Seek help for depression, don't depend on gurus

Saturdays are crowded - perhaps because it's the middle-class holiday.

By Aditya Sinha

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Published: Wed 30 Aug 2017, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 31 Aug 2017, 12:42 AM

My daughter Anya returns soon to the University of California. While in Delhi, she was an intern at a private hospital (Gurugram, on Delhi's outskirts, is a hub of medical tourism). A psychology student, she interned with the psychiatrists and therapists. There wasn't much work, however: patients were reluctant to visit. Often, patients would just not show up for their appointments.
Saturdays are crowded - perhaps because it's the middle-class holiday. On other days, Anya accompanied the doctor to the ICU where patients are isolated (relatives in India can crowd a hospital bed like a railway compartment); in sterile, silent surroundings patients often felt their spirits ebb, so the mental health team would visit to provide a psychological lift.
Anya said most patients that did turn up suffered from anxiety rather than clinical depression. There was a patient who was actually depressed; another, living in a Western country, didn't want to a consult local mental health professional and instead made long-distance calls for consultations.
It's surprising because the newspapers have enough instances of youngsters whose misery went unheeded and committed suicide. News reports are overwhelming of students under high pressure to do well in exams who commit suicide; but there are enough stories of unrequited love leading to someone swallowing poison or hanging themselves; or even the executive who, on the face of it, led the "normal" life of good earnings, model kids in big-name schools, and a wife who spent well on her maintenance - yet still he felt such hopelessness that he threw himself off his gated community high-rise in a swank suburb.
The disparity between the number of people with anxiety and depression, and the number who seek out help, is due to cultural reasons. In a conservative and traditional society like India's, no one wants anyone to know that they might see a therapist. But no matter what percentage of India's 1.3 billion people you assume need counseling, it's still a huge number. If the majority are not savvy enough to visit professionals, where do they go?
One popular place is the ashram. Evidence of this came last weekend, when violence broke out in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi after Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted of rape of two of his sadhvis (female disciples). A lot is written about Ram Rahim's Saccha Sauda dera that it is among 3,000 deras in north India, many of which are popular for social work. As far as counseling, therapy and treatment of a large swathe of Indians go, it does not happen in hospitals or clinics, but at the feet of sadhus and sadhvis.
My own parents first encountered marital problems in the early 1980s, and though they lived in New York and though my father was a well-earning professional, they did not visit a registered marriage counselor, which New York City is filled with.
Instead, they drove out for the weekend to distant Pittsburgh where an ashram had come up, and spent time with the imported guru who listened to them, counseled them and gave them common-sense bits of advice. (My parents are still together but the way they fight in their old age would put cats and dogs to shame.) In the way that an NRI couple chose a Godman to solve their problems, so do their desi counterparts.
No wonder "Godmen" have a fanatic following. And when the time comes for the state to act against the godmen, there is a violent breakdown of law and order. This happened with Ram Rahim's followers last week; this happened with "Sant" Rampal Singh, charged with murder, in Haryana in November 2014; and this happened with Asaram Bapu, another godman accused of rape, in September 2013.
Without doubt these are parasites disguised as spiritual healers. They deserve to be punished. Hopefully Ram Rahim's sentence will deter other godmen from exploiting followers. But mental health is a complex issue: anxieties come in infinite complexities, depression is a complex black hole.
Society cannot keep sweeping mental health under the carpet for swamis to deal with; society needs to talk about it and help erase the shame associated with mental illness. And the state must take the lead in this conversation rather than kowtow to the hypocrites that society calls godmen.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India

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