them is that despite all this, if it still happens, do not blame yourself because it was never your fault. This is our personal safety education in a nutshell.
Valerie- Thank you for talking to us about this, it was very informative. Especially the part where you said that you’re supposed to understand your emotions and channel it correctly. Also not to blame yourself for anything that happens, if it does.
Viji- That’s the most important, yes.
Valerie- Also, when we talk about the current situation in the World, there is so much darkness when it comes to sexual abuse. There is so much talk about it and it’s because it keeps happening. I wanted to ask you- How do you see things getting brighter in the future? How do we become part of the solution?
Viji- That’s a very good question. We have to be a part of the solution and not stay in the problem forever. There are many knee-jerk reactions whenever a case is reported- there is media bashing and a lot of blogs being written but after that, nothing happens. Do we do anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? We are all in denial that it is happening to someone else, it may not happen to me. Prevention and healing require an equal amount of sensitivity, care, positivity, optimism and being practical.
When it comes to care, you teach personal safety education to children, start a conversation about it, make note of the vulnerable points in your community and the possibility of abuse happening. Adults need to sit and talk about it and not live in denial. It is very difficult and daunting but we need to work positively and believe that things can be changed. A lot of people are creating awareness now. Earlier men never used to talk about it but now there are a lot of men rooting for this cause and talking about it. A lot of survivors are now bold enough to open up and talk about their journey, and not define themselves by it.
Practically, we have to translate prevention and healing into an actionable blueprint. That’s where practical tips on personal safety education in all schools and resources for survivors need to happen. So it is possible and to be a part of the solution, the first thing we can do is to start a conversation around it. It can be a dinner table conversation at home or even a conversation with the children while travelling in the car. If the parents need more information, there are plenty of resources available on the internet. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a professional to come and talk about it but a little training and research certainly helps to not teach the children a wrong lesson because un-learning is very difficult here. It’s better to always give the right message by reading up, doing your own research and there are professionals working in this area.
That’s how you can start a conversation around it and address the issue, and be a part of the solution. In fact, a lot of people took part in this week-long child safety week and I had interviewed four or five people from various walks of life who are rooting for this cause. The first thing is to get people to talk about it and normalize it just like a fire safety drill or a road safety drill. That is how it has to be taught to a child, like another life skill.
Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to us about this. I hope that through this conversation that we’ve had, we could help raise more awareness on child sexual abuse. I really appreciate everything that you said to us about the importance of starting conversations and normalizing them for children so that it’s not looked at as such a taboo thing to talk about or something that’s associated with shame. Also, more importantly, not to live in denial of the fact that it will not happen to us but in turn to do some research, to start reading up on it and to handle situations with empathy, sensitivity and optimism, and empower people. There’s so much that we got to learn from you today and I’m really grateful that you took out the time to talk to us about this. Thank you so much, Viji.
Viji- My pleasure. Awareness is the key to all this and it’s the only sustainable solution to end this social malady, I would think. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Valerie. My life’s motive is that if I can save one child from abuse, I will have lived my life well.
Valerie- Yeah. Thank you so much.
You can learn more about Viji Ganesh’s work on YouTube
While the word categorizes writers as people who seek loneliness and silence, it fails to see them as they truly are- a diverse group of individuals, who have mastery over the most powerful human sense, imagination.
Pooja- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Pooja, your host. Today we have with us Krishna Trilok, master storyteller and best-selling author of the biography of our beloved composer, Mr. A.R. Rahman.
Welcome to LonePack Conversations, Krishna. Having you here with us is an absolute pleasure.
Krishna- Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here. Hello, everyone.
Pooja- Hi, so how’s it going during the quarantine?
Krishna- It’s going great. I mean, we need to be positive so I’m going to say that it’s going great. Yes, could things be better? Do I miss going out, seeing people doing all the things we took for granted? Yes, but I think this is a fantastic time to introspect and to value and appreciate what we have and look forward to when things go back and be very grateful when they do.
Pooja- That’s so nice. I wish I was as positive as you. So, let’s start off with a little perspective. What prompted you to write ‘Sharikrida’, your first book? I mean, how did a student of commerce become so interested in mythology?
Krishna- So, I actually grew up in a household of storytellers. I don’t mean that in the sense that coming from a family of storytellers, generally, but even the people who worked in the house, so on and so forth, they were great storytellers. My grandmother was a big influence, she used to tell me stories when I was a child. You know, stories from Indian mythology and Indian folk plays and I loved those. She used to go to the theatres and watch movies and I was too young to go and she would come back and tell me the stories. So, a lot of classic movies, actually, much before I actually saw them, I heard them as stories, so that was an informative experience. Then I actually had a cook in the house. She used to come and cook for us and she was a fantastic storyteller, in the sense that she would actually make it a series. She would tell a little bit of the story every day, so I guess she would prepare and then come and tell everyday. You would be waiting to hear what happened next. So, she would tell me a little bit of the story for fifteen minutes everyday and I would be waiting to hear what happened next.
So, all of that, I think really got me into storytelling and Indian mythology in general and I was also a big fan of all your ‘Amarchitrakatha’ and the books on Greek mythology and so on and so forth. So, I always knew, I think when I was around thirteen, I decided that I wanted to tell stories. That’s what I wanted to do with my life and at that age, the only avenue available to explore this interest was pen and paper. We did not really have the camera technology and all of that, as it is available today. So, I just decided that I would go and start writing. I got a notebook from a nearby store and I started writing and that’s how it happened. I studied business on the side and all of that but I was always writing whenever I got the time and thankfully by the time I finished college, my undergrad, I managed to find an agent and then a publisher who would be interested in putting out my work.
It was a long process, it did take time, it did not happen the way I thought it would happen. Like when you’re thirteen, you start writing, you think everything is going to go your way and everything is going to be perfect but it doesn’t happen and part of life is figuring out how to deal with things not going your way. When something doesn’t go your way, you learn to say “Okay now, this hasn’t happened, what do I do with the situation?” and it was a great learning experience as well. That’s how it started and I’m still on the journey, and it’s been fantastic. Everyday has been fantastic and I’m grateful for it.
Pooja- Okay, so can you share with us one of your mythological stories that had you so interested? A small type of story, maybe?
Krishna- I think one of my favorite stories that I used to hear when I was a kid was not actually a mythological story but it was those folk tale stories, you know, of the crow and the snake and the old lady and the crow and then the fox. I think the one that I’m most fond of is the one where there’s a hungry fox and it sees the grapes and it tries to get them but then they’re too high up and then finally the fox just says “You know what? Those grapes are probably sour” and goes away. I mean, contrast that against the story of the crow, that is very thirsty and finds a jar of water but the water is too low and it goes on putting stones until the water level is higher and it can finally drink it. I think those two stories just taught me more about life than anything ever since. You can either say that a situation is not working out for you, blame the situation and walk away, or you can see the situation and see what you can do to make it better and make it work for you. So, those were two stories that really really shaped my looking at the World.
Of course, I didn’t learn the lessons until I was much older but now I try to work and apply it in life in every way because I think you have to make mistakes. Unless you make mistakes, you don’t learn. So, definitely, I have walked away from a lot of situations which I could’ve handled differently and changed and so on and so forth but I’ve learnt over time. Including things like this quarantine, you know? I mean, we can either say that this is the worst time in our lives and we can’t wait for things to get better and we’re going to sit and crib about what governments are doing, what everybody is doing and how awful everything is or we can choose to take it as a gift and say that this is time that we have been given.
Literally, we have been given time to not do anything and just enjoy ourselves, watch movies and all of that, if you have that privilege, which I do. I’m not going to lie about that. I know there are a lot of people who are struggling right now. They are struggling with lack of employment, they are struggling with uncertainty, they are struggling with a lot of issues but I think if you are a person who doesn’t need to worry about where your first meal is going to come from, you should count yourself as fortunate and use the time to be grateful and enjoy yourself rather than think about everything that’s not working out because trust me, there’s someone out there who is suffering way more than you are so it’s good to remember that.
Pooja- Very true, very true. It’s always about perspective? You look at yourself and you think you’re the worst person. Yeah. So, from what you’ve said so far, I take you to be kind of like a very inspiring person. May I say that? So, do you have any lessons from your life?
Krishna- I wouldn’t be as presumptuous or I wouldn’t use that. I think I make as many mistakes as anybody else and I don’t mean to be an inspiration to anybody or anything like that but I believe in one line which is, if you are going to spend time talking to me, if somebody is going to be with me, at the end of that experience, they need to walk away saying “Okay, I’m glad I did that. I feel better having talked to him and spent time with him”. If they’re going to walk away saying “Oh my God, now I feel even worse and I feel like now I am thinking about things and worrying about things which I wasn’t worrying about earlier”, then I’ve failed because you’re spending your time with me. You’re giving me your attention, your time. You’re investing in me so if that investment isn’t going to pay off for you, or if I’m not going to try and make that investment pay off for you then it’s a problem, the way I see it. So, I just try and make sure that anybody I’m with just has a good time there. If they can walk away feeling better about themselves or a situation, then I’m very happy about it.
Pooja- But a lot of people don’t admit that they make mistakes, right? Yeah, I understand it’s a learning curve but it takes a lot to own upto your mistakes and I can see that you’re doing that, so I’m very proud of you for that.
Krishna- It’s something that I think just frees you. Once you realise that you’ve made a mistake and admit to that and say sorry, say sorry to whoever that mistake has affected, including yourself, I think it frees you to see how you can move forward and make things better rather than try to cover it up or lie or hide or blame others. It just creates more problems. The laziest way to deal with something you’ve done wrong is to admit it, say sorry and move on and I’m a very lazy person so I just do that.
Pooja- Okay, that’s nice. As with any art form, writing is a way of expressing your feelings, right? And expressing your feelings is a very hard thing. How do you know that they are reciprocated?
Krishna- Exactly. I think even in a friendship or in a relationship or with your family, when something is not okay, the most difficult thing to do is sit down and tell the other person what you’re feeling. You know while you’re doing that, that the other person may have a completely different point of view or that they may have a different take on what you’re saying or you could be misunderstood. A hundred things could happen. I think creating a piece of art is doing that every single day, every single minute. You are trying to express yourself, which is a very very difficult thing to do. It’s because you need to understand things about yourself that you may not want to face, you have to sometimes say things that you’re embarrassed to say. You say those things and there’s no guarantee that those things are going to make the impact that you want. It’s just like that. Sitting down with your boyfriend or girlfriend at the end of a relationship which has not been going very well saying “Listen, this is what the problem is and this is what I think we should do to fix it”, it’s tough to do that, look the person in the eye and do that and knowing that the other person may just disagree with you. So, that’s what it’s like.
Pooja- Yes. Very true, very true. But talking about expressing your feelings, right? We’ve known that a lot of writers speak when they face mental illnesses, right? Like depression, anxiety, and like you said, it’s very hard to cope with. But on the other hand, writing can also help to maintain mental health. How do you think that dynamic works?
Krishna- Okay, let me give you a very simple analogy, I think it’s going to tie into my point about being as mentally strong as you can. There are two steps, I think- The first step, even more so than writers, the people who really face a lot of this problem where their creativity sort of gets out of hand are actors, comedians, you know. They really can lose sight of reality because of their craft and also because of the recognition that comes with it, and I think what you need to realise, first of all, is that you need to be in control of your craft, you can’t let your craft control you. So, this is something I do to make myself feel better and because it gives me joy. It’s not something I’m doing so that it can overwhelm me.
So, I think having that distinction of making sure you’re the one in charge really really helps, and secondly- if things are going well, don’t get carried away by the praise. Like if someone tells you “Oh, you’re fantastic. You can do this, you can do that.. You were so amazing in this, you were so amazing in that.. This piece was amazing”, just nod your head, be gracious about it, politely smile but don’t let it get to you and don’t make yourself out to be anything more than you are, which is just a human being, with problems and failings and all of that. Similarly, when someone comes and tells you “Listen, this was absolute crap”, don’t take it to heart and say “I’m useless, I’m this, I’m that” and get overwhelmed and sad and all of that. Your art is not you. Keep it distant from you. In that distance, make sure that you are controlling it, and don’t let it overwhelm you. Those are the things I would definitely say would help make sure that you are getting the best out of your craft and not getting the worst out of it.
Pooja- So, what do you have to say to artists around the world who are struggling for inspiration?
Krishna- Understand what makes you excited. For example, I know that I see a lot of books, paintings, films, series, music- I hear a lot of music- and it’s very popular, it’s very acclaimed but just because it’s popular or acclaimed, I say “Okay, I’m going to do something like this”, it’s not going to work out. Rather, you can experience as much stuff as you can and say that “Okay, for some reason, this strikes a chord with me. There’s something about this that I relate very deeply to”. Sometimes, it could be something that’s not successful. It could be something that nobody knows about and some of the things that people actively dislike but you say there’s something about it that I can relate to, and from there your inspiration will come.
When you find what is exciting you, you will find your inspiration because you will say “Okay, I understand a little bit more about who I am. This is making me understand who I am.” The more you understand about who you are, the more easily you will be able to create art that is unique to you and that you are excited about creating. As long as you are living the life of someone else or trying to be someone else, it’s going to be tough for you to try and come up with inspiration and create anything that truly resonates with who you are. When you realise who you are, and that comes from identifying the things you like, you are able to create a lot more content which is more original and which you are more interested in creating as well.
Pooja- So, hats off to you! I understand why people loved ‘Notes of a Dream’. I have one last thing to ask you- if there is one word you would like to say to artists, artists all over the world, maybe writers, painters, sculptors, just one word- what would you say to them?
Pooja- Okay, any reason behind that?
Krishna- It’s because unless you’re going to believe in what you’re creating, it’s going to be hollow. I’ll give you an explanation about how it works for me. When I first started writing something, for a long time, I would just be like okay, I can’t show people this. I can’t show people this. It’s not yet ready. It’s not yet good enough. But suddenly comes a moment when that changes to “I can’t wait for people to see this”. I’m so excited to show people this. The moment that changes is when you start believing.
When you start believing that your concept, your idea, your writing, your language, whatever you want to say, suddenly something happens that makes you believe that it is working for you and it resonates with who you are, that is when it is possible for you to take the next step. Trust me, there are a lot of times when I’ve said “Okay, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, I need more time” and I’ve never come to believe in it and I’ve never finished it. It didn’t happen because I’ve never fully believed in it. Of course, then again, I go back to it after some months or sometimes, after some years, and then I suddenly say “Okay, this is actually quite good” and I start believing in it and the story changes but until you believe in what you’re saying, don’t expect anybody else to believe in it. Also, until you can see something happening, again, how can the Universe or God make anything happen for you until you can see it clearly? And for you to see it clearly, you have to believe in it.
Let’s move onto art. You see someone who you think is really attractive. You think they could be your boyfriend/girlfriend. Until you want them to be your boyfriend/girlfriend, until you believe that you are good enough to be with them, are you even going to start talking to them? Until you believe that the situation is possible, how can anything happen? You won’t even go and say “Hello”, you won’t even go and say “Listen, I feel this way about you” or if you’re applying for a job or you’re applying to a University, until you think you’re good enough, you’re not going to want to apply to it.
I have been told this repeatedly in pitches, they have been like “Listen, we don’t know what you are seeing in your head right now..” I sold ‘Notes of a Dream ‘ on this. Before I had written a single word but I knew the concept, I believed in the concept, I went to them and said “Listen, this is what I want to do”. And they didn’t ask me for a sample or anything. They just said “Listen, you clearly believe in this concept. We can see that you’re passionate about it. Go ahead with it. We’ll support you”. So, I think until you can see yourself in a certain situation, the Universe cannot make it happen. So, when I say “believe,” all I’m saying is, see the situation that you’re dreaming of because dreams without belief cannot become reality. It’s dreams plus belief that equal reality. It’s very simple math. So, if you’re just going to believe in yourself without a dream, then nothing can happen. But again, if you have a dream without belief, it can’t happen either. So, it needs to be a balance of both.
Pooja- Wow, that was so nice. Thank you so much for your time, Krishna. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and I picked up a lot of lessons today, actually. I learnt about perspective, I learnt about how to believe in yourself, as we just discussed and I learnt about the struggles that one might face in life, not just about writing, not about just with an artist but general life, right? It was very enlightening for me. Thank you so much.
Krishna- Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you as well!
Pooja- All the best from LonePack for your journey forward and I’m sure it’s going to be a really
wonderful one. Especially your love for experimenting and your love for life, I can tell.
The grief of losing someone often leaves a lasting impact on one’s life. Life changes in ways we could never anticipate. When it feels like the rest of the world has just kept going, we may find ourselves to be broken and struggle in our attempts to “move on” from the loss. So how do we pick up our broken pieces and find the strength to move forward?
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan. A suicide loss survivor herself, Dr. Sangeeta is a mental health activist and educator. Through her work, she endeavours to engage with as many people as she can, to work together to prevent young suicide through raising awareness and reducing stigma.
Welcome, Dr. Sangeeta.
Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you, Valerie.
Valerie- Before we start, I would like to issue a trigger warning as this podcast delves into suicide and the process of dealing with loss due to suicide. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to stop listening, and do seek professional help in case you find yourself struggling to deal with mental health issues.
So Dr. Sangeeta, you’re a qualified trainer in youth mental health first aid and are passionate about shattering the stigma around mental health and suicide. Could you tell us what drove you to become an activist for mental health awareness and youth suicide prevention?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes. Thank you very much, Valerie for doing this interview and thank you to LonePack for all the good work that it does. It’s really required in India and all over the world, actually that we raise the understanding of mental health illnesses. I came to it through a very personal tragedy. My beautiful son, Sagar, was only twenty and this was six years ago when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within ten days, he was gone. I had no idea, we lived in the same house. He had seen the doctor two days before that and I thought everything that could be done was being done for him but neither he nor the doctor, nobody said anything about suicide.
