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Sexism For Therapy? 4 Women Open Up About Bizarre Advice From Psychiatrists

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When Radha’s* 13-year-old daughter was struggling with bouts of sadness and body image issues, she decided to consult a senior psychiatrist in Chennai. During the session, the psychiatrist instructed her to be firm with her daughter.

“But her valid advice about not pampering children was interspersed with sexist remarks,” says Radha. “The psychiatrist kept saying ‘Will her husband tolerate such behaviour?’ and ‘What will she do when she goes to her in-laws’ house?’”

She recalls, “I weakly protested, saying that my daughter should be helped irrespective of her future marital situation.”

Radha’s story takes me back a few years to my own session with a psychiatrist in New Delhi. To help fight my depression, one of the ‘positive encouragements’ I was given was, “You have to get married one day.” I balked. Even at my most vulnerable, I was being held to a heteronormative standard, completely negating my identity as a queer woman.

As it turns out, this ‘standard’— of women moving on, getting married to a husband, and whatever else is supposed to follow — is a goal many mental health practitioners assign to women who come to them.

Kamala*, a senior resident in medicine now based in New Delhi, talks about a similar experience while seeing a therapist in Kerala: “It was soon after my parents’ marriage fell apart. He insisted on meeting my mom, my sibling, and me together, as well as separately. When I mentioned that I don’t wish to have children, he chastised me, saying I should have children so as to show my sibling how a family can be a good space.”

Unsurprisingly, she felt burdened by the suggestion. For women seeking a safe, non-judgmental space away from patriarchy’s prying eyes, encountering a practitioner with a deep gender bias can be a rude shock.

This treatment isn’t just about having pre-conceived notions about roles women are supposed to stick with as wives and mothers (sometimes against their will!). It’s also about an unquestioned acceptance of the existing power systems.

23-year-old Delhi University student Ishani* said she became aware of this happening in 2014, when she first began accessing mental health care. She had been going to an older male psychiatrist, whom she describes as “always sweet, but also quite patronising”.

“I tried to talk about how patriarchal my dad can be, and the psychiatrist was super dismissive.” For representation only.

“My relationship with my dad was at an all-time slump. I tried to talk about how patriarchal my dad can be, and the psychiatrist was super dismissive. He would say ‘Arrey, beta, he’s your father. You should listen to him, no? He wants the best for you!’”

Commenting on the incident, she says, “I know my dad wants the best for me, but that doesn’t excuse his sexist microaggressions!”

Since then, Ishani has shifted to another practitioner, who happens to be a woman: “She is quite progressive and supportive, and I’m more comfortable talking to her. I guess gender does have a role to play here.”

This is not to say that things are gloom and doom. In fact, there is no doubt that they are indeed better. Today, calling a woman “hysterical” and slapping her in irons is no longer standard medical protocol. We’re progressed to looking more seriously at pre-menstrual dysphoric syndrome, and pregnancy and post-partum-related depression – all pertinent to the health of cisgender women, as well as many trans and non-binary folks.

The World Health Organization has found that “the burden of depression is 50% higher for females than males”, and that more women than men are living with anxiety disorders.

We also know that sociological factors, like the gender power paradigm, do play a huge role in this. A 2015 study by American researchers shows how sexual objectification and the threat of gender violence impacts a woman’s mental health. But facing sexism right there at the therapist’s office only hinders the recovery process.

According to Ipsa James, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist, these shortcomings are systemic. It begins with how future mental health professionals are groomed. She says that – with the exception of NIMHANS (Bangalore) and TISS (Mumbai) – there aren’t enough quality colleges, and those that do exist are reluctant to have psychology students talk about sex, leave alone gender.

James also highlights several structural problems in the field. “Most hospitals focus on psychiatric issues, not the psychological ones.” She also adds that brain-drain poses yet another problem. “Certified psychologists who have studied abroad do not have the license to practice in India.”

All of this considered, snafus in the therapist’s office are then inevitable. Sensitivity is severely missing, and not just about gender. Few practitioners, if any, are LGBTQ-friendly. And sometimes you come across truly bizarre instances.

When 26-year-old Vedika* accompanied her boyfriend to therapy, the practitioner’s behaviour lacked the kind of finesse one might expect. “In the middle of the conversation she handed him Rs. 100 rupees to get a cold drink. As he left, she asked me if he troubles me. I was stunned.”

This practitioner was one of the most well-rated mental health professionals in Mumbai, but Vedika recalls the equally strange way in which the session ended: “She advised me to follow the path of Ganesha. And when she noticed my boyfriend was Catholic, she said ‘You can follow Jesus also.’”

‘It’s time that mental health practitioners became more understanding about their patients.’ For representation only

Truly, things like these do not inspire much faith (pun unintended).

But access to good mental health care services should be and are any person’s right. In fact, this is precisely what the Mental Health Care Bill (2016) pushes for.

James shares her thoughts on what ought to be done to change things: “The government should make it mandatory for colleges to have sensitivity workshops.”

She also comments on how interest among practitioners seems to be low. “I attended a sensitivity training workshop for psychologists in Delhi last year, and so few people came.” And this simply has to change.

Just last year, Richard Brouillette made a very important case for why therapists should talk politics. In short, it’s because politics has a direct impact on the mental well-being of a person. So too, is it with gender discrimination.

It’s time that mental health practitioners became more understanding about their patients and how living in an oppressive system actually contributes to their psychological distress.

Over 56 million Indians are living with depression. It doesn’t do for anyone to feel discouraged from accessing mental health care. Our healthcare professionals need to be sensitive and considerate, and truly create a safe, non-judgmental, and understanding environment for their patients. And if addressing sexism at the therapist’s office is a step in this direction, then it’s a step we should be taking.

It’s time to break the silence around mental health, and talk openly about our health care needs. For more stories, follow #LetsTalk on Facebook and Twitter, and add your own.

*names changed.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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