Rohini Rajeev - Keep Yourself Updated on the Latest In the Field, Be a Life-Long Learner to Stay Ahead (Senior Psychotherapist, Bangalore, India)

Rohini Rajeev
PhD Scholar, TISS, Mumbai
Senior Psychotherapist, Clinical Social Worker &POSH Compliance Consultant
Director, DeStress Holistic Health Pvt. Ltd. Bangalore, India

1. Tell us about your upbringing, background and journey?

Born to simple and unassuming Malayalee parents (meaning, our familial roots are from Kerala), my sister and I were born and raised in a warm and beautiful district in Tamil Nadu called Trichy. My father worked in a public sector undertaking and had a steady, non-transferable job. 

The biggest perk of the job was the township that boasted of every imaginable comfort for a small nuclear family like ours… residential complexes, schools, hospitals, shopping centres, clubs to socialize etc. Our parents taught us to be self-dependant, confident, kind and accommodating. 

Education was about the application in real life than about highly-paying jobs, happiness was in association and togetherness, family and friends, rather than about money or fame. Amma and Achan (mom and dad) celebrated our smallest, most ignorable achievements, trusted us with eyes sealed shut and gave us a rather long rope through our typically tumultuous teenage years. 

Every birthday was treated like an event and we were fussed over a great deal. They would spell out the rights and wrongs but let us figure things out whenever they could. They taught us that love means respect and being supportive of each other. They showed us that to care means to include, that support sometimes meant just to show up… This was my first and continuing lesson in caregiving and positive mental health. 

I learnt from them, that a strong marriage and a supportive family is the stability that one needs to branch out and face the sometimes harsh world outside knowing that you can always fall back on them…

I was encouraged to study what I love, be it Micro Economics or English, but urged to do it wholeheartedly. I graduated in Economics and wanted to foray into the field of Human Resource Management, with a Master’s in Business Administration or Social Work. 

While I did get admitted into MSW, my understanding of the subjects and the aptitude clearly leaned towards Medicine and Psychiatry or Clinical Social Work. Under the able guidance of my professors at Bishop Heber College where I studied, and their internship recommendations, I joined the Medico Pastoral Association Bangalore in January 2002 as a Trainee Psychiatric Counsellor, I did well in my coursework and subsequently was given the opportunity to join them as a Full-Time Residential Rehabilitator and Therapist as soon as I graduated in July the same year.

2. What led you to take up this career path?

My post-graduate course in Social Work mandated equal division of in-college classes with on-ground fieldwork. That way, I got to experience intense training from various social impact, non-governmental organizations and government-run hospitals, psychiatric wards etc. 

The fear of abnormality and the prejudices of alcohol and drug abuse was real but we were taught to face the fears and fight the prejudices in MSW if we were to ever prove ourselves useful to society. Working in the field of clinical psychiatry was challenging and absolutely heart wrenching; I also knew this profession wasn’t meant for those who sought out immediate gratification, or any open appreciation, or financial gain. 

However, my work in rehab opened doors for me into the lives of my clients, those people who found little or no acceptance anywhere else… to them, their therapist was their soul-keeper. In sharing their lives, in being their cheerleader, in being recognized and sought out by them in moments of extreme mental anguish and behavioural difficulty, I got my payback. 

Of course, I started off in residential rehab and continued to learn on the job and get trained to counsel those in other kinds of emotional distress as well.

I do not actively work in rehabilitation anymore and have moved on to individual, marriage and family practice in psychotherapy over the last two decades. I consult with a multi-speciality clinic and have my own mental health start-up called DeStress Holistic Health Private Limited. 

I am a Licensed Marriage Counsellor as well as a Compliance Consultant for the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Abuse. At the moment I am doing my PhD from TISS, Mumbai, in parallel to my work.

3. What are some common myths/attitudes in society about psychology?

Ah… what isn’t? A person seeking out mental health support is viewed with contempt unfortunately even today in most parts of our country, which in turn prevents people from reaching out for timely support and professional help. Terms like “mad” and “crazy”, “psycho”, “OCD”, “stress” are in common parlance used unthinkingly; for example, if someone is known to speak to a counsellor then they must be “crazy” or “mad”.

A few other common myths and unhealthy attitudes around mental health/psychology are given below:

“Taking medication makes one an addict/dependant.”

If one is depressed they are “weak”, should just “snap out of it”, just “grow up” or handle it “like a man” or even better…” just stop being sad”.

Most often mentally ill persons, are considered to be possessed by evil spirits and taken to be exorcised, especially in smaller towns, not medically treated till its’ too late and anxiety and depression according to some will be cured if they are married off or once children are born to them etc.