I realised that it is such a taboo subject that even doctors don’t know how to talk about it, leave alone our society. You know, doctors are only people after all, right? And we are products of our society. If nobody is talking about it, then doctors are also not because they do not know how to, it’s not in the syllabus. Then I realised that it was down to people like me, who were directly affected by it, to talk about it because otherwise, it’s just going to be in silence forever and being bereaved by suicide is such a painful place to be and it is so hard to keep going back there and talking about it, but I don’t have anything else to do now. So, this is what I do and I hope that it will save lives and bring closeness between people and make this world a better place.
Valerie- We are very sorry to hear about your loss and about Sagar but we’re also very thankful to you that you’ve taken that experience and you’ve decided that you want to change things and you want to bring about change. You help bereaved families but you also spread awareness so that something like this could be prevented in the future. That is a great initiative, you know? To come from darkness and to be able to want to spread light to the people around, to prevent a situation like this from happening else.
So, when we talk about suicide, guilt is a major part of the grieving process, when it comes to friends and family. We have a lot of questions, a lot of ‘What Ifs’. What if we had paid more attention? What if we had noticed the signs? What if we could have saved them? because it’s difficult to fathom the circumstances that led up to it. In fact, as a suicide loss survivor myself, there were many instances where I often felt guilty about experiencing happiness after the loss – it felt wrong to me to feel happy anymore. Many others often struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves when the guilt gets overwhelming. Is this expected? How can we manage this overwhelming amount of guilt that we feel?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s a very important question because losing someone to suicide does leave you with a mountain of guilt and you almost believe that it’s your fault that they died. I still believe, I have to tell myself that he was really ill, he was under the care of a doctor, you were not his doctor, you were just his mother. He was twenty years old and so it was up to him what he wanted to share and what he didn’t want to share, and these are very personal feelings, they’re very difficult to talk about because actually, we don’t know how to create space for these conversations. We don’t know how to be with someone’s angst and uncertainty and we’re not comfortable with this subject. And I think there is so much self blame associated with it, even with the individual who’s feeling suicidal. They may be ill, they may be on medication, they might be having very valid reasons for feeling suicidal but still, they blame themselves for feeling like that, which also stops them from talking about it.
If somebody has diabetes or cancer, they don’t blame themselves, right? They just have it. Whereas with mental illnesses, there is a whole other dimension of “flawness”, that there’s something wrong with this person, almost something wrong with their character. Which is not true. But because that is how the society looks at it, that’s how they look at themselves, and that stops them from asking for help. So we have to break that shame and blame cycle and know that if they don’t tell you, you can’t know, right? We’re not mind readers. Our mind is constantly trying to find a reason, but there is no “one reason”. It’s a very complex issue, there are usually multiple reasons and they all come to a confluence at one point where the emotional pain that they suffer gets too much and if they can’t have a constructive, meaningful conversation or even be heard and understood at that point, especially in young people, it can be quite an impulsive decision, which is taken very quickly and in a very short time. So it’s a very time critical intervention that we need to make. Firstly, we need to increase our awareness and our ability to create spaces for these conversations, which is what you are doing today so good job, thank you.
Valerie- Thank you. But you know, we talked about guilt and obviously there are questions that we have and they have very complex answers, which is why it’s only natural for us to blame ourselves. But it takes you down such a downward spiral that you cannot get out of. One thing is telling yourself that you’re not at fault but it doesn’t really do much for you. So what would you say we can do to get out of this guilt that we make ourselves feel?
Dr. Sangeeta- So the first is to recognize it as guilt. To recognize that what I’m feeling is guilt. Very deep guilt. And then to know that yes, these are my thoughts but I don’t have to believe in them a hundred percent. Also to acknowledge that what you’re going through is possibly the most painful loss . Part of me still believes that it’s my fault that he’s no more. But I still have to be kind to myself, you know? I have to acknowledge that okay, it has happened. I didn’t do it, right? I am sure I could have done more, it’s true I could have done more but I cannot go back. What I can do is recognize it as a thought, let it not become a belief, and hold myself with kindness and know that if I could, he would live for a million years. If I could. If my love would be enough, he’d live for a million years. But I can’t reverse that. All I can do is honour his memory, keep loving him, keep doing some good work in his name and keep being kind to myself because I am also suffering and I have been through a lot. Acknowledge that.
Valerie- I liked that you said that we have to validate our own feelings there. You say we should admit that it’s guilt but also find a space for yourself where you are kind to yourself and you don’t bog yourself down by that immense amount of guilt that you’re feeling.
Dr. Sangeeta- And sometimes, you just need to sit with it, you know? I think for me, meditation has really helped because I can just breathe through it. Just sit and breathe through it. Whatever it is, it shifts. It moves sideways a little bit, it gets less intense. And you know, we need to hold our poor little broken hearts like a little baby, you know? With gentleness, and just literally pat it lovingly and say “You’ve been through a lot”. Be our own best friends.
Valerie- So, when we talk about the processes of grieving, everyone has a different grieving process. A different method that helps them cope with the loss in the best way that they can. There are very different kinds of people. I was somebody who often found comfort in the pain, at a point. And I decided not to move on from the incident, you take it as a way of honoring the memory of the person. There are also people who decide to focus on what lies ahead and outwardly, they may seem to move on from the loss much faster.
In addition to all of this, you have the aftermath of a loss due to suicide. You have survivors who are unable to openly share their grief because as you said, there is a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and judgement surrounding the topic, to a point where even doctors do not have conversations about it. Does the grieving process differ for suicide loss survivors? How can they be supported through their grieving process?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, so I think everybody grieves completely differently, like you said. Even in the same family, if the father and the mother have lost the same child, they have lost a different relationship. He might have lost his cricket buddy and he might have lost her future grandchildren, you know? So, it’s very different for each one and it’s all okay. Just do whatever you need to do, is what I would say. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this. Just do whatever feeds your soul, whatever sustains you. There is no formula, there is no recipe. I would say spend time with people who cherished that person, who are not afraid to talk about him. Share their memories lovingly. When something like this happens, you really find out who your friends are and it’s really useful because then you don’t waste your time. You stick with people who understand your loss and who are not about gossiping and judging and making life more difficult for you.
There are many many ways in which people can support somebody who has lost someone to suicide. By reaching out, not being afraid to name the person, celebrate them, talk about them in a way like they were a cherished part of our lives. Not get into why and how and why not. Nobody knows why. They probably did not know why. We don’t know. There’s no point going in “Why”s or “How”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this beautiful person has gone. So, we need to create space to listen to them. They might want to repeat the same story over and over and over again, which is okay. Create space for that, listen patiently. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t make platitudes like “Be strong”, “He’s in a better place” and all that is rubbish, really. It doesn’t help.
I think there is no right or wrong, I would say. Just do whatever makes sense to you and don’t criticize the other person’s way of dealing with it because they are doing what works for them. But I think it does put a huge strain on relationships, on families. It completely shifts family dynamics, and that’s normal as well. There is no such thing as a perfect human being or a perfect relationship so I think if we have basic compassion for ourselves, then we can have compassion for other people. It’s very easy to get into the blame game with this- “you said” “she said”, you know? But actually, I think this is really a time to be kind to all those who are left behind because they are all suffering.
Valerie- So, in addition to what we spoke about, about there being stigma and shame surrounding it and that being a reason to not talk about the person you lost, there is also this whole thing of, of course, it is a very personal loss for you but you also feel like you are the only one going through this and so nobody is going to understand what you’re talking about and nobody is going to get it at the same level of sensitivity that you have for that person. I rethink that also makes it very difficult conversation and I think it’s good that you are here with us, sitting and talking about your experience and we can discuss because there are a lot of people here who think they are alone in their suffering, who do not find it comfortable to talk to somebody who hasn’t lost a person because you feel like they’re not going to get what you’re saying. So I think that is another reason why people do often not talk about it and suffer in silence but I think it’s great that you’re coming out and the fact that you share your story with so many people is going to be very encouraging.
Dr. Sangeeta- I find that it’s true that we don’t feel understood. It’s true. Imean, how can anybody else understand what it’s like unless you’ve been through it? I don’t blame other people for not understanding. I don’t expect them to understand and I hope they never have to understand what it feels like. But I would say that it’s very important for people who have had similar experiences to get together because there is an organization called SOBS here (in the UK), which is Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, where people meet.
All the people who are there have lost some family member or friend to suicide and in that room, there is so much understanding because everybody has come with a similar experience, it’s peer support. There are no experts in that room, no therapists, nothing. But people find so much comfort there and I think that can only happen if people come forward and put their hand out to other people who have had similar experiences, get together. Now it’s possible to do it across towns and countries even. And I think, have a peer support group where people can come and be with other people who have had similar experiences. It’s really been helpful for me and many others. And of course, I also have a therapist and I’m very grateful that I can afford one. I’ve been seeing her every week for two years now and that’s a very healthy thing to have because it gives you an insight into yourself.
Valerie- I also liked that when we talked about how people can be supportive, you said do not ask too many questions, do not jump to conclusions, just bethere, be compassionate and listen. And I think that is extremely important when somebody is opening up to you and when they’re trying to share their grief with you.
Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah.
Valerie- When we lose someone to suicide, like we talked about, there are a lot of unresolved questions and we are just left trying to make sense of it. It’s a common emotion for people to feel anger and unforgiveness towards the person we lost, for leaving us. But these emotions can come in the way of our path to healing. How would you say we should deal with these emotions? How do we pick up our broken pieces and find meaning after loss? How do we give ourselves the strength to move forward?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s very complex- grief- because of the undertones of severe judgement. Often, it’s not a voluntary act. It is a measure of someone’s emotional pain, that they are in so much pain that they cannot bear to stay on the planet. How much pain do you have to be in to do that? Because we, as human beings, are not designed to do that. We are designed to protect ourselves- we can’t touch hot things and immediately withdraw, we cannot tolerate the smallest cut on our hand. We are designed to defend ourselves if we go and do something like that. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to entertain the idea of staying alive? It’s beyond our comprehension if we haven’t felt that way. So, I feel great compassion for Sagar that he had so much pain, poor chap, you know? And he walked around hiding it because he thought nobody would understand. How terrible, isn’t it? for any to have that much pain.
I grieve not just for his death, I grieve for his suffering. So, there is no place for anger. I think if we can have compassion for their suffering. There is no place for anger where there is compassion. I can only talk from my experience and so, there is no scope for judgement. If we drop all judgements, there is no right or wrong, it’s a death. That’s all it is. It is a death. All these undertones of judgement is what makes it unbearable. “How could he do this to me?” He didn’t do it to you. It was his life. He couldn’t bear it. So, it’s not about me now. It’s not about me. It’s about him, it’s about what he could not say that he should have been able to say. That as a society, we should have created space for. That his doctors should have known how to talk about. It’s about that. There is no right or wrong in this, you just have to face it for what it is and asee how we can help people who are in that position. So, yeah. What was your question? Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.
Valerie- Yeah, so I was asking how we should deal with these emotions because it’s only natural when you’re left with no answers, you do not know what is going on. You can feel unforgiveness and as you said, you have to look at it with compassion, you know? Replace that emotion with compassion because obviously, the person went through a lot of pain before they took the step that they did. My question is, how do we pick ourselves up after an experience like this? How do we find meaning after the loss and how do we give ourselves the strength to push forward and move on in life?
Dr. Sangeeta- Well, like I said earlier, there are no general answers. It has a lot to do with who you are and what you do. So, when Sagar passed, I started writing a blog on the day he passed, because I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit there and let this day come and go unmarked. It was the most shocking and painful day of my life, and his life, probably. I was struck by how many people don’t know this can happen to them or their loved ones. I started writing a blog and also, it was my way of really immortalizing him. I could not allow him to just go without anything, you know? The world has to change. It was my ego as well, that it was my son. My beautiful, darling son and how can this happen? It was a mixture of anger and everything, and I just put it into my writing. I wrote every day for a thousand days. That was my way. The blog is called ‘Kids are Gifts’. I still write it. Once every ten or twelve days, I write something on it. It was my way of spending time with Sagar, it was my way of venting my anger. It was where I wrote down all the things that I learnt along the way, where I wrote down how I felt. It was a friend, it was a bride that I hung my days on, you could write at the end of the day. It was my reward, it was my punishment, it was everything. I put my energy into my blog initially, just because it gave me something to do.
It’ll be different things for different people. Slowly, I found that cycling really helped. It’s really meditative. The wheels go round and round and you could just empty your mind and just the repetitiveness of it and you can feel your breathing and your heart and you could just be in your body for a little while. Cycling helped, writing helped, then I found nature helped. I joined flower arranging lessons and I learnt to do Ikebana, which is a Japanese art of flower arranging- it’s very technical, it’s very minimalistic, beautiful floral art. Then I started doing some mental health work, and when I was a little bit better, then my phone number was given to other people whose children were either ill or they’d lost somebody and I would spend lots of time on the phone with them. So, I think if you start using that love, guilt is only love basically, turned upside down. If you tell yourself “What I’m feeling is love” and I need to channel it into something and find whatever that something is for you. I think by using your hands and your body into something, doing something.
Also, take it as learning. Let death be your lesson, let cause be your teacher. The guilt also was about things that I had done. I used to work really long hours and I always thought that when I came home, he’ll be there. I took him for granted. And one day he wasn’t. I really stopped and thought “What else am I taking for granted?”. I’m taking my health for granted, I’m taking my parents for granted, I’m taking my husband for granted, I’m taking my cat for granted! So, it made me think about what I can do differently. How can I live differently now? This is almost like a second life for me. I’ve been given a second chance to live better. I can turn that guilt around and learn from it. This is what I didn’t do right. I didn’t know how to have those conversations. Now I know how to have those conversations. So, do whatever you can with it but take this as an opportunity to learn and to grow and to expand.
Valerie- Yeah, I think what you said is very important. Obviously, you’re suffering a lot, you’ve gone through a lot, you still are going through a lot. But you take that as an experience and you learn from it. You learn how to be more sensitive to the people around you, you learn how not to take things for granted, and you also try doing something about it. You take that one experience you had and if you can help people around you, then there can be nothing better. You can’t replace what you’ve lost but you can certainly try to help make this place better.
Dr. Sangeeta- And you know why I can do that? Because there’s not a bone in my body that is ashamed of anything. I am so proud of Sagar. I am so proud of him. I loved him before he was born and I will love him forever. He was an absolute star! I’m not ashamed of him at all. I know he tried his best. I know he tried his best.
Valerie- I think it’s important for everyone who has suffered a loss like this to understand that and not look at them any differently than they did before they passed away.
Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah. Like people fight with cancer, they say “battle with cancer”. This is also a battle but it’s invisible. We all have to develop eyes to see it.
Valerie- On this World Suicide Prevention Day, what are some things that have happened over the past year or so that give you hope that things might be changing? Just like you said, we have to develop the eyes to see it, we need to create spaces for conversations like this. And what do you hope to see in the coming years?
Dr. Sangeeta- I see hope in you! I think over the last few years, the conversation has grown. I know that through this COVID time as well, people have been thinking about each other’s mental well being. So I think overall, there is more openness. I know some celebrities in India like Deepika Padukone and all those people have come forward with their struggles. I was very very saddened to hear about the suicide of the young Bollywood actor, very very sad. The way the media and everybody has dealt with it has been so bad. Everything that should not be done had been done. It really saddened me to see that but I think the conversation has grown, definitely.
For the future, my hope is that it will continue to grow and that all the judgements that are attached with mental illness and suicide will be taken away and people will treat mental illness just like a physical illness and not treat it as a character flaw because there is true suffering in that and I have seen it. So I do hope that people will understand that these are very complex issues, that the brain is a very delicate organ, that the adolescent years are very complex years. From the age of ten to twenty-five is adolescence and yet, medicine is split into pediatrics and adult medicine. There is no such thing as adult medicine. Those years need a lot of attention. Schools and colleges, parents, everybody needs to educate themselves about the delicacy of those years and how the brain works.
I’m hoping that your work and mine, last year, I was at a conference in India and we did a mental health workshop for seventy medical students, and they’ve all gone back to their respective medical schools from all over India and some of the foreign countries as well, from Asia and they’ve all gone back to their medical schools with more awareness and they;’re more connected with their communities. They’re watching out for warning signs, they’re growing these conversations, so yeah. There is hope. Just keep doing what we do.
Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m sure this has been a conversation that will help a lot of people because you have shared an experience. You’ve not just talked about the dos and don’ts of how to deal with grief but you shared an experience with us. It’s been very emotional for me to talk to you about this but I wanna thank you for agreeing to do this podcast with me and I hope that we can tell people to be more sensitive, to look out for warning signs, and to spread awareness about something like this. To keep conversations open. To know how to have conversations more importantly. I hope that we’ll be able to make a difference.
Dr. Sangeeta- Actually, we forget that one half of having a conversation is listening. At least one half. So I think we need to develop our listening skills more. That’s when we can find out a lot about the other person and have them feel understood.
Valerie- And I hope for everyone who has suffered a loss, that we learn how to pick ourselves up and we learn how to take that experience and change that into something positive for the people around us and for ourselves.
Dr. Sangeeta- And I would just say to anyone who is in a similar situation to me, know that you’re not alone. There are many other people. I think, if you were to start connecting with other people who are in your position, I think that might be a very rewarding thing to do.
Valerie- Thank you so much, Dr. Sangeeta.
Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you very much, Valerie. I wish you luck in everything you do.
During the lockdown, we’re all confined to our homes, with the news and media being the only thing that keeps us company. However, recent developments have highlighted the responsibility that rests on our media when it comes to covering sensitive or taboo topics, such as mental health.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Tanmoy Goswami. He works at ‘The Correspondent’ as a Sanity Correspondent. He worked in business journalism across India before pivoting to writing about the global mental-health movement. He regularly speaks on the media’s role in suicide prevention and aims to help shape a world where talking about mental illness is no longer taboo, but is recognized as a human condition that connects us all.
Tanmoy- Hi, Valerie. Thank you, thank you for inviting me.
Valerie- Thank you for being here with us today to talk about something very important.
Tanmoy- Yeah, I look forward to the conversation.
Valerie- So, your journey advocating for and writing about mental health stems from your own personal experience battling depression and anxiety disorders. You’ve also written about your experience with suicidal thoughts. Could you tell us a little bit more about your personal journey with mental health issues?
