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World Mental Health Day 2021: In Conversation with Sushree Sahu, Head of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Humanising Lives

On World Mental Health Day 2021 today, the world will showcase the efforts made in mental health in an unequal world. We spoke to Sushree Sahu from the non-profit organisation Humanising Lives. The NPO believes mental illness favours no colour, no gender – whether biological or preferred, no socio-economic class, no educational background, and no family structure. They provide relief to anyone distressed over anything.
Ms. Sahu is a Psychologist and Counselling Head at Humanising Lives and Consultant Counselling Psychologist at Manas Ganga Noida. Humanising Lives emerged out of the need to address the turmoil that people face in their everyday lives, leading to worsening mental health and issues triggered by the pandemic. Sahu holds an MSc in Mental Health Studies from King’s College London. She’s also a research trainee for the Cross Fertilized Training for New Investigators in Egypt and India, the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, New Delhi. Excerpts from the chat:

Q 1: How did the Covid-19 pandemic disrupt mental health and wellbeing?

The pandemic has put a lot of emphasis on the need for good mental health for all. We, as mental health professionals, were actually in for a challenge since this was the first of its kind in many ways. People being locked down faced challenges of having to adjust to their own family members without the option of seeing anyone else. Social distancing norms created pressures on our social interaction which is essential to social animals like us. Restrictive movement created physical challenges that put the mind at unrest. Moreover, the fear of Covid infection created a novel kind of anxiety in people.
What was most stark (in the second wave) was a lot of anxiety around death and the fear of losing a loved one. This really got people around the world in touch with the core of their existential fears of survival, and it was indeed a total disruption of mental sanity.

Q 2: What practical tips would you recommend for maintaining our sanity in these unpredictable times?

The only recommendation which works best can be found in our pre-primary school teaching. Pick up any nursery book and they will tell you what you need to do to keep sane in difficult times. It’s very simple: eat on time, sleep on time and have a healthy routine which allows you rest and defined work hours. What I’m saying is not ingenious, it’s what we teach our kids that we need to practice. After all, there’s got to be a reason why adults face far more challenges than kids. We forget the very basics that we were taught and even practiced in schools, but lost our way as we adulted.

Q 3: In what ways can responsible citizens observe World Mental Health Day (and week) this year?

Dialogue, dialogue and more dialogue around mental health. We need people and citizens across the globe to engage in dialogues and conversations around mental health. The government, employers, parents, teachers, friends and peers all need to understand what truly is meant by mental well-being. Normalising help-seeking and mental illness are very important. We need people to understand that if you would not hesistate twice to say to your employer, or teacher or your friend that you have a stomach ache and hence need a break, then why hesitate to say that you are just feeling ‘down in the dumps’ or feeling nervous on a certain day and need a break.
When we start to take our mental challenges as seriously as we take our physical challenges, it creates a change. After all, why do you feel guilty about missing school/ work because you didn’t feel like, but will immediately pick up the phone and convey the message that ‘I have a bad stomach ache and can’t be present’.

Q 4: The theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 is “mental health in an unequal world”. How is your non-profit Humanising Lives interpreting this theme?

Mental health is actually for all, and always has been! Unfortunately, the general conception has been to associate mental health care for those struggling with mental disorders. But, in all honesty, mental well-being goes beyond that.

You don’t have to have a textbook disorder to seek mental well-being. You may be adjusting to a new job, a new flat, a new relationship or a pandemic; mental health means awareness about how you adjust, how the people around you adjust, what your typical tendencies are, and what the typical tendencies of people around you are. This mental awareness constitutes mental health.

Our NPO is trying to do just that through our pro bono psychotherapy project. We provide online therapy free of cost for up to 5 sessions to all people who might just be adjusting. In fact, most of clients are not ‘disordered’, but only struggling to better their understanding of themselves. We have people from all walks of life, with different identities and economic backgrounds and we try to support all. Since the name of our NPO suggests, we try to humanise all lives and cater to all people.

Q 5: In what ways is Humanising Lives bringing normalcy back into people’s lives in these stressful times?

We are only playing the part of being a good listener. Human-to-human interaction is the crux of our existence, and we at Humanising lives only provide the human safety that we all seek by being present and listening deeply to our clients. Deep and interested listeners have become a rarity in today’s times, don’t you think? We have indeed stopped emotionally nourishing another human being by just being present and listening to them.

Q 6: Tell us about your work with Kiran Bedi’s foundation. What do the Reintegration and Rehab programmes for former prison inmates involve?

Reintegration and Rehabilitation programs with Dr. Kiran Bedi’s India Vision Foundation include free counselling and psychological therapy by Humanising lives. The programs play a significant role in addressing the complex needs of offenders, ex-offenders and other groups within the criminal justice system. Providing ex-offenders an opportunity to change their thinking, their lives and their place in society is in everyone’s interest.
The common feature of such sessions is that ex-inmates are provided private consultation with therapists, to explore more sensitive issues, which they might not do otherwise. These sessions help ex-offenders to reintegrate into society by improving their interpersonal relationships and restoring their self-esteem, confidence, forgiving and forbearance. It also helped them to face the challenges and demands on their return to the community and coexist. We also conducted sessions on “Reproductive Healthcare” and “Mental and Emotional Well-Being” for women inside prisons in association with India Vision Foundation.

Q 7: What are the psycho-social challenges for people from the LGBTQ+ communities?

LGBTQ+ people face a multitude of psycho-social challenges on a daily basis. Society is structured to favour cis-gendered and heterosexual people. The pressure to conform to the norm can lead to internalized shame and guilt in a lot of queer people. Where resources such as activist groups or queer-affirmative therapists aren’t present, the social and psychological needs of queer people are not easily met.

Queer individuals are constantly aware of the stigma that is attached to them, and in most cases, their basic rights are not guaranteed by law. Due to all of this, they might experience a sense of alienation from society, and have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. Particularly because of the pandemic, for queer teens or young adults, it can be difficult to live with their parents if they are not accepting, or worse, abusive especially since they cannot walk out.

Q 8: How is Humanising Lives working for the queer community?

Most importantly, Humanising Lives is ensuring that our assistant psychologists are trained and educated about the queer community before working with people from the community. This is a step we’re emphasizing on so our clients from various backgrounds can interact with therapists sensitive to their needs.
We’re also running a queer support group right now, and we’ve had a great response, since there is a very evident need for the community to find people who can understand them and their experiences. Some of our assistant psychologists running the program are part of the community themselves. We hope this has helped some of the clients feel more understood and less afraid of any judgement. Humanising Lives is also engaging in outreach over social media to highlight the problems the community faces in order to get across to people not sensitive to LGBTQ+ individuals. Our doors are open to people from all backgrounds to get the help they need.