Professor Sujata Sriram, Professor and former Dean in the School of Human Ecology, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai has been working in the field of psychology for three decades. An academic for well over three decades, she has been associated with TISS for almost twenty years, with a significant part of that time invested in mental health. Prior to TISS, she was associated with Lady Irwin College, Delhi University.
Professor Sujata has spent the last decade training counsellors and clinical psychologists at TISS, helping them become better professionals, helping them understand issues of social complexity, and becoming more aware about themselves as professionals, which she refers to as ‘knowing self’, given that in therapy, the self is used quite extensively and one should be able to recognize how personal attitudes, biases, values and beliefs influence professional behavior.
In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, Professor Sujata highlights the mental health landscape in India, the persistent gap in gender roles that poses a significant threat to the well-being of women and families in extraordinary circumstances like the present, offers advice for students, employees and leaders as they struggle and strive to make it to the other side of this crisis, and emphasizes the overarching need to talk to each other and ask, “Are you doing ok?”
Here are excerpts of the interview.
What is the current landscape of mental health? How aware and receptive are people today towards acknowledging, understanding and addressing mental health issues?
In most urban areas, especially cities, there is more acceptance when it comes to talking about mental health, about seeking help from professionals. It’s especially coming up when you look at the age group of 18 - 30. Younger than 18, there are issues of access. If you have a school counsellor, then you are safe, but unfortunately many schools don’t have decent counsellors. In many schools, counselors are involved in substitute teaching or extra classes, not much work specifically on mental health. Additionally, many teachers in schools position counseling as a punishment, “If you don’t behave I will send you to the counsellor.” It’s essentially the place where naughty or bad kids go, which is not how it should be seen. You automatically begin to think about mental health as being something you should be ashamed of rather than something that can be treated.
Coming to treatment, it’s not necessary that we need to look only at medication for mental health. In India, the tendency is it’s easier to look at medication rather than non-medical means of dealing with mental health, especially when you are looking at therapy. “Therapy, talk, what is talking going to do? Therapy isn’t good enough.” We like to have these straight line relationships, we want something definitive, but in psychology, it depends. There is a layer of ambiguity that exists in psychology, and as a culture we don’t take it too easily. Which is why the kind of therapy we tend to prefer is what is referred to as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), more prescriptive over a more free-flowing kind of therapeutic practice.
In today’s context, when we started talking about social distancing, the very term social distancing created much more of anxiety than anything else. We are creating more isolation than anything else.
When we call it physical distancing, it’s a much more appropriate term because you are talking about being emotionally connected and being socially connected, but being physically distant.
As human beings we can’t function without contact with others, which means people who are the most vulnerable to the virus, the elderly, children, they are also the most vulnerable to social isolation. It is a strange disconnect that we are caught in, that in order to keep them protected, you are isolating them, which can increase their feelings of vulnerability, of isolation, of lack of hope. The present crisis is one which is going to create a lot more schism, a lot more anxiety in many ways and this anxiety can be there for many people.
Advocacy has helped create awareness and emphasis on the need to focus on mental health at the workplace to a great extent. What should be the next step for organizations to cater to employee wellness in this aspect? How can they work towards enhancing the psychological safety of the workforce, especially under the existing extraordinary circumstances?
It’s not difficult and it doesn’t have to be only HR teams and leaders that work on it. One of the easy ways to do it is tie-up with EAPs. Having an EAP partner who will provide mental health services, and will make sure that there is visibility is quite helpful. And even though you might tie-up with a mental health partner, if you don’t have visibility about that, people aren’t going to know about it. While having in-house mental health practitioners is a great way to keep a closer eye on the mental health of employees, unfortunately the situation is such that economically it doesn’t work out, which is why, many companies are now tying-up with an EAP who can provide a range of services, reachable through email or telephone or chat.
Apart from EAP, one of the best ways to tackle well-being concerns is by getting people to work together in teams and making sure that the teams are working together effectively with each other and supporting each other. All of us as colleagues, as leaders, need to be aware or sensitive about another person’s issues. For eg, someone who is habitually coming late, used to be on time always but for the last one week has been coming late, as a leader I would want to find out is everything ok. What’s happened? You find a sudden change in behavior where earlier someone used to be outgoing and friendly and now suddenly they behave as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders. Ask them, “Are you doing ok”?