Tanmoy- Sure, sure. Thank you for asking me that question.
Before I launch into my story, I think it’s always useful to issue a trigger warning. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to switch off, and do seek professional help in case you are struggling with mental health problems. There are online resources available. If you reach out to me on Twitter, I can also help you find them.
Right, yes. Like Valerie said, my journey into mental health journalism is very much a result of my personal experiences with depression and anxiety and self-harm for almost my entire adult life. I think my first diagnosis was when I was in college, I think my first or second year of college, when somebody dragged me to the college therapist. Back then, we had this system in Delhi University, I think all colleges were required to host a therapist on campus. I was very very fortunate that we had an excellent therapist in college and I was becoming increasingly dysfunctional, I think.
Dysfunctional not in the sense of lagging behind in studies or anything like that. I was a very good student, I was very active in college clubs and societies, and I was in the company of some really really smart, intelligent and wonderful people. But I was becoming dysfunctional in my personal life. I was becoming extremely unmindful, inattentive, accident-prone and of course, I was hurting myself regularly. A friend of mine noticed this. There was a distinct change in my physical appearance and I was all over the place. I know that these are all very very common stereotypes that are associated with mental illness, so it’s not my intention to perpetuate those stereotypes, I’m just communicating what my inner experience was back then. So, I went and saw this therapist and I really used to enjoy talking to him because we mostly used to discuss literature and art and movies, and it didn’t really feel like somebody was trying to analyse me and you know, find out whether I have a mental illness.
But after about five or six sessions, I was told that I am depressed. I have depression. And this came as a very big jolt because I’m talking about twenty years ago, when these conversations were not only uncommon but there was a humongous stigma attached to it. So, I think when he said that I have depression, I was quite dumb-founded because for me, I didn’t even know what to make of the word ‘depression’. I remember thinking that depression is a weather condition. And although I sort of vaguely knew that there is an illness called depression, you always tend to think that things like this happen to other people, they can never happen to you. And so although the signs were always there and my mother was a nurse- I grew up in a medically literate environment and I still couldn’t digest the fact that at nineteen or eighteen, somebody was telling me that I have depression.
He told me that I might have to start medicating myself and at that point, I just stopped going to him because I got really frightened. I just didn’t want to take medication. I thought if my parents got to know, they would think that their son is going mad, and they might take me out of college because my parents live in a small town in Bengal. So, that’s when I aborted therapy. After that, my condition, I think, worsened. I was really really struggling. But it was difficult for other people, even my family members or my close friends to really get a sense that things were getting worse because I was fairly high functioning even back then. My grades were very good and I was active.
And so, I think the next many many years of my life, I started working, I’ve lived in every major Indian city, and I think for many many years, I just did not pay attention to this although my problems were always there. I would always be very prone to frequent crying bouts and a lot of physical manifestations- random palpitations and panic attacks. These things, now in hindsight, I know were all symptoms and then you know, I got married and I had a child. And just as we were expecting our child about three and a half years ago, my symptoms turned really bad.
At that time I was a very senior editor in the Indian diction of one of the World’s most respected magazines, and I quit my job. I quit my job because I was unable to perform even the simplest of day to day activities. I had a virtual breakdown, I was mostly confined to my room, crying, and just did not have the energy to get out of bed to even brush my teeth. I think it was a particularly difficult time because we were expecting a child and it’s the last thing you want to experience when you are anticipating fatherhood.
So yeah, but thankfully I managed to go see a doctor, one of the best psychiatrists in the country, Dr. Alok Sarin, and I was under his care for a long time. With his help and I went back to therapy, I’m still under therapy. I attend therapy twice a week and take medication everyday, and so my symptoms are well under control. Then last year, this wonderful chapter in my life began when I ended my long stick with business journalism and I became the World’s first Sanity Correspondent, writing about mental health for ‘The Correspondent’, which is headquartered in Amsterdam.
So, yeah. My life has completely revolved around these conditions and they have been shaped by these conditions and I think I’m enormously privileged that the net impact of these experiences in my life has been positive. I’m here, I’m talking to you. So, yeah.
Valerie- I think it’s really wonderful, you know, that you’ve been through so much and you’ve taken that and you’ve turned it into something so positive. You’ve started writing about mental health and you’ve started writing about mental issues, and you put up tweets about your own experiences so that people going through that can connect to it and can possibly get the help that they need. I think that’s wonderful.
Tanmoy- Yeah, I started a thread on Twitter in 2017 and I thought maybe I’d just do this for a few months but I did not have intentions of doing it for three years. To be honest, it’s not like I did this to help other people. I did that to primarily help myself because for me, writing was very very therapeutic. And the thing about depression is that it really messes with your memory. Among many other things that it does, it can also mess with the processing of day to day things that happen in your life. And I realized that one of the ways in which I can really counter-attack, if I may use that word, is by refusing to forget.
I want to remember who I was before this happened to me. I want to remember what this illness made me into and I want to document all of this. I don’t want to live in a state where five years later, I’m left wondering “Hey, what happened to me during that period? I don’t remember”. So, I started it as a very selfish process of documenting and remembering and then along the way, of course, back then or even now, it’s not like I have millions of followers on Twitter, no. I have a small little Twitter family but over the years I was amazed by the feedback that I got.
Even before Twitter, I had written two or three posts on LinkedIn, which is the last place that you would expect somebody to write about their depression and suicidal thoughts or whatever but those posts were published on the India homepage and they went viral, and I started getting messages from people in the US, Australia, from all over India and it hit me that even in 2017-18, there’s just so much loneliness and so much desperation in people to somehow communicate and to somehow be understood. And I think when somebody else confides their worst secrets in you, you feel emboldened to also trust them with your secrets.
So, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t do it for any sort of altruistic motivation back then. Of course, now I see communicating as a responsibility because I’m also professionally writing about it. All the mentors or allies or kindred spirits that I have met in the mental health ecosystem, have all been mostly because of Twitter. Eighty percent of those people are people I’ve never met in my real life. I mean it’s not as though Twitter isn’t a part of my real life but it’s as a matter of speaking.So, yeah. It’s really been something.
So, you’ve worked in the field of journalism and you’ve talked extensively about the role media plays when it comes to suicide prevention. From what I see, although things may have become a little bit better in the recent past, there’s still a lot of stigma that surrounds suicide. A lot of cases are not talked about or reported, and cases in which they are reported, you can see a major lack of sensitivity when people are talking about it. It’s often described as a crime that has been committed and it’s termed “disgraceful”. It’s called a matter of shame. Even the family and friends, they’re not given their own space to grieve but you can just see them being ambushed and harassed. So, what do you have to say about this?
Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely. I wish I could paint a rosy picture of things and you’re right, things have improved. I’ve also recently written about exactly how things have improved, primarily because now a lot of people who have no affiliation with the mental health space or with suicide prevention, even they have become very aware of these sensitivities and they’re calling out the media whenever they see a bad report on TV or in digital. They’re calling out these platforms and demanding better standards.
But that said, I agree with you that by and large, I think the treatment of suicide in the media continues to be very disgraceful. I think the first thing that we need to remember is that there is this myth that all suicides are mental illness related, which is not true. In India, in about fifty percent of suicides, there’s a history of mental illness. The other fifty percent are caused by something else altogether. These could be stressors in your personal life. In the case of farmers, it could be debt. In the case of students, it could be exam results.
And so, this mischaracterization of all suicides as the outcome of mental illness, that is the worst or the most damaging fallouts of the way the media handles suicide because there is always this insinuation that if somebody dies by suicide, that they were depressed. And what that does is that it basically tells people that if you are depressed then suicide is a legitimate means to get out of that sandwich. So it legitimizes suicide. It legitimizes self harm, which is dangerous. It can trigger a lot of vulnerable people.
The second thing, as you mentioned, is association of suicide with crime. This is an old shameful legacy because suicide was indeed a crime according to the penal code and it continues to be a crime in many countries. In India, it has been recently decriminalized. As a direct consequence of that history, you see the phrasing “committing suicide” being used all the time because you commit crimes and so you’ve committed suicide. There are still a lot of people, although a few of us are constantly trying to educate people on social media through training workshops. I am now part of this regular workshop that we conduct for journalists. We’ve already done two, we’re going to do the third very shortly.
We still see that among editors and reporters of a certain vintage, there is a lot of resistance. They don’t understand why it is a problem. They feel like this is some sort of censorship, that over enthusiastic activists are trying to muzzle their freedom of speech. We keep telling them that that is not true of all. There is a tonne of evidence and scientific research that proves how media reports on suicide have a very significant impact on suicidal behavior. Especially celebrity suicides.
So, when Marilyn Monroe died by suicide in the ‘60s, in the following month, there was a massive spike in suicides in the US. When Robin Williams died, the same thing happened again. So, time and again it has been proven that media reporting on celebrity suicide has a very big impact on what is called “imitative suicides” or “copycat suicides”. There’s a very famous case study from Vienna- there was a string of suicides in the subway system of Vienna and when the newspaper editor sat down with the subway company and decided that they would no longer report on suicides, there was almost a magical decrease in the instances of suicides since. So, there is so much evidence that the way media reports suicide has a direct bearing on suicides. According to some researchers, there could be a variation of as much as one to two percent, which is you know, tens of thousands of lives that we’re perpetually talking about.
So, these are the facts and figures with which we’ve been trying to appeal to media journalists through workshops, in which I am also a part- that this is not a crime. This is a public health issue. As far as the privacy and dignity of the family and the bereaved, I think it should just be common sense. We don’t really have to throw a rule book at people to make them respect those boundaries, right? But unfortunately because we are in an age where traffic and clicks and TRP are supreme, every incremental little development- what color clothing the person was wearing before they died, what did they browse before they died, etc. All these things and constantly heckling family members. We don’t really stop and ask ourselves “What public interest are we really serving?” by disclosing so many details, so much information that serves no other purpose than to just speculate.
Having said that, I would like to end this answer on a positive note by saying that I see a lot of new things to be optimistic. In the general public, there is a much much greater entry now that has been paved towards these issues. More vigilance always results in greater accountability. We have seen many major newspapers and TV channels coming on Twitter and apologizing and saying that they understand that this is a problem and that they will do better, which is unprecedented. I think we are making small improvements but there’s still a long way to go.
Valerie- Yeah. So, following up on what you just said, recently, what we’ve seen is that when it comes to reporting such news, there are a lot of disturbing images and videos that have been widely circulated on social media and they’re even splashed on the national news. So, what kind of guidelines and ethics should media houses and public figures keep in mind while reporting/discussing suicide?
Tanmoy- You know, it’s actually very simple. The World Health Organization has published very detailed guidelines on suicide reporting in India. It essentially boils down to just a few things- don’t disclose the method of suicide in the headline or in the story, don’t detail the method. Don’t present suicide as a legitimate means to escape from a difficult life situation. Don’t speculate too many personal details. Don’t disclose where the person lived and what they did. Sometimes you see that the person is not named but every other detail about their life is disclosed and so it’s very easy for people to just join the dots and know whom you’re talking about.
This point about not speculating about mental illness, that is hugely important because like I said, if the media keep attributing all suicides to mental illness, what essentially happens apart from passing on a very distorted image of mental illnesses per say because it’s not like every person with a mental illness dies by suicide, but apart from that, there is a deleterious impact that is had which is that it completely takes away accountability from society, from the government, from administrations because a lot of psycho-social problems are a direct result of failing socio-economic support systems. For instance, farmer distress. Many of these suicides are the result of debt, the result of some system failing the farmers somewhere and we say that “Oh, this is just the result of psychological distress”, it’s an oversimplification and it allows those who are responsible to make these systems work, escape responsibility and accountability.
So I think these are some very very simple guidelines. You don’t have to go into excruciating detail of what happened before and what happened after. I mean this whole culture of creating a story out of suicides and presenting it like a very sensational.. And another thing that they say is a good practice, is to talk about, if you’re talking about a celebrity suicide, talk about the impact that that person had through his work. Talk about the positive legacy that the person has lived with. Celebrate that person’s life. Don’t sensationalise their death, you know? So, these are some of the standard guidelines. I can share the WHO guidelines with anybody who pings w=me on Twitter.
Valerie- Alright, thank you for elaborating on this for us. So, we’ve seen that the pandemic that we’re in currently and other recent events, they’ve seen an increased rate in the number of suicides, and also the rate at which people are showing symptoms of depression has almost doubled. What are your thoughts on this?
Tanmoy- Yes, of course psychological distress is on the rise, which is commonsensical, right? We’re living through an extremely stressful period and like I keep telling my mother, it would be surprising if you did not feel some amount of distress. So, I think it’s very important to normalize that feeling of distress. Every feeling of distress is not necessarily depression. Depression, as it is understood clinically, is an accumulation of a certain set of symptoms over a certain period of time. Something like a global pandemic is of course going to make all of us feel a little bit on edge. And so I think we need to nuance this conversation by making that point upfront.
After that, what I have to say is that mental health is such an intersectional issue. Everything about your life has a bearing on your mental health. Your case identity, your gender identity, your employment, your sexuality, how society treats you as a person. All of that has a bearing. What we’re seeing during the pandemic also, if you look at which communities are struggling with a disproportionate burden of psychological distress, these are your traditionally disenfranchised, marginalized communities. So, these are the Blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities in Britain, African-Americans in the US, in India the poorest of the poor. We’ve all seen the shocking scenes involving our workers in our states. So, the most gut wrenching toll of the pandemic has really been on those communities that are anyway vulnerable, and the pandemic has once again exposed these deep social inequalities.
It should come as no surprise to anybody that at a time where the global economy is on its knees and jobs are being shed at a frightening rate, that these are the communities that are bearing the worst brunt of the pandemic. Whether it is in terms of mortality, once again, minorities in the US and UK are at a heightened risk of dying from COVID-19, naturally there is greater anxiety in those communities and because mental illnesses often have comorbidities with other problems like diabetes, etc. That also makes people very vulnerable, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored or neglected by healthcare systems, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored by formal employment, which are the communities that are generally left to their own means? These are the communities and so it’s no surprise that they are suffering the most, even during the pandemic.
Valerie- Yeah. I liked what you said because we are in unprecedented times, so normalizing the feeling of distress is something that can help us get through this time. I mean, when you talk about adjusting to the normal, I guess this is also something that comes under those things.
Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely! I mean, I think it’s important for all of us to take a step back and pat ourselves on the back because it’s really a miracle that we’re all still functioning. I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the fact that we’re still talking, we still have podcasts and webinars and we’re still being productive. Of course, there’s that race for productivity and picking up new skills and new hobbies, as if this lockdown is some kind of an extended vacation, which it isn’t.
I don’t want to glorify the whole work from home situation because for so many people, being at home is not at all a safe experience because there is so much domestic violence and many other stressors. I think given all of that, I think humanity has tried its best to hold it all together during this period and I think we really need to commend ourselves for that. And it’s completely alright. Like I said, it would be shocking if we didn’t all feel a bit off-kilter from time to time. So, yeah.
Valerie- So finally, I would like to ask you- what can we, as individuals, do to help during this situation of uncertainty because it’s definitely a time which has proven to take an amplified toll on our mental health. So, what can we do to help?
Tanmoy- I’d say first, we need to help ourselves to begin with. To allow ourselves to feel raw and vulnerable from time to time, articulated with people that you trust. Talk to people that you trust. When it comes to other people and how we can help other people, that’s a very complicated question because right now, because of physical distancing, etc., we are not really able to sort of physically be there with a lot of people. But simple things, I think, really validating other people’s experiences. Not questioning what anybody is going through or not spreading what is called ‘positive toxicity’, which is this posturing that everything is going to be alright and that everything is going to be fine.
Yes, in all likelihood we look at this a year later and maybe laugh, if we are privileged enough. But for the time being, it’s important to not make people feel like they’re making a big deal out of nothing by saying things like “Look, there is so much misery in the World, what do you have to complain about? Cheer up, snap out of it, be happy”. I think we should banish this kind of language from our vocabulary. That would be a real favour we’d be doing to our family and friends. I think anybody who is feeling distressed, mirror their distress, validate it and say it’s alright to feel distressed. Ask them what you can to help. Don’t assume that they need your help, don’t lecture them on how they should live their lives, don’t make it about yourselves, when somebody comes to you asking for help.
Just validate, legitimize the feeling that we’re all feeling and generally just be compassionate and be there. Emotionally make yourself available as much as you can, without completely burning yourself out. Because this is a marathon, we’re in for a long grind, this is not a hundred meter race. So I think all of us just need to conserve our energies, prioritize, focus on the right things and just be compassionate.
Valerie- I think that was very wonderfully put. To help ourselves first and think about our needs, and when it comes to other people, to validate experiences. Not to assume but to just be there for other people, and understand and at least tell them that what we’re going through is okay as opposed to what you called positive toxicity. I thought that was wonderful. Yeah, so thank you so much for having this conversation with us today because it’s truly been an eye opener on a lot of fronts for me and I’m sure it will be for our listeners as well. There was so much that I got to learn from you so thank you!
Tanmoy- Thank you. Thank you, Valerie. It was wonderful talking to you. All the best.
People with lived experiences of mental health issues work hard towards managing their everyday lives, coping with symptoms, and more significantly, dealing with stigma. It’s inspiring to see how people use that experience, believe in themselves and work towards making a difference, which in turn empowers others around them.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie
Today, we have with us Charlene Sunkel, founder and CEO of the Global Mental Health Peer Network. She was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1991 and her journey since then has exposed her to various challenges experienced by people with mental disorders, within and outside of the mental health sector. This encouraged her to commit herself to fighting the cause for mental health and human rights. She has actively been involved in the field of mental health advocacy and awareness. She has also written and produced theatre plays and a short feature film on mental disorders to raise public awareness.
Charlene- Thank you very much for having me to talk about this important topic.
Valerie- Yes! So, in the introduction, I said that you were diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1991 which was a time when this illness was probably not widely known or talked about. Your initial journey would have exposed you to several challenges around mental and physical health. What was it like to realize and combat these challenges?
