Mental Wellbeing During Pandemic : Starting a Conversation on Mental Health In India

We are in an interview with – Ms. Madhureema Neglur, a Clinical Psychologist by profession and currently working as a professor of Psychology at Wilson College, Churchgate.
  Garnering experience from various means, Ms. Neglur is also the “Academic Editor for Psychology and Psychosocial healthcare” at Cactus Communications. Also, she was previously associated with “Aatmann Organization for Mental wellbeing” for conducting workshops and webinars for varied demographics on different topics of Mental Health. Her observerships and internships include King Edward’s Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Parel, Regional Mental Hospital, Thane, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Hospital, Kalwa, Aavishkar centre for self-enrichment, Dadar, and Manas Psychological Health Centre, Dombivli.

Here’s an excerpt from the Interview-

What exactly do we mean by Mental Health? Why should its awareness start from one’s family?

Mental health in very simple terms, is just like our physical health. Just how we are mindful of what we eat, what exercise we do to keep our body healthy, there are certain things we need to do, there are some emotions that we need to regulate in order to keep our mind healthy as well.

Why exactly do we need to be mentally healthy?

Well, the answer is same as to why we need to be physically healthy. We need our body and mind both to function properly in order to survive. Coming to why we need to start its awareness from family, is because family is the first social unit that we come in contact with, our parents, siblings, etc. A man is a social animal, we need social relationships for living, and our family is what comes first and foremost in this aspect. Mental health information, its awareness, its importance and its existence and acceptance, all this is important to start from family.

Has Mental Health issue always been taboo in India?

As far as my knowledge goes, it has always been frowned upon to talk about our Mental issues in this country, be it rural or urban India. We have several accounts of people taking their family members to a sadhu or a baba and have some mantra-tantra performed on them in order to cure their issues. In urban areas we often hear phrases like, its just a phase, zone out of it, stop thinking about it, snap out of it. All these indicate our non-acceptance of mental health issues, and the, needing a proper professional assistance in order to cure.
 I think there are two reasons as to why discussing about mental health is taboo in India. Let us take an example, I went for a run in the morning and my leg slipped on a rock and I fell, scraping my knee. Here everyone knows that the reason for the injury is the rock and not me, but when it is about an internal issue, something which a person is feeling, nothing can be attributed as the cause of the feeling, or injury. It also takes a lot of acceptance on the individual’s side that something is wrong and I have to take care of it. Secondly, it is simply a lack of awareness.

How family environment affects one’s mental health, and one’s opinions on mental health?

What really counts in a familial environment and the parenting style of the parents. There are 3 basic parenting styles in Psychology, they are Authoritative, Authoritarian and Neglectful. Neglectful parenting style is very self-explanatory, the parents are neglectful of the child’s needs and wants, do not engage physically or emotionally with the child. The child grows in a very emotionally restrictive background, and can be insecure as an adult. Authoritarian style is where the parents are overbearing. Here too, the child is not going to flourish mental health wise. The Child will be scared to communicate with the parents or will become a rebel in nature. Authoritative style is where we can expect dialogues about mental health by parents. The child shall feel comforted while communicating with parents and shall have a certain freedom of their own. 

Have you witnessed cases where a family denied mental health access to its members? If yes, how deep were its effect?

I personally have not come across such a case where parents have denied mental health access, but for sure I have seen such families where they’re not supportive of the individual seeking therapy. It does have extreme repercussions as the family is supposed to be the first to care for a child, so when that happens, the child will feel lonely and it can affect the child’s personality in the future as well. One reason for neglect can be lack of awareness on the part of family and second reason can be considering assistance for such issues to be taboo. It also reflects on their own upbringing. There can also be instances where parents feel they are responsible for it and so try to push it under the rug.

What can a child do when they’re denied any access to mental health? Are there any effective laws in this particular concern, and in general in this field?

Many professionals require a guardian to accompany the child, a child cannot walk by self to a therapist. Primarily because, talking about emotions can lead to a lot of intense discussions which the child may not be able to take in, so having a guardian is important who will take the responsibility of the child. The guardian need not be a parent, it can be an elder sibling or a cousin or any other family member or friend who is an adult. Unfortunately, we have no laws that can guarantee mental health access to a child, or an adult even.

