Anna Chandy, Chairperson, The Live Love Laugh Foundation talks about the kind of mental health challenges women face, and some solutions on how they can tackle them.
In a career spanning 22 years, Anna Chandy, Chairperson, The Live Love Laugh Foundation, has dealt with thousands of cases as a counsellor. She, however, feels that only in the past six to seven years has India taken steps towards acknowledging mental health and why it is something we all need to be concerned about.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Mental health and women
“The first thing to believe and remember is that there is no perfect woman and no role and at various points and phases of our lives some rules take precedence and priority over the other. That is usual and very natural.
“It’s important for women to remember that because we play multiple roles it is important to understand how much psychological energy we’re going to invest in those roles. And what is the outcome we expect.”
Why mental health needs all the attention it can get
“It is important to remember that mental health is actually not just connected to the brain. It’s also connected to the body. Just like we say we have a heart attack where the heart muscles are not working and need attention, similarly depression and anxiety can be like a brain attack. It’s actually a cry for help.
“So mental health is a state for us to be able to manage our lives with our daily stress. However, when our stress increases and we are not able to cope, which is very often, is when people become anxious, have stress-related disorders or have depression.
“What this means is that normal anxieties, regular day-to-day fears about issues or happenings in life are part of our normal existence but when these anxieties and fears engulf us, are on an overdrive and not addressed is when it leads to anxiety or depression as an illness. Again let me stress on this; saying I am depressed is different from feeling sad which may not be depression as an illness. Depression is a cluster of symptoms. For example, say Indian women can have low moods, feel extremely lonely. You are weepy. You don’t really want to meet the friends that you enjoyed meeting. So that is a whole lot of symptoms and when these symptoms continue for more than three to four weeks, it’s important that you visit a mental health professional.
“Even when you feel these symptoms, the best way to handle them is to actually acknowledge them and talk about it. That is a start. We all like to talk to people we are close to, but if you’re not able to deal with it, then it’s okay to seek professional help because mild to moderate anxiety or mild to moderate depression can be overcome with the help of a mental health professional like a counsellor. A counsellor is going to facilitate how you are able to understand and choose solutions or options that is best in your context.
How organisations and colleagues can help
“From an organisational perspective, we see the focus on physical aspects such as creches and flexi-times and other such initiatives but something that’s really important is mental health, which often gets overlooked.
The question then is how can organisations and we as colleagues and friends at the workplace help each other. I think the first step is to acknowledge that the mental health of every employee especially since we are talking about women, need to be accounted for. The second step is to remember that women do wear multiple hats and for different roles. And therefore, their days will vary, according to the role they play with the kind of stress that comes along.
“The third thing is to also understand that some of the mental health issues that women face show up as physical symptoms because there are differences in the way our hormones function.
“The other important thing that women face are the roles they are expected to play in society. Some of us get even really stressed just fulfilling those various roles. So I think what is pertinent is to really account for these differences and include it when we start planning for initiatives that organisations are starting or introducing.
At the individual level, colleagues can help too. Remember, very often, people who have these symptoms themselves don’t even have a clue that actually something’s going on with them. They may experience it, but they don’t have an insight, so you can alert them. Now be prepared that even after you alert them they may not be willing to look at it. Then you have to take a step back, but keep observing them for say a week to 10 days. And if they’ve not in any way improved from that situation, then it’s okay to actually tell them that – ‘Listen I’ve been observing you and I think you need to take professional help.’ And the reason I say professional help is because very often even though we are well-meaning and we are friends, sometimes our loved ones don’t really want to share with us.
“Understand that a professional will be able to be objective about the situation. When you see a person’s challenges at the workplace impacting their work, then you have evidence to show them that something is amiss.
“Often people are not able to understand what they are going through. This often is the result of the fact that we don’t talk because of the stigma. So we have to break the cycle and the circuit by starting to talk, helping people become aware and having some minimal information.
Entrepreneurship: chasing success while being mentally fit
“I relate to the loneliness of an entrepreneur because it’s similar to the profession of say a counsellor or a mental health professional. I always tell my colleagues that we actually work alone, we hear sad narratives and so it gets to be very lonely. So one of the most important things that people who are in these professions like entrepreneurship or counselling or psychotherapy, need to be able to actually engage and associate with people who are in similar professions because that becomes a common space where we can share all our difficulties or fears, learn from each other and support each other. That’s the first step.
“The next step that I think is very important for all of us to remember is that in an entrepreneurial journey, a lot of your psychological energy will be focused on entrepreneurship and therefore the other roles you play will actually be on the backburner and to accept that and also have clear timelines in your journey, say how many years do you think you will need for this venture to succeed and therefore how you’re going to so there has to be a lot of planning.
“The third thing we need to do because we are using so much of psychological energy is to account for and schedule some physical exercise or some hobby or something we enjoy because it relaxes us. These are to me the three most important factors that will help minimise and reduce stress for women entrepreneurs.”
Motherhood, and postpartum depression
“Data shows that worldwide 10 to 15 percent of women who have children or have gone through childbirth suffer from postpartum depression. One of the things you also need to understand is that within our society there’s a lot of encouragement and information on caregiving of the infant.
“Nobody really talks about the caregiver or the new mother. Here lies the challenge. It’s a new role, it is something a woman has actually never dealt with. As the primary caregiver, you have a responsibility towards this new life. Take, for example, breastfeeding and how sometimes women are conflicted about it. The entire process of breastfeeding is not an easy one for some women. Some suffer from cracked nipples and have excruciating pain. Then you have internal conflicts such as to whether I deal with pain or feed my child and these are topics and discussions nobody really has.
“When I had my first baby I was told I will have a great feeling and be swept away with a wave of maternal instinct. After my baby was born, all I wanted to do was sleep. I thought there was actually something wrong with me.
“There’s fantasy that surrounds childbirth and becoming a mother. It is a great feeling and nobody’s disputing that. But there’s another aspect to it and I would start by saying that a mother also needs care and nurturing. She also needs to take adequate rest and this new role comes on with a whole lot of responsibilities.
“There are hormonal changes that the body is undergoing, women also suffer from body image issues, you know, they’re looking different from what they did. So I think it’s important for us to discuss these things and normalise it, because that will make other women ask questions and share the issues they face.”
Abuse and mental health
“Women face a lot of abuse be it domestic violence, rape or molestation. Some of their early trauma is connected to their current mental health and this is a pattern I have seen. Violence has an impact on the mental health of women. Therefore, I think these are areas that need to be discussed and highlighted. Even if we look at some rapes or really violent crimes, everybody only looks at the punitive aspect, that is punishing the perpetrator. That’s important, but somewhere they neglect the recovery of the victim, which doesn’t happen just by punishing the perpetrator. They have to deal with the mental health issue there and I think that is an area that we need to account for and emphasise as important.
“As a preventive move, there need to be life skills programmes for youth in schools. There need to be awareness programmes on mental health. I think we need to be sensitive and have programmes for minority groups, indigenous groups, and those that have gone through some form of disaster.
Even counsellors need counselling
“I have been a counsellor for 22 years and once a week I go for therapy. Counsellors all across the world follow this practice. It is a norm in Europe and the US, though not so much in India. If you are a mental health professional, whether you are a counsellor or a therapist, you are supposed to be undergoing therapy. The reason is that we need to be free of our own issues to receive another person’s issues. So I would end by saying that those who are going to a counsellor, it is absolutely okay to ask them, ‘Are you in therapy?’ If they say they are, it means they will be really receiving your issues completely in an objective way.