Charlene- Yeah, I think in the 1990s, the level of stigma was extremely high, as you can imagine. I distinctly remember that when I received the diagnosis for Schizophrenia, I was not aware what that word meant. I never heard it before but in actual fact, even broadly, mental health issues or mental health conditions, I had absolutely no knowledge of it. The only thing I kind of knew at the time was that people had nervous breakdowns but I didn’t even quite know what that meant. So, what was difficult for me was that no one explained to be what my diagnosis meant.
I was just prescribed medication and nobody explained even why I was taking the medication. So, unfortunately, during those days, we didn’t have access, we didn’t have Google or the Internet connection or access to information online. So, I physically had to go to a library to read up on Schizophrenia so I could inform myself because I needed to understand what the link was between Schizophrenia and my experiences or symptoms. Even in a library, I had to do it secretly so that nobody sees I was researching on Schizophrenia because of the enormous shame.
So, at one point even a psychiatrist told me that I would never be able to work again, live on my own, make decisions, manage my own finances. It was a very daunting prognosis for me and I didn’t see much hope. So for me, if I look back, I think to combat stigma, I think it’s very important that people have access to information, both on an individual or personal level like in terms of your diagnosis, there should be a proper relationship with your treating psychiatrist or treating team and the stigma at that level needs to be broken down so that you are actively involved in your treatment, and at a community level—I think people need to come out more.
That is why I came out to speak about Schizophrenia, about my experiences, to break it down. I find that that actually helps people to see the human behind the label of Schizophrenia. People had really terrible reactions when I went into advocacy work because I did public awareness, I spoke about my diagnosis and experiences and I often got the same response where people said “But it doesn’t look like you have Schizophrenia”, “Well, it doesn’t sound like you have Schizophrenia”. So then it kind of just showed me the high level of stigma that people don’t accept you as human. So, I think speaking out about it, that was the first step.
Valerie- Yeah, so I liked that access to information was just that important because you needed to go and figure out what it was that was affecting you so that you could know how to deal with it. And the importance of talking about your personal experience so people see the human side to the illness and they look at you differently, right? Not just with stigma.
Charlene- Absolutely. I had really funny reactions. You know, you can sense people’s attitude kind of change towards you when they learn that you have a diagnosis. It’s almost like they’re scared of you and they’re kind of distancing themselves from you and I think it’s helpful when you share, especially when you actually achieve in life, while you have a diagnosis. I think that’s a very difficult thing for people to try and understand, they say “You have Schizophrenia, how can you achieve success in life?”. So, that in itself, being kind of a role model, that helps breaking down stigma.
Valerie- That’s great! So, we know that Schizophrenia affects about 20 million people worldwide. Despite this being a significant number, just as you said, there’s so much stigma associated with the mental illness and that often prevents many people from seeking help and there are challenges that one faces while trying to find effective treatment. Having gone through this personally, how do you view the situation?
Charlene- I think although I must say I do see a kind of reduction in stigma, since I was first diagnosed up to now, I think what I see, where the change is, has been in the media. In the past, the media would either not report on mental health conditions at all or they would sensationalize it. You see, so if someone with Schizophrenia for example, has been involved in a violent act or anything, they sensationalize it and that kind of creates further stigma. It’s the same with movies. You know, portraying Schizophrenia wrongly or as people being violent and aggressive and that they just can’t function properly, I think the media and movies can cause a lot of damage in terms of stigma. So, there are still a lot of myths and misinformation like people are dangerous.
Funnily enough, when people say that “People with Schizophrenia are dangerous and violent”, it’s funny enough that research shows that people are more prone to be victims of violence than to actually commit violence and that people would rather harm themselves than they would someone else.I think in terms of services also, I think we are progressing in terms of services and access to services now. The more people come out to talk about it, the more we create access. Also with people with less experience, to say that “I need more services and support structures than just medication and hospitalization”.
So, I think globally we still fought, many countries still fought to kind of have a more person-centered approach to mental health services where you look at the person holistically because stigma in itself is actually more disabling than the symptoms of mental illness and that creates problems in accessing healthcare and so, actually just to conclude on that question, I would say it’s up to us to speak out and to make people see that we are human and that we have the same health and mental health needs and that we can openly speak about it. I mean, if you look at cancer and HIV, higher stigma was around that years ago and now people are openly speaking about it and I often ask my question “Why is mental health conditions or Schizophrenia, specifically still such a difficult topic to discuss and why is there still so much stigma?”
Valerie- Right. I understand that because people look at it very differently. I think it’s only recently that people started taking mental health problems to be the real deal, you know? Up until then, you’d only look at a physical ailment and you would say “Oh, this is real”. I think perceptions are changing but they’re changing slowly. I did like that you said that you’re supposed to look at a person holistically. You look at them as a person and not relate it to the illness only.
Charlene- Absolutely. Yes, you must see the person because mental health impacts every aspect of your life. If I look at my experience, it had broken my relationships with friends and my family. So, you need something to kind of restore that relationship. I lost my job. There was no service that helped me to retain my job and kind of helped me with reasonable accommodation in the workplace so that I can continue working. Things like that.
Valerie- But that has changed now, right? I mean, people with mental illnesses still keep their jobs?
Charlene- Yes. I think it is starting to change. I think more in developed countries, there are a lot more advancements in terms of that. But I think in low and middle income countries, there’s still stigma attached even though I find, from experience in South Africa, that even though they say mental health conditions are considered a disability so companies should give you employment and opportunities of employment, but with mental health conditions, the stigma is still there. It is very difficult to prove that someone denied you a job opportunity because of your mental health condition because they are not going to come out and say it. There is still that stigma.
Valerie- So you’ve said that “If more people can believe in people with mental health conditions, they can achieve so much more”. While fighting for the causes we observe and believe in, the road to success certainly wouldn’t have been easy. You just talked about how it’s so difficult for people with mental health conditions to actually become successful because the people around are not supportive and would just search for chances to pull you down. What was it like to overcome this and create the Global Mental Health Peer Network, which is a platform that empowers voices of people with lived experiences of mental illness?
Charlene- Yeah, I think that this whole thing is built on the presumption of a person with Schizophrenia’s inability, or anyone with a mental health condition. There’s so much focus on what you can’t do and just the presumption that you cannot do certain things. The focus should not be so much on the inability. Yes, I do have things that I still can’t do or won’t be able to do as good as I want to but I have a lot of abilities. I think people should focus a lot on the person’s ability and to give that person equal opportunities to achieve and to succeed in whatever they want. I’m not talking about huge things. A person can achieve the smallest thing possible and I think that should be recognized as well and motivate someone to achieve even more. So, I think it’s making people realize their potential.
That’s what the Peer Network also wants to do, is to create mental health leadership. There are some people with mental health conditions, with unique expertise from their own lived experience and a lot of them are actually professionals in various aspects but just because of their mental illness, they could never really go very far and they got this leadership potential and can do so much. So, the Peer Network aims at developing leadership and looking at those with potential to become global leaders and empower them and so we strengthen the voices of people with lived experiences globally.
I think what’s also important is diversity in strengthening our voices. As you know, countries and even within countries, there’s huge variation and even a huge variation in the level of stigma, the level of specific needs and challenges, and I think those diverse voices, that I believe, can really change the World around mental health and give people that recognition of being a valuable human being.
Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you talked about the fact that people need to be given equal opportunities to succeed and that you must encourage and validate even the smallest steps towards success, which is eventually what will help them become successful.
Charlene- Absolutely. For example, if I have suffered from some anxiety to go out and socialize, and I really work hard and I actually manage to go out and socialize, that achievement should be recognized as big as someone who got a top job! For that person, that achievement is as huge as that.
Valerie- Yeah. So what was the reaction like when it came to you starting the Global Mental Health Peer Network? On one hand, you were doing it to empower the voices of people with lived experiences but like we talked about, the entire stigma and people pulling you down and not being supportive, what was that aspect of it like?
Charlene- I think actually starting the Peer Network has been really rewarding. Through the people that we appointed on the executive committee who are now global leaders and especially, most of them are from middle income countries and just to see from them speaking out about their own experiences through the Peer Network, how it has changed the perception of people even in their local community. They are now becoming more involved at a local level. Whether it’s like influencing local policies around mental health or kind of getting the conversation going, locally through media, they just become role models. I think that in itself breaks down the stigma, specifically with them being at leadership positions within the Peer Network.
Valerie- Yeah. I think it’s wonderful that you just said that because people are willing to speak up about the fact that they’ve had lived experiences has actually shattered stigma in people around their community as well and I think that’s absolutely wonderful.
Charlene- Yes, definitely. I think recovery stories, as you call it, are kind of powerful. Extremely powerful.
Valerie- Yeah. So personally, you’ve talked about your friends being there for you and their ability to often identify a relapse emerging even when you don’t. What role would you say a support system plays in the lives of people battling mental health issues?
Charlene- I think a support system is absolutely critical. I know maybe a lot of the focus of treating mental health conditions is at a more clinical level, if I can put it that way. If you look at the typical example, you get diagnosed, you get put on medication, sometimes you go to hospital. The big problem often lies here, now you’re discharged from hospital, you go back to your community, you get absolutely no support. That in itself, you probably had a revolving door syndrome where someone relapses, that just can’t cope and then they’re back in the system and so goes on. So, that community based support system is, I would even say, is probably the most important part of treatment and recovery of a person with a mental health condition.
One thing that the Peer Network promotes a lot is peer-to-peer support. I do know that peer-to-peer support is mainly a thing in developed countries and has been for several years and I think it was lacking a bit in lower and middle income families. I know India is doing wonderful work in terms of peer-to-peer support. Even when you look at the research, there are a lot of benefits to peer-to-peer support. I mean there’s outcomes that show the person in much better mental health and general health. They are able to manage their condition better. They don’t feel isolated. They kind of relate to someone else who has also been through the same thing. There’s a reduction in hospitalization. Some even reduce dosages of medication. So the evidence is out there that peer-to-peer support in itself can serve a valuable role and it’s equally beneficial from services received from professionals.
That was also indicated through research. Unfortunately, we see a lot of peer support groups all over, that seems to be quite common and acceptable but we still need to amplify the benefits of peer-to-peer support where people with lived experiences seek peer support training, so that it can be acknowledged that peer-to-peer support works and is acknowledged as a fundamental discipline in the mental health system, and with in service delivery. In a lot of countries, you do have a multi-disciplinary team that is involved in the person’s treatment or recovery plan. For me, any access like that, peer-to-peer support must be part of that team.
Valerie- Alright. So peer-to-peer support is one of the most important things we’ve talked about, that it helps people not feel isolated but also, you talked about it in the frame of one person with a lived experience talking to somebody else with a lived experience, right?
Charlene- Correct, yes.
Valerie- Supposing you don’t have a lived experience but you if somebody is going through something, how do you be a support system to them?
Charlene- I think we show that kind of peer support, I know people call it “informal” and you have “formal” but informal is just to support someone else going through a difficult time and I think that is just as valuable. For me, if I look at support, the key to that is knowing someone is there for you. You don’t necessarily need their help but just the knowledge of having someone there, that is there for you when you need them, that is just such a key component to mental health security that you can have.
I think that human connection, for someone else that even if they don’t have a mental health condition, to support someone who does or go through difficult times in terms of mental health, just for that person to really make sure they are there, to listen non-judgmentally. You may not always understand but you acknowledge what the person is saying, acknowledge their feelings and their emotions and give them that secure space to speak out and know that you are there and that they can contact you. You can also play a very important role in facilitating access to services for that person.
Valerie- So talking about letting someone know that you are there for them, if they choose to speak up even if they don’t want to right now, I think that plays an important role especially now, when we are all locked up in our own homes and you might be going through something and you don’t really have somebody to talk to so I think it’s important, as you said, peer support and letting people know that you’re there for them even when they want to talk.
So, thank you so much for having this conversation with us. It’s been absolutely wonderful listening to you and learning so much from you about how you view a person who’s battling a mental illness and how you look at them holistically, you talk about equal opportunities. There’s so much we got to learn from you today. Thank you so much, Charlene.
Charlene- Thank you very much and all the best with your podcast.
We are all story books; mere living documentations of memories and experiences spiral bound by the pages of Time. Welcome to this chapter of LonePack Conversations. My name is Suhas, and today we have with us Mrs. Janaki Sabesh, a well-known actor, a mesmerizing theatre artist, and a charming storyteller.
Suhas: Welcome ma’am, how are you doing?
Janaki: I’m doing very well Suhas, thank you so much for making me a part of your LonePack Conversations.
Suhas: Just to start off ma’am, I want to understand how you’re doing, particularly in these times. So first of all, we’re super stoked to have you on with us here today. How have you been doing, how have you kept yourself busy in the times of this pandemic?
Janaki: So Suhas, I must confess it to, I think I’ve been more busy than ever before, and I think I should thank all the forces of the universe that have come together to make this possible. And why do I say that? I will explain because way back in —I mean, now it feels many, many months back— but it was just in March that I heard that children’s schools were going to shut down. You know, we were still not aware of the seriousness of this pandemic. And, you know, it has just started trickling in that schools are going to close early. And I said, all right, one day I said, why not I do something online? Because I had always shied away from going online because; and as an actor, as someone who seeks instant gratification, it’s very nice to be in the energy of an audience.
Janaki: You know, see the energy while you’re doing a story and feel the energy of the audience as they give you their love, their support, and their attention. So I teamed up with a small outfit called Little Trails, and I just asked them, should I go live? And they said this is a fantastic idea! And we put up a poster together at 10:30 in the morning and at 5:00 pm we will live on Instagram; and that was my starting point. And the way I um, what can I say, I was all overwhelmed with the kind of response that I got from people, not just children, but adults, mothers, fathers, who were suddenly, you know, sending me messages saying “ Please, please, please, can you continue doing this?” Because you know, we really didn’t know how to engage. And there were mothers who were still attending office. They said, “Are you going to continue doing this? Because then I can come half an hour early from the office”.
Janaki: I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize that here, I was, you know, trying to take my baby steps as it were to do something online. And since that day, it’s been really wonderful. It’s been a roller coaster ride because I have engaged not only with children but with a series of live performances on Instagram and where we would also follow it up with an activity from Little Trails, where Avanti is an artist. So she was able to connect the story. So if I did a story about a spider, she would do an activity about drawing a very funny spider. So we had all these children and we were engaging with children every day. So from there, we started doing workshops for children, which was, you know, those kinds of numbers, where about 700-800 people who are online from all over the world.
Suhas: Actually, that sounds very massive. It’s a massive scale.
Janaki: Yes, it is; and you know what we did Suhas, we also recorded the Instagram Live on our IGTV, that is on Little Trails’ IGTV. So all those who had missed watching it live went on the IGTV platform; and we were getting multiple views on IGTV as well. So it was, you know, I just, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound very philosophical here, but I’d like to share with all those who are listening that my icky guy, you know, my sense of my purpose of being every day is to put a smile out there; it’s to spread smiles. And I thought I was blessed because I was able to do that with my storytelling. And when children’s workshops happen, we create communities.
Janaki: We created a safe space where we even had chat shows with experts, everything on Instagram; and then slowly, I said, why do I need to do this only for children? I think I should include adults. Okay. So I started doing short stories for adults too. I also started a series that I normally curate face- to- face. I shifted it online, which is called Melody and Memory where you sing that particular song that’s always there, you know, playing in your mind, and then you tell me a short story about it.
Suhas: Yes. Essentially like connecting verses of music with a story!
Janaki: Absolutely. So if you have a story which is from an old-timer or a Hindi movie, but you will have a story connected, maybe that was the first time you heard your sister sing it, or an uncle singing it, you know, something like that. And you know, something, maybe he didn’t sing it well. So it could be a very funny memory. It could be a memory which has been inside you for a very long time. And I’ve had people coming to the show saying, Oh, I just want to listen in, but somebody else’s memory triggers off a memory in their youth for people to share. Then I started sharing stories for adults where I did mythology, I did a comedy, and another couple of weeks I’ll be doing something called taboo stories. So I think and then of course I kept learning by attending writing workshops, attending a workshop where I would just listen and gather a whole lot of knowledge about maybe certain aspects of storytelling, which I knew just little about. And I wanted to, you know, increase my knowledge then of course, courses, like on Udemy, on LinkedIn and also on Harappa Learning. So I’ve been doing a lot, you know what I think the moment your mind is active and is continuously busy, I think you just seem so happy; not to of course I have to mention that I’ve been also exercising. The gym has moved online. I don’t have any domestic help at home.
Suhas: Okay. So you’re busy doing work at home.
Janaki: Yes. But I have a very supportive family. So we all have, you know specific chores that we are very good.
Suhas: Okay so it’s very well divided and it’s not like a burden on one person.
Janaki: But at the same time, there’s no stress of saying “HEY you didn’t do this today”. It’s like today I have a podcast recording and if I had to do something else, somebody else would pitch in. I mean, we have a family of four with my mother-in-law at 91 who provides me with all the entertainment, because she comes up with her wise-cracks and, you know, talking about corona and things like that. I think I’m keeping myself busy.
Suhas: And the best part is the fact that you know even though you are busy, you don’t sound stressed out, or that you feel you HAVE to do it. Then it sounds like you would actually enjoy doing all the things that you are very happy doing. So that’s really great.
Janaki: Absolutely. So I was doing this Sunday morning conversations on Instagram, which was a live show with people, you know, from all walks of life like musicians, you know, we had, Ashish Vidyarthi and everybody; but it stopped at last Sunday because I said, “I need to take a break”. I didn’t want it to become stressful like “Oh who am I going to interview next Sunday?” If that becomes a point of stress, then I think I will not enjoy it. So I think that is very important. But the first thing is to recognize that.
Suhas: Definitely. I think the fact that you also are aware of that and that you acknowledge that point at which it becomes too much for you, and you decided to give it a halt over there. I think that’s, that’s a wonderful point to note. So I’m going to start off with essentially the first question of the episode. So you have juggled multiple roles through your life across so many fields, be it as a marketer, a mother, an actor, an artist, a thespian or as a storyteller. So how have each of these roles influenced your perspective of mental health over these years?