How the lockdowns during pandemic have impacted the mental health of families and individuals ?

When the lockdown was imposed last year, there were two ways to look at it. People who had happy families were glad to spend a lot of time with their family, and those who didn’t have happy families had to suffer a lot. Even in the happy families, after spending the entire day with everyone, we do need our own privacy and space. Let’s take the reality Tv show ‘Big Boss’ as an example. The initial days of the show, all contestants merrily live with each other and tackle the minor issues by themselves but later on it becomes a huge deal. People cannot bear each other in that house and are irked by trivial things. Of course we cannot compare the love of a family to the competition of Big Boss, both are way different But the impact of spending too much time together stays almost the same.

What steps can parents take to instill mental health awareness in children from a young age?

This is a very good question Aditi, because even as adults, we fail to do some things which are important for our mental health, which would have been better if we learned them in our childhood. Looking at the current young adult population there are 3 important things that I can point out that parents can instill in their child even at an early age.

First is Assertiveness, when to say yes and when to say no. A child needs to know what they want, and communicate it. For example the child and their friend are playing in the child’s room, child does not want to share a particular toy or does not want the friend to make a mess of their room, so here when a parent says that its ok, “your friend has come for some time so let them play as they please”, is teaching the child to let people walk all over them, in a way. In later life the child will grow into an adult, they will let many people take advantage just because they cannot say no.

Even in a classroom situation, let’s say the child is not comfortable reciting a poem in front of the whole class, the parents can teach their child to politely refuse and this comes a long way in the child’s adulthood as well.

Second important thing, is to teach the child to create boundaries. If a friend calls the child to play at late evening, teaching the child to say that “I will come to play from 7 to 8, but I have to do homework from 8 onwards so I will leave by 8.” In this way the child knows to balance play and studies, giving set time for both. Today, when we are working from home, most of us do not have a work-life balance. Do not receive work calls after 8 or 9 at night and communicate so the next day, this would have been much habitual if the person learns this from childhood.

Thirdly, we have to teach the child to learn about their emotions and communicate them well. We as adults many times do not know what exactly we feel, so teaching to child to communicate what exactly they feel will help them analyse their problems well later on in the adulthood.

Since now we spend most of our times at office or at educational institutions, what are some things that we as individuals can follow to empower someone around us who has mental health issues?

Good point pointed out here. We do spend most of our times at our work place or at educational institutions, so you as an individual can practice a few things if you feel someone in your college or someone in your office seems to be unwell.

Firstly, of course check up on them, you can simply go and ask, “Hey, I see you everyday and you seem to be a little bothered today, I may be completely wrong but if there is anything I would be mote than happy to assist.” goes a long way. If you are not a close friend of that person, they may not share but just knowing that you are concerned is enough.

Secondly, try to sensitize others towards them. Let us say your team member at office has some issues and you tell other members that something seems to be off with that person, I would appreciate if we all show a little empathy towards them, will be more than enough. 

Also check out “Ikigai- The Japanese Secret To Live A Long And Happy Life”.

As you also teach in a college, please tell us how this whole pandemic situation has affected students? And how should family help with that?

The pandemic has definitely affected the students in ways that I as a teacher cannot imagine. First of all, lack of availability of resources or lack of availability of internet. They may feel conscious of the other family members around them and may not interact as much as they would in case of an offline lecture.

Second is uncertainty. No one knows when this is going to end and things will be back to normal, so students do feel uncertain about their future plans. What can a family do over here is that many a times the struggle of the younger family members is invalidated by other adults, their problems are looked down upon, like ‘I have an important meeting, you just have a lecture so sit over there and do not talk a lot’, but for they too have issues of their own, like an upcoming test or wanting to perform better. When you invalidate their problems, they feel their issues are not important. So give them their space and privacy as they too have a lot in bargain. Also there have been cases where students have lost their parents or family members, here even we as teachers need to be proactive and behave responsibly towards them.

Editor’s note: The aim of this article is to normalize talking about Mental health. Please do not take your mental well being lightly and seek help if required. There is nothing to be tabooed neither is there any need to pay heed to the stigma attached to it. It is your life and you have all the rights to live a physically, mentally sound life. 

-Aditi Teredesai

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