All of us need to be a little more sensitive about other people, and also be willing to ask are you ok? Is there a problem? Can I offer help?
It’s a question of extending ourselves to ask if there is an issue, can I help? Most of us feel very awkward about doing it, in the sense that what will the other person think, can i even ask, shall i ask, I don’t know them well enough to ask. You don’t need to know people well to ask. In fact, that’s a good way to learn to know the other person also. “You seem to be very down these days, is everything ok?” It’s just a very simple question but it helps in terms of conveying that you are considerate about them.
What are the cornerstones of ensuring a safe workplace that allows employees to share their struggles and at the same time not let any bias impact how their performance is perceived?
Some measurers that can help build a safe workplace include:
- Open discussion about mental health
- Advocating that it’s okay to be anxious. Understanding and accepting that all of us feel anxious about certain things
- Discussions about sexuality: If you are talking about people who are coming out of the closet, the last place they would want to come out at is the workplace. They don’t know how they are going to be scrutinized, because of their sexuality. It was only earlier this month that the US law changed where you couldn’t be discriminated against because of your sexuality, and in India, only two years ago they repealed the law that homosexuality was a crime.
We need to build a culture where people don’t feel or think that contacting a counsellor would have a negative impact on their chances of a promotion - ‘I won’t get promoted, or it’s going to affect my promotion or what other people think about me’ - That’s something that needs to be taken care of.
There shouldn’t be a perception that suggests that if I consult a mental health professional, it’s going to affect my promotion, or that I am not meeting targets.
What according to you is missing across educational institutions when it comes to catering to the mental health of students?
Along the way we have done a number of research projects. Among the recent ones was the one commissioned by the District Commissioner of Kota, to look at suicides of students studying in the coaching centres in Kota. That was a very difficult study because we spoke to many students who were there. We also spoke to teachers and parents, it’s an entire systemic study that we did. Lot of things came out of it. We need to learn to coexist with things and identify how we can make it better, rather than having kids harm themselves. That at the end of the day should be what we are aiming for.
One of the problems which comes up in many educational institutions is that we don’t have mental health resources in the form of counsellors and therapists; and we don’t do enough in terms of being good mentors. While the issue of having a counsellor with decent training remains, another issue is the lack of a mentor. In college, if you have a mentor you can go to when you are in trouble, and I am not talking about academic trouble. It could be relationship issues, it could be issues related to your sexuality, it could be issues related to the fact that why am I doing this course, issues like I don’t know anybody in this city, I am all alone, not fitting in. If you have a mentor, it’s easier to deal with these issues. When you join college, if you can hang out for a little while with a senior, who tells you that look these are the things you need to do, that would be really helpful for a new student. For eg, in terms of normalizing talking about issues, the senior can guide the individual on - this is who the counsellor is, that’s where the counsellor sits, and if you have some issues you can talk to the counsellor.
The other problem that comes up relates to preparing students for entering work life. Most of our students don’t know what the world of work is going to be like. Very often that first transition into work provides a huge upheaval.
We train children to be competitive, we never teach them how to be cooperative. The world of work isn't the right place for competition. It’s usually one that requires cooperation.
It’s much easier to make your way up an organization if you learn to work in a team. Unfortunately, we don’t train young people on that. We don’t train people to think abstractly. There is a lot of concreteness in learning; we don’t encourage them to think out of the box. And suddenly they are expected to do that kind of thinking when they enter the world of work. This becomes very difficult for young people to deal with.
According to a study by The Center for Creative Leadership, 75% of careers are derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including inability to handle interpersonal problems; unsatisfactory team leadership during times of difficulty or conflict; or inability to adapt to change or elicit trust. Do you think there is enough emphasis on training students in managing emotional changes and behavioral changes, both theirs and that of their peers?
No. Lot of this comes within what we refer to as employability skills. In keeping a job, it’s not just knowledge that’s needed, it’s not just technical skills that you need, you need people skills. You need what we refer to as employability skills, the ability to work with teams, the ability to work cohesively with other people. If you feel you can’t work in a team, you should choose your job and role accordingly. Choose a job where you don’t have to work with other people.
Ultimately, end of the day, the person who gets promoted is someone who has greater employability skills, in comparison to someone who is much more rigid, argumentative, and aggressive. Being able to understand what the situation requires and then deciding how to go with the flow is something which is very important.