Janaki: Okay. So now the different professions that you have, the different roles, each one of them be it marketing, mother, actor, artist, theatre, storyteller; they all have different audiences. So for example, when I was marketing, I was marketing a product or service. So what happens is that I am the face of the organization, and when I go and travel and I’m trying to convince my client why he should go in for a product or why he should go in for us service. The conviction with which I tell them you know, my story, my company’s story, the vision of my organization is that is what will make or break the deal, right; or make, or break the trust as you know. So for me, that audience was very different and see, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of how do I say it, you needed to be on call 24/7! It didn’t matter; because of being in the cinema industry, I was in the media and entertainment industry, selling a product like digital cinema. And, you know, before that I was doing that, I was handling a set of studios. So I was selling the service now in the cinema industry. You don’t have, especially in India, something like non-working hours; it’s like when you have to, you need to be there.
Suhas: Got it. Got it. So when you have to chip in to do your work, regardless of when it is, you have to be up to it.
Janaki: Absolutely. So you know it was stressful because see, a film releases on Friday, there would be a lot of issues, tension, but you have to be available. And it did take a, you know, it was stressful at times, but you know, the whole thing was to not take it too personally and take it to your heart, but I can easily say now, now that I no longer in the organization and no longer in a corporate avatar. But when I was going through, I won’t lie to you Suhas, it was stressful. You know sometimes you just feel like, why are you even here? But then what really charges you up is when you complete and when you, when you are convinced at what, the decision that you’ve taken and the fact that you’ve not lied to your customer, you’ve told them what was possible.
Janaki: And the trust that you give back to them saying that I will take care of your issue. So with that game, a lot of power, you know? You become so amazed at the quality of convincing somebody because you’re truthful. And you also trust your organization, your colleagues; if there was an issue to have solved the issue. So that is one audience, but then when you go to say, a theatre production, that influence that I got from corporate is that to be very convinced about what you’re seeing. So that is what came out of my corporate avatar. But in theater, in acting I always wanted you know, how do I say, I was always scared; I never wanted the director to retake a scene because I had made a mistake.
Suhas: You wanted to do your role in whatever the part with the best of its perfection in the first take itself!
Janaki: Yeah. So, I understand that itself is a little bit of stress on yourself. Sometimes inadvertently it will go wrong for whatever reason; we can’t by-heart our lines. We know our lines and we will say it in our own way, but sometimes some directors are very fixed on what they want. Because some directors say, “I’m giving you the gist of the scene. Now you say it”. Okay, of course you can’t use your own dialogues. There are dialogues written.
And so I had these, a team of assistant directors, always who used to help me out, they’ll all come and say “Ma’am ma’am, ipdi pannunga ma’am; if you do it this way, and I’m sure you can do it” you know? So sometimes the Tamizh will be a little hard, you know, it’s difficult, but somehow I managed. So from acting, I understood that, you know, you can’t stress yourself if, if there is a mistake. So be it, there’s always another take. It’s okay. It’s not the end of the world,
Suhas: But you know, on the flip side of that particular freedom and luxury isn’t particularly available in theatre because it’s a one-time run; you have to get it right.
Janaki: Exactly. So theater, again, this whole thing about, you know, becoming nervous. My mouth went dry and I was continuously having water. And it’s like, you know, you’re constantly thinking of the lines. At night you are not able to sleep because those lines keep coming back to you. But I think it comes with practice. The more you do so, you will find your own rhythm in your own dialogues, in the way you say those lines. Like for me, it is very visual. I really do plot points. You know the main important points; say I have a monologue and I have two pages of a monologue or three pages, I will know each paragraph that begins. I said, “Okay! I did A, then I went to B. Then I went to the next”, it is a sequence, right? So that way I always remember, you know, the scripts, your audience, doesn’t for you to bounce back, even if you’ve made a mistake, it’s up to you. And that that comes with experience.
Suhas: Of course, I definitely, I understand that. So just to form a gist of what we’ve spoken so far. You know, you mentioned about how, you know, even though you’ve had the elements of difficulty in your corporate tenure and in your acting I think could I say that you the fact that you have had some amount of job satisfaction and the fact that you delivered, really helped you mitigate that levels of stress that you had for the period right?
Janaki: See, and I was always there for my team also; my team of 40-45, you know colleagues. I was always there and it’s, it’s very happy. I’m so happy when I get messages even to this day saying, “Yeah, you were the best”. And they don’t have to because I’m no longer in the system. Some of them are also no longer in the system, but it is very, very um, you know, it gives you a lot of happiness and, you know, there’s a smile on my face and I read that; because you didn’t do it for that. Somebody will write to you 20 years later that you were the best or you help. I kept them together. I motivated them, you know, there was always, there was nothing that we can solve together. So that was something and the same applies, you know, when you go into different fields and as a storyteller, remember that you know, your audience becomes a participative audience.
Suhas: Okay. So you sort of have, like a feedback loop in that, the way you proceed also depends on how the audience interacts with you.
Janaki: Yeah. If they don’t like my story, which I will know in the first seven minutes, I’ll have to do something very dramatic.
Suhas: To catch their attention, yes.
Janaki: So that you innovate on the go. So, so each one has its beautiful moments Suhas.
Suhas: Okay. I definitely understand that. So now ma’am, just to sort of narrow down for the rest of the podcast, generations differ by several parameters across so many different filters, like as an artist you’re working closely and interacted with younger artists as well right? Is there a difference in how youngsters view mental health now? Compared to a back in the days a few decades ago, when you were a teenager and you started off.
Janaki: Totally; because when I was growing up, I don’t think mental health was even discussed at home unless there was somebody, you know, distant cousin or somebody who was going through an issue. And it was always looked at as an issue. Today’s generation, my God! Everybody speaks about it. I think to be, you know I think to borrow from what my daughter says, she says, “Ma you have a very different take on all this because you’re constantly surrounded by youngsters”. I work with a very young team in terms of storytelling, in terms of theater, you know, with Crea Shakti, with whom I do a lot of theater, I’m surrounded by youngsters who don’t have an issue talking about, “I had a bad day” and then it’s not a full stop. I had a bad day dot, dot dot. So others will pitch in.
Janaki: “So what happened? Explain to me”; and it’s not immediately “Let’s go to the doctor”. NO its like “We will try; we will help you with our circle”. And then that’s where I think our safe space becomes paramount. I think the youngsters of today have found a safe space. It could be their own friend circle, or maybe a bigger circle or people like you, you know, LonePack, where people are able to connect, and say that, “Hey, I’m going through this. Do you think you can help me? Or can you at least put me on to somebody?” Therapy and things like that, I mean, everybody discusses, everything threadbare now, which for somebody who’s just reading it, scrolling on Instagram or Facebook or any other forms of social media might say, “Oh my God, this one is feeling that I’ve been feeling the same, but I’ve, you know, restricted myself, I think I need to reach out”.
Suhas: Okay. So sometimes, you know, when you read about people’s stories on social media and you sort of relate to what they are feeling and you reflect upon those with yourself as well.
Suhas: Okay. Okay. I think there’s sort of a usual saying that hey there’s a generation gap here and there’s a stark difference here, maybe, you know, you’re one of the examples where again, because of your interactions and the way you’ve been engaging yourself, sort of tells us that your environment has played a major role in you know, sort of mending that gap, that supposed to be there for the generation.
Janaki: I’ll tell you one more thing. I have a 91 year old mother-in-law staying with us and she has never, you know, I think it’s also the family, the way you’ve been brought up in not just in my parent’s home, but with my mother-in-law’s as well. They don’t they don’t shy away from talking about these things; these are not taboo words. These are not taboo topics
Suhas: Understood, on the outset. Do you feel like that mental health is still a taboo now? Even though you’ve spoken a lot about it?
Janaki: No. No, I don’t think so. No, no. I’ll tell you what I think. I, I think the way it has been portrayed and the way people are sharing, you know, everybody has their own take on social media and all, but it’s how much you consume and for what purpose.
Suhas: That totally makes sense. So I think, you know, now that you’ve spoken a little bit about your own personal ideations about this a little bit on the professional side, right? Moving on, cinema, theater, and art have played a big role in influencing the perceptions and thoughts society has about various issues and various topics in it. So do you believe that these communities are doing justice to portray mental health issues on the screen or on stage? If yes, how is it? And if not, how do you think that needs to change?
Janaki: So I, I bring out two movies which have impacted me in the sense, and I think in fact, impacted society, one is of course is Taare Zameen Par which brought out dyslexia, and which was, I think the starting point for many parents. I have a friend who, you know, a friend’s friend who said that, “My God, now I can, you know, say to the open, it’s no longer a taboo. It’s no longer something that’s to shy away”. Sometimes you need to share. And for all, you know, it might just take you at, it was not just dyslexia. It was all parenting issues. It’s all about this, you know, being in the rat race, making sure that your child is forever coming first. This class and that class, you’re not, there are so many times I’ve told parents of very young ones. “Just let them be; allow them to stare into the walls because they need to dream. That’s when you know everything in, all the butterflies in their heads will set it down”n and then they’ll be energized and re-energized just because they have one hour or two hours of time. We don’t put them in class, not even storytelling, just make them, they should come and tell you that we need to go somewhere. So that was one. And secondly, a film which I really, really am very fond of is Dear Zindagi, which normalized therapy. Shah Rukh Khan says a very beautiful dialogue there, he says that “As a child we’ve never been allowed to express our emotions. If we are angry, we are said, no, no, no, you can’t be angry. No, no, no. Wipe your tears. And when, you want to express love? What then?”
Janaki: How can you express? You know what I mean? It was all of course in the context of Alia, but the protagonist. But I have seen that even. It’s still my go to a film whenever I am seeing, like, you know, I need to learn more about why people say certain things and you know it’s so judgmental. We can be so ruthless sometimes, you know, somebody said, we don’t realize what that person is saying, and we view it out of context. You know? So for me, I think I’m, I’m sure that I’m many others, like in Tamizh Aarohanam talks about Bipolar Disorder. So these are things that I hadn’t even heard of; like Bipolar Disorder, so it makes you want to research.
Suhas: Okay so you’re telling that there have been a few movies which have been very impactful in what they aim to do.
Janaki: But at the same time, there are clichés. Now at the moment, there is somebody who, who doesn’t speak the same way as you do or language, or he’s a little different. You can’t just say that he’s been put into a mental asylum. Yeah. This is unfortunately too huge, you know, poles apart
Suhas: Even though, even though it’s sort of exaggerated for the dramatics, it sort of puts out a wrong message at times.
Janaki: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you do it because you want to show, and it does like, you know, in all advertisements where they have to depict this out. So it is stereotyping a lot of imagery and we need to get out of it. People need to do a lot of research. I would urge people who are into these kinds of topics to speak to people. And that’s when I know that even in theater, Kirukku Nagaram for which they did a lot of research with LonePack and I remember watching it and then it blew me away. And I was like, “My God”, is this how, as a society, we react to people with mental illness?
Suhas: I think I remember, I know the whole reaction to that play which was really good.
Janaki: Just to complete, that needs to be done to bring about something as strong as theatre or cinema, because we consume it! We are such great consumers of this art form that it could really be the way forward to bringing about a lot of key issues to light.
Suhas: Definitely because I totally agree with you; I’ve watched movies across so many languages and, you know, with the advent of various OTT platforms this has also been bridged. I indulge in a bit of theater myself, and I have a lot of friends in the theater circle. But I think I totally agree with you on what you said, about the stereotypes Haven’t noticed that day I think that [inaudible] doing good and Vicky says, and you know the mainstream audiences so with respect to the movies how do you think the scales are tipping impact on people with respect to mental health?
Janaki: But it started already. So now it shouldn’t be difficult for us because there’ve been already films made in this genre and it just showed us, we need to be very, the topic has to be very sensitively handled that’s all, sensitivity with a lot of research. It’s not just enough to make people cry buckets, you know, at the end of it, if people understand and say, Oh, and they want to say, Oh, okay, this is a different point of view. And I’ve been like, if I disliked a neighbour, I am seeing it only from my point of view, right? What if we suddenly change from her point of view, I might be missing something; and we never do that. Right? When we get into a fight, it’s always me against that person.
Suhas: Okay. So if I may, you know simplify, I think you’re talking about empathy and about how one should be mindful of how you are to people, why you think people might be reacting in a certain way. So empathy is very important as a characteristic for people to nurture.
Suhas: Okay. That sounds really great to hear that from you. So I think I’ll move on to one of our final questions. So, very recently a lot of talk has been happening with respect to mental health, especially in the world of cinema. So regardless of the language, cinema continues to be very fast-paced, dynamic, and being the public eye is also so difficult and not very easy. The paparazzi are always around; so could you shed some light on the relationships and emotions shared across artists that grow in the industry? How do they interact with each other? Are they always very stressed? It’s something that’s never seen to be public, the lives of people in these industries, how they are as people on the outside.
Janaki: If one sees my body of work, I’ve done about 30 films, I think since 1994, so 27 years 30 films, that’s all, I’ve been very choosy because that’s what I was, I was handling a corporate life also, you know? And so I think I’ve been very lucky and having said that I’ve been very, very shy from the media as such. People write about me, if there is a theater or something, or some collaboration or something like that. But I will tell you something that my mentor told me a long time back when I had, I think my first film had released or second film I think, Jeans. And he said “Janaki remember that even after all your films, you should still be able to sit in an auto and go home”.
Janaki: So subconsciously, I think that stayed with me and I’ve done exactly that because I can still take an auto, we’ll have a very nice conversation with the automan. I’ve seen it with some there, and then we have this conversation and he finally said, “Oh my God, Ghilli, Vijay-mother” and all that. So I enjoyed that because it gives you a kick. But at the same time, I, I do understand that this whole thing about [the paparazzi], you know, I remember one time when I was in Pondicherry a lot of people who said, “Hey, inga parunga Vijay amma” I was petrified and went and ran into a shop and hid myself because I didn’t know how to react because I don’t know. I can’t even explain that. But when I was in Sri Lanka many, many years ago, when my first film had released and a whole lot of school children came and recognized me, I was okay with it, maybe because it was the first thing.
Janaki: So even as we evolve and the ways we react to situations also change. But for my other colleagues and all I hardly meet them. It’s always on the set and on the set, I’m very happy with my book. So it’s only during the short end that we all during lunchtime are direct. And then we go back to you know, other rooms or wherever via setting, but I I make it a point to speak and, you know, I’m always in search of my learning, you know, now I, again, I don’t want to stress myself saying, “Oh I didn’t learn anything today.” Not like that. It’s just nice to hear somebody else’s journey and you don’t orchestrate these conversations. It happens on the go!
Suhas: It’s not like you sit and talk about it, it’s just something that happens when you talk in the evening with friends, or just when you’re talking with anyone, you learn about new things and then you think about it and then you probably extract some type of learning.
Janaki: It’ll come; it’ll pop up one day when you’re doing something else.
Suhas: Okay. Okay. That sounds really interesting and I’m glad, you know you’ve also evolved so much with respect to how people react in such situations. And it’s great to see that you’re comfortable taking the roads and sometimes, you know, who knows the fact that somebody spoke to you might even make their day they’d be happy and the same auto-wala would probably go and be like “Hey I spoke to Vijay amma” your buddies that would probably give them a really good sense of, you know, content for that particular day.
Janaki: Let me tell you a joke that happened. My daughter came in and the auto guy dropped her off. And he asked her “So neenga indha building la irkeengala?” [ So do you stay in this building?] ; And she said, “Yeah”. And she was giving him the change, and he saidUngalakku theriyuma? Indha building la dhaan Vijay oda amma, Ghilli”, [Do you know? In this building Vijay’s mother from Ghilli stays]. She came and said, “Ma you’re very famous.” I didn’t realize that it was very cute and you just felt nice about it like that, you know? So these things happen and you just take it in straight.
Suhas: I definitely, I think I totally understand how that feels. So this is sort of to slide into the final question wrap this up. We’ve spoken up so many things, both personal and professional, and I think one of the most pressing questions and topics in this field of mental health, professional help. So along with professional help, we require the support of friends and family when you’re going through a difficult time. So what you can, each of us individually should keep in mind when we’re interacting with somebody else?
Janaki: Okay. So I think the first thing which is something that I really, really want to even speak about and emphasize, even for myself, is to be kind to people. We have no clue what they are going through. We all wear masks and we are so amazing at wearing these masks; unless and until you know that person inside-out, you’ll see through. Even like when I’m speaking to my daughter and suppose she’s not here, she’s not in town. She hears. And she says, “Ma you, okay?” So it’s, it’s as simple as that, you know? And because she asked me if I’m okay, and because she’s my daughter, and it’s a very safe conversation that you can have with your daughter, because she’s not going to judge, you, up saying something that disturbed you, something that you will not happy, but you can’t always rely only on family members, because they are also going through their own journeys.
Janaki: So you need that one person, or you need one person, who’s your friend, or you need that safety network of friends or people, who are actually qualified to ask you some questions. It’s not like one of these “Joram iruka? Evlo irundhudhu?” [Do you have fever? How much is it?] It’s not that it’s like, do you want to talk sometimes just a simple line, some simple question, like this can completely change somebody’s life. Do you want to talk? And that person breaks down or says, yes, I want to talk. You’re not to pick up that call, to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, it takes a lot of what do I say? Lots of ups, something from inside that pushes you, which forces you to pick up because otherwise it’s easy. We can always say, no, no, I don’t want to call it today.
Janaki: You’re only delaying that call, but the more you delay that call, the more horrible you will be feeling. So I think A, be kind and don’t judge, they’re going through something and please, we can never say, “Oh, I understand what you’re going through”. You will never be able to understand that is what they’re going through. So I always, I have seen so many TED talks, you know, ‘The 10 ways of having a conversation’, all these are mindfulness, all these are going, because I tried to, I want to become a better version of myself. I keep striving because I don’t want to hurt people with statements. I’m very, very mindful of what I speak now, because earlier we’ve all made mistakes. We’re all human. Yes. And I think everyone has a story. Everyone has a backstory, as they say, you know, you like Steve Jobs says you can only connect the dots, you know, backwards, right? Yeah. So when you, when you, when you connect those dots, only you realize, Oh my God, if I had not said that that day, maybe I would have never come to this phone today, but then you’re not God, it’s okay.
