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On working in mental health

An article by Jaya Srinivasan, Manager – Clients at Ennovent

 

I completed six months working in mental health this September. As someone with no previous educational or professional background in mental health, I have learnt a great deal in the process. I have met several inspiring people with diverse opinions, ranging from what would be considered the conservative to the radical. My opinions have been challenged, and my understanding of the “normal” turned on its head. I continue to grapple with the definitions of mental illness and what it means to have mental well-being.

For many of us, mental health is an unfamiliar subject. We use words like “depressed” and “crazy” too easily. When I was at school in Bokaro, anyone who did something unusual was asked to go to the “mental hospital” in Ranchi. This was not because we were unkind by nature. We just did not know better and the difference made us uncomfortable. By not talking openly about mental health, we carried some of our misconceptions into adulthood.

Through my work, I have had several conversations with young people in their teens and twenties, and this gives me a great sense of hope. They are clear, determined, and willing to talk about their experiences, even as they battle stigma. They are opening up so that they can help other people who are going through what they are. In the process, they are using creative means of self-expression, such as poetry, short films, and podcasts, through which they can engage a wider audience and create conversations.

Cinema is a huge part of popular culture and can be a useful medium to create healthy conversations

I have also interacted with mental health professionals, caregivers, and others working in the space. Most of these discussions are enlightening and sometimes, uncomfortable. They make me wonder anew at the strength of these people who toil constantly to make life better for people with mental illness, work for which there are no instant rewards.

Some truths also come back with renewed ferocity, such as the knowledge of how terrible the world is for those on the receiving end of the power imbalance. Certain scenes are sadly familiar and repetitive — the pursuit of marks and degrees, harassment and sexism at home and in the workplace, and social mores which place undue pressure on people to live in an “acceptable” manner. Other experiences are very new to me, simply because of the generally closed nature of these conversations and the circles I grew up in. For instance, I have never discussed homosexuality with my father, and had never met a psychiatrist or an LBGTQ activist before I started working in mental health.

Young people on Marina Beach at sunset

This is why I am still marvelling at my fortune in being able to work in the sector. I am growing as a person, and helping others see things from a new perspective. For starters, we are talking about mental health at home. My colleagues and I are more careful about the language we use. We learn from the stories of people who have been abandoned on the streets for not being “normal” and have picked themselves up to live independently. We ask questions instead of shying away.

That said, there is a long way to go. Sometimes, I feel like I am swimming in a sea of abbreviations and unfamiliar terms. However, I have lovely people to work with; I take energy from their patience and willingness to teach. They accommodate this novice and don’t question her credentials. This is a happy place to be in.

 

The author, a Manager with Ennovent, has been working as the Chennai Coordinator of the citiesRISE initiative, which is focused on transforming youth mental health globally, since April 2018. The views expressed here are personal. An earlier version of this blog post was first published in Medium on September 6, 2018.

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