We talk about emotional quotient (EQ) and emotional intelligence (EI), what is EI? It’s the ability to read situations and learn how to deal with them, how to adapt your behavior to the situation, moderating and modulating your emotions accordingly.
What are some of the emerging areas of concern for the population at large that needs to be addressed in the face of an impending mental health crisis?
Given the lack of house help and burden of both home and work on women, there is a rising threat for women. Only 5% of men have pitched in and are doing more.
Unfortunately, it’s women who are doing most of the household chores, in addition to paid work, and also child care, elder care, and at the same time are being criticized for not meeting their targets, for not being available for a call at a particular time.
Women have had it really tough during this crisis. And this will lead to trouble within families.
This isn’t happening just in India, it’s happening across the world. In the US they are talking about how there is going to be an entire generation of women who are not going be in the field of work for some time to come. In the current scenario, if jobs are made available, those jobs are going to be filled by men, not by women. The disparities that exist in incomes of men and women are still significant, putting women at an exceptional level of disadvantage today. Patriarchy will raise its head.
When you look at this pandemic, people are being pushed out of jobs. How is this going to change the way in which gender roles play out eventually? Is it going to lead to women being pushed out of the job market almost completely? Additionally, incidence of domestic violence is on the rise. It’s a fact. During the regular workday women could escape from home and go out and work, they could get out of the house. But now suddenly because of the situation you are stuck inside the house with your abuser and there is no way out. There is an increase in the amount of physical abuse that is happening, there is also an increase in the amount of verbal abuse and emotional abuse.
Remote working and mental health of employees has been gaining visibility but we are yet to address mental health for families created by stressors outside office.
The biggest experiment along with remote working is online learning for schools. How many children in India can afford online learning?
A household with two children in two different classes will need two different devices on which they can access school work, in addition to the devices that parents will need to carry on with their work. Many families in India even today have only one smartphone available to the entire family, and here we are talking about families who suddenly need access to 3 or 4 different devices. That’s just the economic burden of online learning on families, becoming an ongoing stressor, given parents have admitted to not wanting their child to return to school until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed.
Let’s come to teachers now. One of the issues that teachers face today is that schools have started expecting a lot from them in terms of preparation for online teaching. Teachers are expected to be available 24*7 irrespective whether a parent is calling or the school administrator. There are no boundaries. Also, how many schools are providing anything for teachers to prepare for online teaching? In the sense that do you have a laptop with you? Do you have internet connection? Do you have broadband connection? Are you dependent on your phone as a hotspot? All of those are actually questions that schools need to ask teachers before they tell them to start teaching online. Most schools don’t think about the fact that they need to provide teachers with this kind of equipment.
In many ways you are using your own personal equipment. Nobody is going to reimburse the cost of electricity, the cost of wi-fi or any of that and those are all the hidden costs of working from home. Most of us don’t compute those costs, but they really add up.
For families of students, teachers, and other professions as well, those are things that add up. How many families are going to be able to afford that?
What would your advice be for students, employees and leaders as they struggle and strive to make it to the other side of this crisis?
Think about what is in your control, and what is not. What is in your control is what you can deal with effectively, without too much stress. That which is not in your control, has to be borne. Find out if you can deal with such things with the help of others. Identify those who can be of support to you, along with those who need your assistance – both are equally important! Be mindful of what you do, and what you say. Let us not sit in judgment of others. And be thankful for what you have. Be kind to others, and to yourself. While everyone tells you to make lemonade when life gives you lemons, think of what else you can do.
Crisis is fertile ground for innovation. Take heed of lessons from other countries, who have ‘flattened the curve’; this too shall pass!
Advice for leaders: Take care of your employees. At this time of crisis, profits should not become more important than people. Have faith and believe in your people. That faith will be rewarded at the end of the day by loyalty and commitment.
Advice for employees: It is a difficult time for everyone. Do your best for your employers and for yourself. You may be required to do things that you never expected yourself to do, find strength in yourself that you did not know you had.
Advice for students: Think of this as a time for learning. There are lots of opportunities available for learning new skills and upgrading yourself. While doing so, be supportive to others who need your help – your family will need you to pitch in to help with chores.