Suhas: Sometimes when we make mistakes. It’s okay to acknowledge that you made it and then try to react on how to go about it before even realizing that you made one and react about it.
Janaki: Absolutely. And I think if you’re being mindful, it’s very easy for me to say it is, it is not easy. It comes with a lot of experience, practice, and maturity. You know, there is something in music and Hindi, they say the ‘tehra’, or ‘nidhanam.’ That is even when you’re telling a story, you can’t go *wadadadadada*. “Once Upon a time” [slowly], you need everyone to soak in your story. So if you want people to even listen to you, you need to first understand that it’s okay to share, but you need to create that safe space, that safe network that, that one person or two people—it could be in the family, it could be your best friend. It could be maybe an ex-colleague who’s, you know, turned out to be your best friend now. So these are things—in these strange times, the pandemic has taught me so much saying that, you can push your limits and, go there, get out of your comfort zone. But the day you are not feeling comfortable, just keep quiet.
Suhas: I think, you know, that’s very important to know that. I think this answer was, can I say that this answer really sums up how you are and your philosophy about things in life itself?
Janaki: Yes, because there are some days I do nothing and it is okay. I used to stress about not having done anything, but I don’t longer stress. It’s okay! It’s okay to feel bad for 24 hours. It’s okay to not feel good some days. But you have to snap out of it. And if you’re unable to snap out of it, go and go ask for some help. It’s okay to not be okay, and then ask somebody for help.
Suhas: I think that really sums up you know, the whole idea about mental health and the fact that conversations are important. I think I’ll be happy with the way this whole conversation in the last half hour has turned out to be really good. You know just to sort of loop in something you said at the beginning, you felt very shy and weren’t very sure on how to interact on the online space, but I’ve been following you for very long and let me tell you ma’am, you’re very enthusiastic to watch and it instills the energy back in us. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be doing.
Suhas: Just before I close off, I’d like to bring something that you’ve spoken about right. You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of a safe space, a non-judgmental safe space where people can talk; that can be your friends or family or anybody else who you know you’re comfortable sharing your feelings with. We at LonePack have also understood the importance of this, and keeping this in mind, we’ve designed an online virtual space where people can do the same thing. It’s called LonePack Buddy, and the whole essence of LonePack Buddy is to provide a non-judgmental safe space, which is also anonymous, where people can talk to other volunteers from our end. People who volunteer with us are also trained with us in a course where they know how to talk to people actively and invest themselves emotionally and ensure that they can help people on a temporary basis. Of course, this is not a replacement for therapy. Just like you said, it’s good to have someone to have someone to talk to and you know, some days with the conversation you learn a lot about yourself when you talk to somebody, especially when someone is there to listen to you. So I think that’s the whole essence of LonePack Buddy. We just wanted to let you know so that you or somebody else who probably would want to talk can use this facility.
Janaki: I think it’s a wonderful initiative because I think like in the corporate world, when you say buddy, it’s like when somebody joins the company and you know, that person needs somebody to help get started. He needs help to understand the company better, the processes better. So I think a buddy like this, a LonePack buddy will be so good for people to understand because I, they will be non-judgmental, you know, and that is what I think we need in these times, especially in these times. Thank you for even launching that, and I think that’s a wonderful initiative and I know LonePack is doing some amazing work and I know you’re doing it very quietly. And I know that I think we need to inform a whole lot of people, especially in these times when people just need the need to just pick up the call and talk. It’ll be, I don’t know, we can’t put ourselves in their shoes.
Suhas: Definitely, I agree. This has been a very heartening conversation to have with you. Thank you so much for firstly agreeing to do this by taking time off your day and engaging with us. We hope that we can share a lot from you and collaborate further and I wish you an amazing day ahead and thank you so much for this.
Janaki: Thank you so much Suhas, and thank you LonePack, continue to do whatever you’re doing. And I will always be there and whatever way I can contribute for LonePack.
Suhas: Alright, thank you so much. I’d also leave a message to all the listeners that we’ve had listening to this wonderful conversation. Thank you and have a good day.
Friendship is something you never outgrow. No matter how old you are or what you’re going through, healthy and close friendships encourage positive mental health and well-being. They celebrate with you through the good times in life and are there for you through the bad. In times such as now, it has become more important for us to be there for each other and check up on our loved ones.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we have with us Dr. Vinod Kumar, Psychiatrist and Head of Mpower – The Centre. He has trained extensively in the UK and has qualifications and skills in various psycho-therapeutic modalities. He has also acquired qualifications in psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy, interpersonal psycho-therapy and cognitive behavioral psycho-therapy. He has endeavored to develop a truly holistic approach to mental health issues and works with a particular emphasis on psycho-dynamic psychiatry, wherein apart from the biological issues, emphasis is laid on the individual personality and the way that interacts with the illness.
Welcome, Dr. Vinod!
Dr. Vinod– Welcome. Thank you for such a wonderful and warm welcome introduction.
Valerie- Thank you for being here with us today.
Dr. Vinod- You’re welcome.
Valerie- So, in the recent past, the importance of mental health awareness and the need to be sensitive to people around us has become an integral topic of discussion. How do we create an environment to make sure that people feel comfortable opening up to us?
Dr. Vinod- So, there are quite a few general factors and also some specific tips I can give with regards to this. If you think about it, amongst your own network, say- you have a group of friends in your class or in your school, or certain family members- some of us are endowed with that sort of warm and empathetic personality so people kind of gravitate towards us in the sense that some of us are natural agony aunts in the way we are built and structured in our personality. Having said that, we can all endeavour to become better agony aunts.
We use some specific techniques. Say, if we are talking about our family and friends only, and we’re talking about people we have to live and interact with on a daily basis, we know their nature- how non-judgemental they are, how secretive or sensitive they are to personal information, how not to share it and so on. We already have a pre-conception so we will automatically choose whom we open upto or not. If we keep that in the background, that individual people have different abilities to be good listeners and agony aunts, if you think about specifics, we do this program called ‘The Youth Mental Health First-Aid’. I don’t know if you’ve come across that but that’s an Australian training program which we use primarily to equip people who work with younger people to be good mental health first-aiders. So, as a part of that program, there is this mnemonic that we use which is called ALGEE. That is used very commonly in all spheres. So, ‘A’ stands for ‘Assess for the risk of suicide or harm’, ‘L’ stands for the ability to develop ‘Listening non-judgementally’- we all have a tendency to be judgemental at times and being aware of the fact that any judgements from our side or being judgy in any way is going to put off the other person from opening up to us fully-, then ‘G’ stands for to ‘Give reassurance and information that is appropriate and adequate’ and I’ll expand on that in a second, ‘E’ stands for ‘Encourage appropriate professional help’ and the second ‘E’ stands for ‘Encourage self-help and other support strategies’.
So, this kind of gives you a framework of what works. So, some basic practical tips- you sense that somebody in your family or in your network of friends is struggling emotionally. How are you going to approach them? It’s very important to choose the timing of your opening gambit to them, the situation- you don’t do it on a dinner table, you know what I mean? If you’ve got five or six people, typically in a family, sitting over dinner, and then you sense that your younger sister or brother is struggling emotionally, you don’t bring it up then like “What’s going on with you? I’ve been noticing that you’ve been awfully quiet”. Automatically, the situation will generate a response which would make them close in again “No no, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”. Also, without knowing, non-verbally, we have tendencies to talk down to people, right? So very simple things- like when you approach somebody, you make sure you are at the same eye level as they are. If they are sitting, you don’t go and stand tall on them and say “I have been noticing you’re not yourself”. That is threatening. So, you take a very non-threatening, very humble stance, right? So say, if you’re dealing with a younger person, you make sure that if they are sitting, you go sit down next to them, where your eye levels are horizontal rather than you looking at them from top. You become aware of any non-verbal gestures which will be threatening.
You pick a time and a space which is appropriate for somebody to open up about their inner issues. It sounds like common sense but most of us don’t do it appropriately enough because what happens is that it usually comes out in a context where some argument is ensued and then you want to explore what is wrong with this young person or this other person, right? So, be aware of that. For that, you need to be sensitive, you have to be aware of your own body language which you portray. Generally, think about the timing of the intervention and the situation of the intervention. Have ‘AGLEE’ as a mnemonic at the back of your mind. So then you would basically take a stance where you are in the exploratory mode, which is very hard for most of us. We tend to take on the Captain Detective mode- “What is wrong with you? I’ve been noticing…” If the enquiry is very loaded with judgements, then it’s not likely to lead to any opening.
So, the questions should always be from an open-ended structure to close-ended. I’ll give you an example, suppose I’m talking to you and you are like my family member and I say “Hey, are you depressed?”, that’s obviously a very close-ended question. Instead, if the question was framed bearing in mind that you are sitting at the same eye-level and in a non-threatening posture and so on, and you say “How have you been feeling in yourself in the last few weeks?”, do you see the difference? The answer to the question should not end up becoming “Yes, I am depressed” or “No, I’m not depressed”, you understand? So, it’s an open-ended question where you say “Yeah, I’ve been feeling alright but you know what? I don’t feel that great”. So, you’re giving that space to the person. Your questioning should be what we call ‘conical shaped, which is you go from an open-ended question and if they don’t take the bait, then you can ask more closed questions- “But you know what? I’ve been noticing you’re not as participatory in the family events…” or whatever, right? So, you can bring in some data and then try and open them up. So, don’t act like a lawyer “Have you done it or not?”. That’s a basic thing.
Always be courteous and be okay with the person not wanting to open up at that point in time. That’s basic common sense again but see, you planned it carefully that you’re going to go and do this exploration or intervention and offer supportive nature and if the other person is not ready for it, then you give them that opening that okay, you understand that they don’t feel like talking right now but whenever they feel upto it, they can approach you. Leave the doors open that way, yeah? Nothing you do should come across with any kind of force or anything which is threatening like “You better talk to me”. You know what I mean? That should not be the attitude. So, it’s that very gentle open invitation at an appropriate time and an appropriate situation, I would say.
Valerie- I like that you said we need to respect their space and we need to seem sensitive to them so that it gives them a kind of comfort when it comes to the fact that they can open upto us whenever they feel like it, and also the importance of non-verbal gestures.
So now, supposing we do all of this and somebody does open up to us, or in the recent past, we’ve had a lot of people put up on their social handles messages saying “My messages are always open to you so reach out to me whenever you feel like it” but we need to educate ourselves on how we react when people actually do reach out to us. So, what are a few things we should keep in mind when people reach out?
Dr. Vinod- So, I think the first thing is to be very very acutely aware of not being judgy. That’s very off-putting. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes- they’re trying to share something difficult and before you’ve exhausted what you want to say, somebody has already made up their mind on what’s wrong with you and they’ve got a piece of advice, whatever that might be. That’s very off-putting. That’s very much against the ethos of good listening,you know what I mean? So, you need to give them that space again and whatever it might be, you listen first, and you listen with intent and you listen with that sort of one-pointed focus, as much as possible. Let them come to a natural closure to what they want to share before you make comments. I think in between, you could give cues like “Mhmm”, “No, I understand”, “Tell me more”, that sort of a thing, just to get the process going or keep it going but nothing you do should come across as judgy, at least in the initial phases of the conversation. That’s one.
Secondly, depending on the situation, you should also give a very clear message that whatever the other person is now going to share with you is going to stay here. One of the barriers for people sharing difficult things with other people is that there’s a sense of not feeling secure, that the other person will share it with the other and so on. So, if you make a statement that to that fact, in simple words, that “I understand that this is difficult for you but let me reassure you that whatever we talk about now stays here” and that you’re not going to judge and you’re just here to give that space and time to that person so that they can open up about their mental anguish. So, it’s those things, whether they’re done very concretely and verbally, or through your non-verbal attitude and gesture, it’s a combination that leads to success, isn’t it?
Valerie- Yeah. Okay, now you’ve also spoken about how one needs to be in the right mindset to offer mental health support because a lot of us might think that the true definition of friendship is being there for someone no matter what. While it’s something that we can admire, it also comes at the cost of our own mental health at times. We might be going through something, we might not be in the place to offer support to somebody else. So, how do we be a good friend to someone going through a difficult time while not neglecting our own needs?
Dr. Vinod- I think that goes without saying, isn’t it? That you can be of positive help when you have the ability and the resources and the space within yourself. If you are struggling yourself, it’s better to deal with that first, right? It’s a bit like what they say, it’s a very cliched thing which people use but when you’re given instructions in a flight before the flight takes off that “The oxygen mask will fall and we want you to take care of yourself before you can help others.” So, that’s a given because without that, you’re not just going to make matters worse for yourself, but also for the other person.
Valerie- Right but so often you feel like you’re not doing enough for somebody, especially when you tell them you’re “always there” and then when they do come to you but you’re not in the right space of mind, you just can’t offer help. It doesn’t really seem right to you as well, feeling like you’re not doing justice to them coming and talking to you.
Dr. Vinod- You know when one says that “I’m always there for you when you need me”, that always has a condition that I’m there for you when I’m okay to be there for you, correct? It goes without saying, I think. There’s no substitute for honesty. Suppose somebody does choose or decide to open up to you, and like we said, the situation and the time is very important and that goes both ways, doesn’t it? When they are ready to connect with you and if you are not, there is no substitute for just being very honest and say “Right now, I’m not in the right space of mind. I will come back to you on it”. There might be a little to and fro but there is no substitute for honesty.
Valerie- Right, okay. So, while peer support is critical, it can’t replace professional help, right? But a lot of people are reluctant or outright unwilling to seek professional help. You don’t want to admit that something is wrong with you and you don’t want to go to a professional about it. Why do you think this is the case and how can we encourage people to seek professional help?
Dr. Vinod- There are so many barriers. The first one obviously being the sense of stigma around seeking any kind of mental health help, which has come about culturally, historically, due to various ways in which mental health issues and mental health professionals have been portrayed in the media and in the wider culture as well. There are a lot of negative connotations attached like “Main pagal thodi hu” (“I’m not crazy”), that kind of attitude. So, it’s very very difficult to break that and I think, in all cultures, I’ll tell you it’s not just India. In all cultures, there is a stigma attached to it but obviously, it varies with how evolved a culture is in this aspect. anyway. So what are the ways around it? Clearly, education, education ,education. The more people know about what it entails, what kinds of issues can be helped, right?
For instance, what we’re trying to do today, it’s part of that isn’t it? So, when more and more people become more and more aware that it’s okay to share with somebody who is trained and is professional with this. It’s kind of like people can cut their own hair at home but if you go to a professional hairstylist, obviously the outcome is better. Maybe it’s not a very good example but it just came to my mind. So, there is a difference in that.So, the biggest barrier is myths and misconceptions that people hold about professionals that when you kind of lose it is the only time you go and seek help or when there’s no other option. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s point one.
So, there’s a very interesting position people take on this. Their whole sense of identity and pride is linked to being mentally sound and stable and safe. Owning that you’re not, is a big jolt to your ego and your identity and it’s all very unfounded. I think it’s completely nonsense, you know? I mean I have had so many clients over the years who come to me like “Doctor, tell me, I’m not insane, am I?” You know what I mean? It’s that sort of black and white thinking about this issue which has come. It’s very immature. I don’t know how it’s come and why it’s come.
Due to multiple factors, I suppose but you wouldn’t worry so much about seeking help from a gastroenterologist if you’ve got stomach issues. There is something fundamentally wrong with us thinking our entire identity is linked to our mind and our thinking. It’s like saying that “I am my sweat and my skin”. It’s just not true. It’s a part of you. Your brain and your thoughts and your feelings are a part of you but that’s not entirely you. So who are you? They’re a part of you but in my opinion, you are your awareness and your consciousness.
Now, if that becomes aware that there is burning when you’re passing urine, you would go see a urologist or a general surgeon to get the right help for it. When that awareness becomes aware that the brain, the thoughts and the feelings are not as healthy as they can be or they should be, then why not seek appropriate help for that? What’s the problem? But it’s amazing, it’s something which is a problem we’re all trying to unravel and break through and I think things are changing and what happens is popular role models and popular culture helps break these barriers as well.
For instance, when Ms. Deepika Padukone or a filmstar comes out and says “I have suffered with depression and I have sought professional help and it’s really sorted me out” and so on, that helps. I think that helps break some of the barriers because these celebrities do have a lot of influence on our thinking and I think, very importantly, what is portrayed in movies and in popular media, that shapes and defines our thinking and our attitude towards such things. For years, filmmakers have tried to use mental health issues as a substrate for humour, and that does not help matters. In fact, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has got an entire team looking at how mental health issues are portrayed in films and popular media and they do some very proactive work on trying to change that. Those are the things we all need to be wary of and challenge.
Valerie- I also feel like the culture we’ve been brought up in, we’ve been taught that you shouldn’t be crying. That it’s not a good thing for you to even show emotion and eventually when you keep hearing that, again and again, you become numb to even showing emotion to anybody. So, even if you don’t feel okay, you’re putting up a brave face, right? You need to really trust somebody to be able to actually talk about your issues and it becomes even more difficult, even though you know that you will be talking to a professional, you’re still talking to a stranger that you don’t trust and that you don’t know, so if somebody opens up to us as a friend that they really trust, how do we then tell them that “This isn’t a problem I can solve and it’s not something that will just go away so it’s better for you to seek professional help”. How do you say that without making it sound dismissive?
Dr. Vinod- Yeah. So, I think using a similar strategy as I just did. Using analogies of a stomach ache or other physical ailments. You have a set of experiences which are unrelenting, continuous. You feel sad, you’re not sleeping well, you’re not concentrating well, or you feel very panicky and stressed out all day and all that. Now, this has been going on for days and weeks. When the same thing is happening in your stomach and you’re having continuous diarrhoea, for instance, would you not see a professional to sort it out? So why is this different? So, it’s that kind of an approach, I would say.