That said, according to me, most opinions are formed out of ignorance than a person’s intent. So making mental health less taboo and more normal, creating social awareness, introducing it as a part of the curriculum in schools and colleges, etc. will go a long way in changing the approach towards psychology and psychiatry. 

It many ways the usage of clinical language and the fear of a diagnosis/disorder also increases the stigma around mental health, maybe being sensitive about it where ever possible could prove to be beneficial in bettering the reach among people and help empower them.

4.How do you expect digital mental health to grow over the next 5 years?

Digital mental health means using technology innovatively to increase access to online resources, including online self-help/ access to therapists who provide counselling online via internet booking, follow-up etc. Digital mental health thus massively helps reduce stigma around seeking professional help by making accessibility easy and the process, confidential. 

While the pandemic has shown a considerable increase in the use of digital mental health apps and web-based platforms, low awareness and insufficient vernacular support may be what holds back the DMH boom. 

There are a lot of players in the field currently as you may be aware and with increased awareness and regulated/supervised help, I am sure there is the tremendous possibility of growth in E-Therapy over the next few years.

5. What are your concerns about Digital Mental Health?

Research done during the pandemic on digital mental health points out that in order to accommodate the growing need for support, regulatory standards have been relaxed worldwide(Martinez-Martin et al., 2020). 

While the demand gap for mental health help is being filled by digital tools and predictive technology, one can’t but help wonder how the engagement barriers (Balcombe & De Leo, 2021) are being addressed, as well as the ethics around it (data privacy, confidentiality, etc.). 

While at the moment the advantages outweigh the problems, I feel that digital mental health help can lead to more unregulated and unethical practices, and a person’s vulnerability could be misused. We must be conscious about it and sooner than later, more regulatory bodies must be introduced to prevent possible damage due to the misuse of digital mental health initiatives.

6. Can you let us know anyone application of Digital Mental Health in your country which has impressed you?

I think ‘Wysa’ is a very impressive app. Of course, there are many more… a lot of my clients also find the ‘Calm’ app to be beneficial to them, but it is not an Indian startup. Wysa is.

7. What are your tips for people who want to practice this profession?

Becoming a mental health professional requires mental strength, empathy, clarity of thought and constant introspection, and in my opinion, one should only continue to work in this field if they truly love what they do. If not, it can be extremely challenging and disheartening on many levels.

Secondly, according to me, grass-root level training which includes working in mental health hospitals and in-patient psychiatry wards is absolutely critical to get the right foundation irrespective of the branch of counselling they wish to foray into.

Keep yourself updated on the latest in the field, be a life-long learner to stay ahead.

Most importantly, seek out supervision irrespective of your years of experience and also have a peer group(or start one yourself) that allows you timely and non-judgemental catharsis.

If you cannot handle a case, it is important, to be honest about it to yourself and with your client at the end of the session, and do it kindly, while making appropriate peer referrals.

Being in the field of clinical psychology/psychotherapy/psychiatric social work/counselling is different from educational psychology or being an academician. Respect the choices of your fellow professionals.

Take timely breaks, we can only be useful if we are sorted and for that, we must practice self-compassion.

8. What does your typical day look like and what do you like to do besides work?

The pandemic has redefined everyone’s typical day and routine. Over the last year and a half, my weekday starts with prep work for my family’s meals; my husband and I together get our children ready for their online classes, help them with their school work, manage the dogs, the household chores and our own respective careers like a well-oiled machine. 

When it becomes overwhelming, we try to go easy on the housekeeping or the cooking, cling to each other and relax at home. Cycling as a family is a new exercise routine, and we play with the children during weekday evenings and watch something on TV together, every night before their bedtime. We catch up with family and friends over video calls as often as we can to stay in touch and be involved in each other’s lives. 

We also have a social bubble formed with our immediate neighbours who are good friends and we get together during weekends for a short time. I try and put in at least an hour of writing every day in an attempt to complete my PhD. Work is mentally fatiguing, so keeping the rest of my thoughts light is necessary for me to stay calm… I spend a half-hour every evening in my pooja room chanting my favourite verses and finally, before retiring to bed I unwind by reading classics especially Jane Austen novels and comic books like Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix etc. because they make me laugh. 

Another constant in my life is my daily 5-10 minute conversations with my best friend of 30 years. She and I depend on this childhood alliance to help us stay grounded and appreciate life without feeling overwhelmed or having to explain or complain too much.

I believe that life is only as happy as you want it to be, so my husband and I make continuous attempts to stay happy, remain grateful and teach our children the same to tide through these tough times.

Interviewed by - Soumya Bhayana

This interview is sponsored by Plus91 Technologies, a leading Digital Health firm.