But also, I see your point that without sounding judgemental… So don’t jump the gun about asking people to seek professional help. I think, exhaust the obvious ones. A lot of healing and therapeutic effects happen in good listening, right? Then encouraging problem solving in that person “Okay so now what are you going to do about it?” or “How are you going to handle it from here on? Let’s think about that together”. So maintain good sleep hygiene, get some exercise everyday, focus on the here and now, break down problems into solvable chunks and build it up, don’t look at the whole thing and get overwhelmed. Whatever your abilities are, when you exhaust all that and the problem persists and you’ve had more than one or two sessions, that’s when you probably bring in the possibility of them seeking professional help. So, it’s again timing and that judgement should come depending on the person’s openness and so on.
What is very very different is, say your best friend, she can share everything with you about her issues with her boyfriend or her mother and so on but when it comes to really deep dark secrets, right? People will hold off opening up about those things to the most loved ones as well because there is a fundamental problem here in your relationship which is that you are there as a part of their life. They have to interact with you, deal with you on a regular basis. So this is where the professional counselling bit comes in because here, clearly any counsellor or therapist of any worth should have very clear boundaries between professional work and their personal lives. So, I will not try and socialize with my clients as far as possible so I’m not a part of their life in that sense so they can open up about everything. Again, I come with years of training, a non-judgemental attitude, experience of dealing and working with difficult emotional issues so that also gives the professionals a bit of an advantage, you know?
It’s very different talking to a friend or a family member compared to talking to a good, well-trained professional therapist of any kind because it’s a safe space to begin with. A hundred percent safe. That much guarantee a therapist has to give, that “Whatever happens between these four walls stays here and if you don’t want me to share anything with anybody then that’s that. I’m not going to judge you. There’s nothing I haven’t heard before”. And so on. I think the classic example would be that you can do first-aid but when the person needs a bit more than first-aid, you’d obviously take them to a professional doctor, won’t you?
Valerie- I like that you talked about the importance of active listening and then gradually bringing up the conversation of seeking help so that we are there for them but then they also know that it’s important to seek professional help and get the help that you need because you can only provide so much.
Dr. Vinod- Yeah.
Valerie- So, the pandemic that we’re all going through and the lockdown has definitely taken a toll on all of us, be it mentally, emotionally or physically. We are no longer as aware of how people in our circles are doing as we once were. So, how do we take care of ourselves while also checking in on our friends? This would also maybe extend to when the lockdown ends but a lot of us still have long distance friends where we don’t see them on a regular basis, we don’t know what they’re going through. How do we check up on them?
Dr. Vinod- So, it’s very difficult. If you are used to somebody every other day and so on, that is obviously going to get diluted now but in my experience, I believe that the kind of perceived sense of support is way more important than actual support. Do you see what I mean? So, if you have a group of friends, say you’ve got like twenty friends, and they will be pretty demonstrative and they’re always there, supporting you. That’s very nice. But if you have fewer friends and you know that they are solid and that they’re going to be there if you need them, that perception, that sense in one’s mind is very helpful. So, it doesn’t have to be physically demonstrated and physical presence, you know?
It’s the quality rather than quantity, if you ask me, of that support you can offer to a loved one or a friend or a family member and that’s very important. So never forget that quality is way more important than quantity and that different circumstances in our lifetimes will warrant different levels of quantifiable contact and support, correct? The current situation is like that and we do what we can and obviously, with the access to technology and the amount of virtual meetings that’s happening, we do what’s possible. But I think it’s always the quality that matters. Somebody can be in your face all day long but they are of no use to you emotionally, you know what I mean? But then one person you may connect with once a year but the quality of that relationship is so beautiful that you value that a lot more if you were asked to list out people who you would depend on if your life depended on it, you know? You would name them. So, there’s no substitute for that.
Valerie- Well, Dr. Vinod, thank you so much for talking to us. There was so much that I got to learn from you, especially when it came to how to make somebody feel comfortable even when you’re not speaking to them or how to be sensitive and respect somebody’s space. Active listening was an important thing that I learnt from you today, to make sure that you’re there for somebody and they know that they’re heard.
Dr. Vinod- And remember there’s no substitute for genuine empathy. Genuine empathy. I didn’t emphasize enough.
Valerie- That’s right, yeah.
Dr. Vinod- Anyway, it was great. I mean, there’s a lot to say so we’ve tried to cover a lot today but if I can be of any further help any time, please feel free to connect.
Over a decade ago, when there were no queer Indian voices online and no safe spaces for queer people to connect offline, Sakshi Juneja and her friends decided that they would begin the conversation about what it meant to be gay and desi, in other words- ‘Gaysi’. What started as a simple blog for queer desis to share their stories, has grown into a community that exists not just online but offline too. In addition to its forum for people to share stories, Gaysi features articles from prominent voices in the LGBTQ+ community, hosts events and screenings, has its own magazine- the ‘Gaysi Zine’, collaborates with major brands and has been featured in several national and international mainstream media publications. Want to learn more about Gaysi and the queer community? Keep listening.
Ruchika- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m your host, Ruchika. Today on the show, we have with us Jo- a doctoral student of Anthropology and the Digital Editor at Gaysi. Jo, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became a part of the queer community.
Jo- Hi, Ruchika. Thank you so much for having me here, firstly. I’m Jo. I’m a 25 year old research scholar in London. I study Anthropology and my area of work is Queer theory, sex work, lots of different things which I will not go into because it’s a different conversation. Well, I have comparatively been pretty new to the Indian queer community because I grew up in Gulf countries. I grew up in Riyadh and Sharjah for most of my life and it’s only when I got to India that I had so much more information to access that I could actually explore my sexuality and understand where I stand within the spectrums of sexuality and gender. So, I’m only about six years old within the community but those six years have been such a learning curve upwards, only upwards of learning and continuously seeing, doing, being part of the community, being very heavily involved with the community.
So, I think the first time I was exposed to the existence of somebody who is not as hetero-normative as I had seen throughout my childhood would be a close friend, when I was in my journalism degree in Bombay. After that, it was quite obvious because there was the Pride Parade that was happening in Bombay and Bombay is a very queer city in terms of its queer history. So, I had access to a lot of people, a lot of stories, a lot of voices I could talk to and then I went to Bangalore for my Master’s degree and then I got introduced to the larger Bangalore queer community as well, which has a very different texture to the Bombay queer community. That’s how I learnt so much from them as well and that is when I joined Gaysi.
So, I joined Gaysi as a writer initially and that’s how I had applied to Gaysi and they told me that I can do well as an editor as well and that’s how I sort of landed my dream job because for any queer young Indian to work with Gaysi has always been a dream because they have been such a solid pole star kind of a voice for so many of us for like the past ten or eleven years. So for me, working for Gaysi was something I didn’t expect, to be working in the close capacity that I’m working in right now.
Ruchika- Yeah, I agree that working with Gaysi would be a dream for many in the queer community. So, Gaysi as an organization does not just go by the name ‘Gaysi’ but by the name ‘Gaysi Family’. So, could you elaborate on why and how the choice came about to name it this way and how do you extend this notion of being a family with the larger queer community through your online as well as offline events?
Jo- So, if you were to think about only the semantics of the name, Gaysi started as a space where- Sakshi felt like there needs to be a space where- all kinds of people can speak about anything that they want as long as they’re queer and desi because there was no space for them to even share the most basic things. For example, when you go to a movie and you see some sort of a female friendship that looked as though it had a queer subtext, there’s no friend you could have told it to because you might be a closeted queer person. So, Gaysi was that space where you could just come and write, even if it’s just four lines. It didn’t have to be a heavily edited article, it didn’t have to be a long form seven thousand word article. It could just be five lines of why somebody felt ‘Fire’, as a movie in ‘95, was a great film to begin with. It could just be those four lines or five lines.
I think Sakshi wanted to create that family and for us, within the queer community, the concept of chosen families is very very important and I think that’s something to do with most marginalized communities because in the case of whether it’s queer families or whether it is sex workers, it could be anybody. When I think of most marginalized communities, it’s very important to have external families. Most of us would call those families “friends” but it’s a lot more because in the case of queer folks, most of our biological families might have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that our existence is completely normal because they’ve never been taught that our existence is normal. They’ve always been taught within hetero-normative structures, that being gay, being queer, being a lesbian, being asexual, not conforming to gender, is something that is deviant behavior and not something that is completely normal and that has been around for way more centuries than even colonialism has been in our country.
Being queer is nothing new although that’s the common misconception and the stigma that is attached to being queer, which is why chosen families play such an important role because let’s say for example, I have a very close friend of mine who has an extremely difficult family right now. They are continuously triggered, they are continuously told that they don’t matter, that they’re not valid, that they’re thoughts don’t matter. They are constantly put in pressure to go and seek therapy to make them “normal”. They find peace when they talk to me and my partner, which is why they call us their parents, their pseudo-parents because that sort of parental help that we can give like for example, when this person had to write their IELTS exam, which is an English exam, I was there to walk them through the entire exam because I wrote it with them so it’s not only about a friendship but it’s something more as well because they can actually fall back on you and those friends who are more family than friends are very very very vital to the survival of queer folks because without them, it’s a very difficult world to live in. We all know about the rates of depression and suicide that affects the queer community or marginalized communities more than it affects those who are in a space of privilege.
So, yeah, I hope that answers your question about why it’s called ‘Gaysi Family’ and not just ‘Gaysi’ although colloquially we just say ‘Gaysi’, nobody says ‘Gaysi Family’ but that was the idea and that segues into the fact that chosen families are super important.
Ruchika- Yeah. While the LGBTQ+ community on the whole still has a long way to go in India to find complete acceptance, the LBT individuals in particular do not have enough support. Gaysi, however, has made a special effort to be inclusive towards these individuals. How and why did this happen? Was it something that you did intentionally or did it come about organically?
Jo- It’s a very interesting question, first of all because it’s very central to Gaysi’s functioning, talking about LBT individuals. So, well, yes. Firstly, we do have a long way to go, specifically when we talk about the fact that we’re still not seem as equals even though because of the amendment of section 377, we can see that at least we can have sex equally, to heterosexual couples but that’s not enough because letting people have sex is obviously not the government’s purview but I guess that’s one thing to be grateful for because for a lot of us, we are more content with the privacy law rather than section 377 although section 377 is a very high-profile law which is why there was so much celebration around it but the Privacy law did a lot more for queer individuals because it very clearly started that sexual orientation and gender identity is a private matter, which is a very important step but of course, because of the Trans Bill right now, we have gone two centuries back because the Trans Bill is a horrendous bill that has come out and that’s the first thing we need to be solving.
Then there is same-sex marriage acts that we have to talk about, we have to talk about the anti-trafficking bill, which convoluted all kinds of different groups- it affects trans sex workers, it affects cis queer sex workers as well so yeah, it is a very messy journey but none of our rights, whether it’s feminism, Black rights, any sort of rights in the World, none of it came easily, none of it came without tonnes of us fighting extremely hard but it has to happen because otherwise there is no freedom for all of us together so, yeah, that’s one part of the question. For the other part of the question, about the LBT community, firstly I want to clarify that when we say LBT, it would include everybody who is a gender, sexual and romantic minority, it does not only include Lesbians, bisexual people and trans people, so I just wanted to make that clear.
Firstly, the fact that Gaysi was created by cis-gender queer women who identify themselves as lesbians already creates a space where the needs of those who are are not cis-gender gay men will be put forth more than the needs of cis-gender gay men, if I’m clear. So, I’ll make that clear in the next few sentences as I go. Gaysi was created because there was already some amount of a space for cis-gay men in the Bombay queer community for them to speak about, meet, stuff like that and I think one thing we forget is that patriarchy still allows for cis-gender heterosexual men and cis-gender gay men to access public space in a way that people who are not cis-gender gay men cannot access public space because for us, in most cases, let’s say cis women, will be shut off at home if somebody finds out that they are gay. They cannot ward of marriage in the same way that cis men might be able to, for example. There are lots of things we can’t do. So, keeping that in mind as well, the space that has to be built for people within LBT communities has to be different from the space that has always existed in public space for cis gay men, which is why when it comes to Gaysi as well, when we started doing our parties, our two-by-two parties, we wanted to specifically create a space that LBT people can access freely and as openly as possible, which does not have to be absolutely mixed with cis gay men because, because of the amount of spaces that are already available, I have been to parties where there were eight percent men and twenty percent, everybody else.
That made me feel very uncomfortable because I was not able to enjoy the space in the same way that I would have enjoyed it in any other space and especially when it comes to non-binary people or trans people or people who like to cross-dress or people who have any sort of different gender identity than cis-gender, that space is not available even now, I would say. Even after Gaysi, not enough spaces are available for all minorities in public space and this is still something Gaysi has to work on. I’m not saying we’ve created this epitome of awesome space but it’s something that we have very purposely tried to do because we have to do that. Making of space and ensuring that all communities and minorities are centred and given space, does not always happen organically so it is very important that people purposely be allies to these communities, very purposely ensure that their space is valued and kept in the centre, especially if they’ve not had that access. So, I hope this answer wasn’t too academic. (laughs)
Ruchika- It’s great to hear that Gaysi is being proactive towards this cause but I’d like to ask you another question. Members of the gay community are often stereotyped into moulds that can be very problematic. For example, lesbian and bisexual women of the community are very largely fetishized in pop culture. In your life and in your work with Gaysi, have you come across such instances and how do you suggest that we tackle them?
Jo- Yes, of course! Fetishization is a major problem. I mean of course, one of the first things I came across when I was a child that had to do anything with the community was lesbian porn because I though people were only lesbians when it came to porn, I didn’t think it was a real thing because that’s the kind of stigma that we’ve been fed. That it’s a preference, it’s a choice that you make in bed and not that it’s an actual romantic sexual emotional feeling towards another person which is completely as normal as heterosexuality, So, of course that totally exists and it stems from the stigma that any sexuality other than heterosexuality is not real, which is why a woman on woman kind of relationship is very stigmatized, it’s a sexualized view and even the first time when we talk about bisexiality and how stigmatized it is, for most bisexual people, especially if they are assigned female at birth, if they go on Tinder and they’re trying to look for somebody, usually you get couples who ask for somebody for a threesome so that’s what most people are reduced to. So, again that’s another thing.
That’s part of the stigma that’s attached to the community that says that this is all bisexual people and lesbian people are worth and that is what their function is in life and it’s sad because while that’s what they might be interested in, you are not taking an effort to learn more about them, about their likes, their dislikes and you reduce an entire person to their sexuality, which is the problem, right? So that’s that about the stigma, that it does exist. You don’t see it as much in the case of gay men because I actually know a lot of gay men who’ve asked me how I can like women and I’m like “just like how you can like men.” How does that make sense? So there is a lot of stigma within the community itself.
Within the community there are homosexual people who think bisexuality is a just a path to homosexuality rather than a very valid sexual orientation and I mean there is a stigma within the homosexual and bisexual communities, there are people who think that asexuality is not valid and I identify as asexual and it’s my lived experience that I do not feel sexual attraction towards a person I love very much on an everyday basis or there is a certain way that I have understood my sexuality and I would say that all these things have always existed within us, we just have words and a language for it, that is it.
All of us feel certain things. Human beings are very complex. If we can understand that our bodies are so complex and we can have five hundred organs doing five hundred things, why can we not understand that we have five hundred feelings and systems and this and that doing different functions for us? It’s as simple as that. I think this largely ties to the understanding also of mental health. If you cannot understand that mental health and physical health is very on par and should be taken care of on a serious level on par with each other, that is also why you cannot understand that emotions and feelings can be as diverse as your own bodily functions, if that makes sense.
Ruchika- Yeah, I completely agree with you about the continuum between mental and physical health. Speaking of that, there are studies that report that members of the queer community are at greater risk of developing mental health issues but for many members of this community, access to safe mental healthcare is a challenge. So can you elaborate for our listeners on this topic? What can we do to remove the barriers that the community faces?
Jo- Yes, I completely agree. There is a major issue with how much queer folks face mental health issues because the spaces that they live in and grew up in are extraordinarily different from how it is to live as a hetero-normative person who is adhering to most of society’s standards. For example, let’s say there will be a very clear difference in attitudes towards a heterosexual sibling and a homosexual sibling because the homosexual sibling is not seen as a normal part of the family at all. The family themselves have not learnt anything beyond hetero-normativity so the homosexual child will be treated differently. A child, for example, if they have been assigned male at birth and they are wearing a saree, they probably will be beaten up by their parents to sort of make them better or something, apparently.
Yeah, I know abuse is a different thing to be talking about but a lot of children in families that are hetero-normative and if they are homosexual or if they are just not hetero-normative like the rest of the family, will go through some amount of abuse, whether it’s verbal, physical, emotional or will even just be said some things that are extremely scarring and sadly, because we don’t have queer affirmative mental heath practices enough in the country, and just generally also there is so much stigma around mental health that parents are not going to reach out to a psychologist or a therapist to talk to them about how they can support their kid. Instead, they will reach out to psychiatrists to put their kids into conversion therapy, for example. So, it’s a completely opposite way to be looking at it, instead of trying to understand why their child might be having these feelings or how we can support them better.
So, that’s the kind of conversation that we should be having that we’re still not having, which leads to obvious mental health disorders, to illnesses, to just not very healthy practices at home and yeah, of course it ends up in young queer children having to take so much more therapy for all the nonsense that their parents have fed them, so it’s really sad. The statistics are right. A lot of us face a lot more depression and anxiety because we are closeted for most of our lives, so it is a very horrible space to be in- to continuously lead two lives- to continuously be inside the closet and outside the closet with some people but not with other people and not live our authentic lives, our true lives. That’s extremely tough.
Ruchika- I agree. I wanted you to elaborate a little bit more on the queer affirmative therapy. How does it help the members of the LGBTQ+ community?
Jo- So, the reason that we need to have queer affirmative therapy rather than just queer neutral therapy, very basically, we need to have therapists who have educated themselves on the community and who need to be affirmative to their LGBT clients. That is extremely important so that they don’t end up sitting over there saying something that further demonizes the community, that further stigmatizes the person sitting in front of them and makes them feel like they are of no significance to the Earth because that can really happen a lot. For example, something very basic like self harm and we have the person opposite just guilting them, that itself can make a person feel extremely horrible about themselves. Similarly, in the case of queer folks as well, if it’s not affirmative, if it’s not coming from a place where the therapist is well read, it can really have very negative side effects on the person who is seeking therapy and that can be extremely dangerous because we already don’t have many therapists in the country and we have more therapists in metropolitan cities than in any other place and that already is a big gap because smaller towns, tier I, tier II cities don’t have enough queer affirmative practices that work. So, there’s still a long way to go, that’s where I always end up. Such a long way to go but have I answered your question? Is there something else you wanted me to elaborate on? Because I’m not a therapist also.
Ruchika- Yeah, of course but I believe Gaysi has done something about this. They’ve compiled a list of practitioners.
Jo- Yes. So, first of all, we do have some really great organizations like the Mariwala Health Initiative and other tonnes of initiatives that try and push therapists to look at their practice and make it more queer affirmative. It’s something that’s coming into the mainstream right now and I’m glad that’s happening. More queer folks, thankfully, are becoming therapists and practitioners. So, we do need queer folks from the community itself to also take up counselling because I know trans men who are counsellors and who are amazing counsellors. It’s a different thing to be able to take from your lived experience and counsel a client, right? Because when a client sees someone who is exactly like them, it’s a different sort of affirmation than for example, a cis person telling them about gender dysphoria. So, when a trans person tells them about gender dysphoria, it’s a different sort of affirmation.
So, I’m happy to see that so many more queer folks are engaging in therapy. I, myself, am planning to take a few counselling courses over the next few years because I figured that I’m doing that on a day-to-day basis anyway and I’d rather be more well-read while I do it and be a proper counsellor than be a person who is offering free therapy anyway. With regards to Gaysi, so Gaysi is technically a media platform. We do what we do through content and continuously creating content to read. So, the resource tab is something we had thought of like five to six months back when we are like okay, you know what? We need to have some sort of really easy resource guide kind of things which can be accessed by anybody and which sort of delves into these concepts that we don’t see in the Indian context.
For example, the first resource guide we had put up was something about binders that are used by people across the spectrum- the non-binary spectrum, the trans spectrum- and we had not seen any information on binders that had anything to do with Indian queer people and we saw that gap and that’s another gap that we keep trying to fill. So, that’s how the resource section started coming up and within the resource section, we’ve had so many different articles, and within that we’ve had like for example, the ‘Gaysi guide to queer positive mental health’, under which we started publishing guides on whom to reach out to if you’re feeling depressed, some helplines that are queer affirmative, some practices or therapists who are queer affirmative and whom we can go to. So, that was the whole point of the guides that we’ve been trying to create because we figured that if a person is sad, if a person is depressed or anxious or not in a good space of mind, the last thing they want to do is go on Google and sift through tonnes and tonnes of material that is available. Instead, if we are able to streamline that and do that for them, maybe it might help, which is why we worked with our writers to do that research and there is this very cool database that we have created which I am personally proud of.
It’s thanks to our writer, Anna, who put all of this together on a work-flowy flowchart kind of thing, like if you press “Kashmir”, you will get therapists who will help you, who are queer affirmative or if you press “Andaman”, you will get the same. That’s very necessary and thankfully yes, there are tonnes of lists that keep going around. So, that’s what we’ve tried to do with the different lists and most recently, we did a little chat with a therapist who was talking about borderline and bipolar disorder in the context of queer communities, which is also important.
So, we’re trying to understand how most of these mental health issues work when it comes into a space where the person is also queer and thus, might have had a difficult family background or some kind of issue with their self and how they view themselves. That’s what we’re doing in the mental health sort of thing but again, none of us are therapists so we try to push them to actual therapists if anybody needs help from us. But yeah, first-aid is something we definitely pay a lot of attention on because all of us need to know mental health first-aid just like we know physical health first-aid.
Ruchika- Yeah, so it’s great to hear that Gaysi is not just a media platform but also a resource hub for people when they want to access mental health help. So, it’s been over a decade that Gaysi has been around and has given people a platform to share their stories. What major trends and changes have you noticed in the kinds of stories that people have been submitting through the years?
Jo- Definitely one would be that the articles are getting a lot more nuanced. People are writing about things very critically. I think that’s just our time and I guess we’ve just grown as a community to talk beyond coming out. To talk beyond acceptance, because usually the most common thing for people to talk about is coming out of the closet and how people accept it. These are the two questions that people are continuously asking queer folks but that’s not the only thing that queer folks encounter. So, it’s amazing to see that people really engage with media nowadays and they really question where media comes from.
The trends that I’ve noticed is earlier a lot of us would be completely okay with brands making Pride month all about themselves by putting a rainbow flag but now we are very critical about whether that brand is giving enough money into the queer community because at the end of the day, the queer community does not need more platforms. We have enough platforms. We’ve always had a voice, we’ve just been silenced. But what they do need, is jobs. What they do need is better policy. What they do need is anti-bullying policies, washrooms that can be accessible, spaces where the intersectionalities are visible because there are disabled queer people, there are people who have mental health issues and are queer.
All sorts of intersectionalities- there are dalit queers, there are upper-class queers, upper-caste queers, middle-class queers, there are all kinds of intersectionalities that we need to talk about. There are queers in smaller towns and villages. How do we make our things more accessible to them? It cannot be continuously speaking in this vacuum of privilege, right? So, I think that is something that has grown in the past few years because there are people who come and talk to us. Recently, we had a really cool article written by one of our writers, Abhishek, who spoke about how the English language both, helps the queer community but also restricts the queer community because it’s not accessible to so many people. I wouldn’t even say Hindi is accessible to enough people because again, it’s a very small population that knows Hindi. The whole of South India is not interested in learning the language. I mean I am South Indian so, it should be in languages that are for us as well.
So, thankfully the conversation has also moved forward to other things like I personally enjoy talking about and thinking about how localizing queer support is the way to move forward in the future because even though Gaysi or larger organizations exist in the country, we cannot provide support to everybody. It’s impossible in a country especially like India and Gaysi has a very clear population and there is only a certain amount of diversity that we can reach out to. We should be aware of that and we are aware of that, which is why supporting smaller organizations who can provide localized support is very important. For example, Yol in Manipur, they are looking after the Manipur community and the communities around there, and pushing in more money and more help and more resources there would make more sense than pushing more money and resources into larger organizations. Personally, I feel like money will come easier for us anyway so it’s important for us to push forward smaller, local community help and solidarity support systems that exist in smaller towns in Coimbatore, in Chennai, in Thrissur, whatever smaller spaces and pockets that exist.
So, those queer groups should be pushed more, should be supported and put in solidarity with more because I think that’s the future of the queer movement in India. It is not having more Pride parades. I mean yes, that’s fun but that’s not it. It has to be as accessible as possible to all kinds of people as possible and that’s not going to happen with one streamlined movement. It’s going to only happen with an intersectional movement that looks at all kinds of people.
Ruchika- Absolutely so yeah, I agree because the smaller organizations are the ones that understand the needs of their communities the best as opposed to maybe the bigger ones.
Jo- Yes. Ruchika- Jo, thank you so much for joining us on this show today and for giving us such valuable insights into the queer community.
When you decide to be true to yourself and live life without hiding a significant part of your identity, it’s common for people to make you feel like you don’t belong and are not accepted. A safe space to share your story and know that there are others like you gives you a sense of connection and comfort.
Valerie– Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we have with us Deepthi, one of the founders of Chennai Queer Cafe, an online and offline safe social space for anyone who is a cis woman and identifies as Queer or Questioning. She has been a member of the Orinam group and mailing list since 2011 and has been volunteering with the Queer community in Chennai since then. She has been a part of the organizing team at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival since 2013. She is passionate about movies, women in sports, mental health issues and intersectional feminism.
Deepthi– Hi. Thank you, Valerie. Thanks for the introduction. One quick thing I would like to say about the introduction is that the group is not just for queer cis women, it’s actually for queer AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals, which sort of includes anybody who is cis gender, identifies as bi, pan or lesbian, and who are assigned female at birth and are trans masculine, gender fluid, as well as non-binary.
Valerie- Thank you for the clarification.
You were part of the core team that started Chennai Queer Cafe, about 3 years ago, in order to create a safe social space for queer cis women in and around Chennai. What was it that compelled you to start this initiative and how did people receive it?
Deepthi– So, since 2011, like you said, I’ve been a part of Orinam and other queer spaces in Chennai but there wasn’t really an exclusive AFAB space. When we started, there were very few, less than a handful queer women who were coming to the meeting. Not necessarily out in their own spaces but even coming to the meetings. So at that point, like I think around 2013 or so, I had a really bad breakup and I was in a really low point and there was a lot of marriage pressure from the family. At that point, I really needed a space like that, where I could talk to people who could relate to my issue.
Not that there were not but then, it would have felt better, is what I had in mind and then in 2014-15, when I had the time, there were a little more people. Then we thought of a space like this and then we started an online space and slowly moved it to the offline space. So we meet once every month. Now because of the lockdown we are not able to, but before this, it’s been about three years, we started in September, three years back.
Valerie- So, how did people receive it when you started this initiative? I mean, from then to now, obviously we’ve probably had more people who are coming in and sharing their stories but at a time like then, what was it like?
Deepthi- So, the film festival is usually in June-July-August, early August or late July. So, we started sort of talking about this group around that time and quite a few people had come to the film festival and they were looking for a space like this as well. From them on, we’ve been associated with the film festival so we sort of put a word out during the film festival and the queer events. So, initially we had about 7-8 people, now we have roughly about 20 odd people that come for the offline meetings.
So just as you said, a lot of the reason you started the initiative draws from your own personal experience. When you realised you were queer, what was your initial reaction? How did you decide to come out to your loved ones and how did their reception to it impact your mental health?
Deepthi– There are a lot of layers in that question. I think I figured out and I knew I liked girls when I was around 16 or so but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on my life or on my everyday stuff. I think it was only when I was 25 that I accepted my sexuality and slowly, I started talking to friends about it. Even at that point, I wasn’t a part of the queer community. So, slowly I started talking to friends. I knew it was a sort of taboo subject and I can’t just randomly come out at work or spaces like that. So, I was very careful as to whom I spoke to.
I had come out to the family when there was a lot of marriage pressure and stuff. At that point, initially, they were pretty hesitant saying “You were in hostels, maybe it’s because of that” but then they took me to a counsellor in Chennai. That wasn’t a very good experience, that counsellor was pretty homophobic and the they gave me some time and then they took me to another counsellor that was in Bangalore. So, the counsellor in Bangalore was pretty accepting and at the end of the session, she called in my family and she was like “She’s pretty clear about what she wants. She’s pretty clear as to what she is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you should change about it. Just let her be.” Since then, there’s sort of been no discussion.
So again, when you talk about the mental health aspect of it, I would say the first session that I had in Chennai was pretty traumatic. So, that put me in a lot of pressure. At that point, I was in touch with the community but I never really was in a space to mix family and community yet. There was still a lot of pressure from family and the first experience I had with the counsellor didn’t help at all. I think at that point or even early on, when I knew I was queer, I think if there was right representation in the media or access to materials with which I could educate myself, I couldv’e guided myself better, guided my family better and have done away with a lot of trauma that I had to face.
Even now, even in this day and age of social media, we have queer Pride events happening in cities, we have newspaper coverage, there are still people and parents who believe in this conversion therapy concept. I’m sure you would’ve recently heard that a girl from Kerala committed suicide because of all this. There’s still a lot of this happening and I would say that the solution for that would be on a certain level, educating these touch-points, whether it’s somebody who works in a school or somebody who is a mental health professional or people who are in the media to do the right representation. Even articles sometimes written in the media end up being homophobic. All that put together, a conversation in every space, is what would have helped me when I was 16 or when I was 20. That’s what would help parents normalize it or kids to not feel traumatized about what they are.
Valerie- Right. I liked that you said that right representation is important and access to material so that people can be educated, which makes it an easier conversation when you decide to come out and when you decide to talk to people.
Valerie- So, you’ve been vocal about how queer women often lack access to the same benefits and legal rights compared to heterosexual cis women. This can have far-reaching consequences, especially impacting someone’s self-esteem and mental health. What are your views on this? Can you describe it for our listeners?
Deepthi- Sure. In my personal experience, I can talk about somebody who is queer cis but again, I would also like to talk about people on the AFAB spectrum because it’s quite different how the AFAB people experience discrimination or oppression. When it comes to me, I would say that queer relationships, especially, are not legally recognized so that has its own complications- whether it’s starting a bank account together or adding your partner as a beneficiary, say for example, on life insurance. Adoption is another huge challenge. Staying together isn’t always easy. People talk. There will be people that say “Oh, two girls are staying together.” Parents don’t make it easy. Even if you’re out to them, you’re not out to them.
I think, far more traumatic will be situations like if your partner is in the hospital going through something very serious, you don’t have the kind of authority in those spaces. If there is a consent form that needs to be signed or something, they would want somebody who is a blood relative. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been living together for like six, seven or ten years, they would still ask you “How are you related?”. I would imagine that can be a pretty traumatic situation.
When it comes to somebody who is AFAB and identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, I feel like since their gender expression is different in the sense that somebody who is gender fluid would want to dress up like the opposite sex one day, the societal opposite sex notion, that can cause a lot of judgement. That can cause a lot of judgment from people around in work spaces. Restrooms are again a messy situation when your gender expression doesn’t match what the society expects it to be. When it comes to documentation, it’s a huge challenge- whether it’s a government space or otherwise. So I think these can take a huge toll on especially gender fluid and non-binary people on an everyday basis.
Valerie– Right. So, we’ve talked about what it is like for queer women when it comes to benefits and legal rights but even when it comes to interacting with people in our own community, a lot of people have come out in support of the queer community but I think we’d all agree that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to complete acceptance. What can we do, as individuals, to ensure we can be a support system to the community?
Deepthi– Whether it’s individuals or brands or organizations, especially when it comes to brands, it’s sort of very triggering when it comes to the whole Pride month because some brands, all they do, is change the logo just for PR. The sensitivity that they show or all that they talk about does not reflect in their policy. Do they have samesex partner benefits in their policy? No. Do they have a gender neutral sexual harassment policy? Maybe not.
So, similarly, for individuals as well, when it’s Pride month, everybody has a hashtag thing going on, everybody has these frames that they put up on Facebook but a lot of them are not very okay when it comes to starting the conversation around the community when it comes to their friends’ circle or family. I think that would be a huge change. It’s very hard for somebody to recognize and admit to biphobia, transphobia and homophobia.
If you want to be the person who wants to help the community or be a support system, I think learning, educating, starting conversations and creating a safe space. If it’s the workplace, you want to create a safe space for queer people to come out. So, just compassion, just learning and being a bit sensitive as to what and how. Introspect. I think mainly, starting conversations is what it is but also, along with that, being sensitive and compassionate.
Valerie– So, what are the kinds of reactions that you’ve seen when people come out, that have been negative and can possibly impact people the wrong way? As you said, people do lack compassion and very often, people are insensitive to the whole thing, right? So, what have you seen?
Deepthi– So, I’ve seen people say “Oh, it’s just a phase. You’ll get through it.” or even worse things like “Oh, you just didn’t find the right man.” Not a very good experience but this is really early on in life where I was like okay, you guys are not going to be very sensitive about it, let me just move myself away from spaces like this. I had the luxury to move away. Not everybody would.
Valerie– Right. So, from the experiences you’ve had, when it came to starting the Chennai Queer Cafe as well as your own personal experience- because you’ve heard stories of people who come to you and talk about their own journeys- what would you like to say to the people who are struggling to come out?
Deepthi– I would say that you don’t have to come out. It’s always a choice but then sometimes it’s not easy for a woman because of marriage pressure but there are usually work arounds. One thing I would like to say is- assess your situation because nobody knows it better than you do. You have to figure out if you come out to your parents, how receptive they are. Is there danger of violence? Is there a situation where you can be in like a house arrest situation? So, those are the things you first need to assess.
I would say test waters. If you are somebody who identifies as non-binary or trans, just drop a word about some actor coming out as trans or some actor coming out as bisexual, just to test waters and see where they stand. I would say, after that, depending on the situation, either you move out of your house whether it’s to study or to work, get your own financial freedom, get your own social support system, like at least five or six friends. They don’t have to necessarily be from the community but some kind of support system that will help you stay sane in times like this, when you’re accidentally out to the family. If and when you choose to come out to the family, you need to have the financial confidence and the emotional support system for you to stay sane.
So, I think these are the two things that I have pretty much told a lot of people who are like “I think I’ll come out.” Figure out what your situation is. Figure out how open your parents are to listening. Then you take a stand, if you choose to come out.
Valerie– Thank you for your insights on that. I think it’s very important, like you have mentioned in the past, for us as well, it’s important to start initiating conversation and not just turning a blind eye and being ignorant when somebody wants to speak to us. I think it’s very important for us to take part in creating a safe space and being supportive and compassionate towards people so that in turn, we can be a community that does become completely acceptive.
Deepthi– One last point I would like to add is that when I say conversations, it can be around anything. Whether it’s somebody talking about a policy in a workspace or whether they’re taking a domestic violence seminar, you have to understand that queer people exist everywhere so queer identity or queer conversations are as relevant in domestic violence cases as they are anywhere else. So, whether it’s a start-up culture, I am a queer person working in a start-up, so there’s like a two-layered pressure on me, when it comes to my mental health. So, in any space, I think these conversations need to be normalized and so they need to be started.
Valerie- Correct. It was a lot of information that you gave us today, a lot of insights when it came to the legal rights, when it came to how we accept and how we should be around people who decide to come out so that we can be there for them. So, thank you for all of the information and thank you for this conversation.
Deepthi– Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks, Valerie.