Mental health experts, therapy seekers give a lowdown on counselling

Updated: Dec 07, 2016, 15:28 IST | Snigdha Hasan |

As more people shed their inhibitions to seek counselling, The Guide gives you the lowdown on how to take the plunge and open up


THERE is a sequence in the film Dear Zindagi, where Kaira, the character Alia Bhatt plays, reveals to her friend Fatty and domestic help Alka that she is undergoing therapy. Alka’s first reaction is the typical why-what’s-wrong-with-you one, but when Kaira breaks it down to the simple explanation that she’s seeking help for life ki pareshaniyaan, Alka is amazed that such a provision exists. "In that case, everyone should seek counselling," she declares.

It is this matter-of-fact discussion on mental health — that had thus far been missing in our movies — which is being hailed as a good beginning. But even as the film manages to normalise emotional issues, therapy is not about walking down the beach with a counsellor or receiving pearls of wisdom. We spoke to mental health professionals, and individuals who have sought help to get the lowdown on the process of counselling.

Ask, do I need it?
Apart from a few obvious indicators of mental health issues like hearing voices in the head or thoughts of self-harm, counselling could assist in subtler challenges too. "If a person is experiencing distress or confusion, which is not allowing him or her to get out of bed or function normally in life, seeing a counsellor may help," says Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a city-based consulting psychiatrist and author.

An increasing number of people in Mumbai are not shying away from seeking therapy any more. Clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta often comes across clients wanting to improve the quality of life through counselling. "A lot of people in therapy today want to develop compassion, empathy and improve communication with their partner. If they have children approaching teenage, they want to be better prepared to deal with the changes which come with that phase," she explains.

And as is the trigger for Kaira in the film, relationship issues are a big part of counselling. "A lot of psychological problems are rooted in existing abusive relationships or when one experiences difficulty in forming new
relationships," says Dr Mirchandani.

In 2011, Suresh Dutta* was pursuing his higher studies, when he felt that he was losing control over his emotional responses. "I was involved in an emotionally abusive relationship and as a person of a generally calm disposition, there came a point when I could no longer recognise myself," says Dutta, who then decided to see a counsellor.

"We all feel we can sort out our issues ourselves or with the help of friends and family, but however well-meaning our dear ones are, only a therapist can help with an objective perspective because he or she has no stake in the game," shares Dutta.Agrees Rehaan Shah*, 38, who has been living separately from his wife for some time now. "When things began to go downhill, my wife sought therapy individually, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Being a doctor myself, I should have known better," says Shah, who has recently started therapy and hopes to make things work with his wife. "Had I not waited this long, we would have never got separated."

Trusting one’s counsellor
After mocking all the therapists she overhears at a conference, Kaira feels a connect with counsellor Jehangir Khan, when he wittily says how people never wait to get their bodies mended, but ignore the mind as if it were not a part of the body.

"Feeling understood is important to develop trust in the counsellor," says Dr Mirchandani. "Because only psychiatrists can prescribe medication, some would prefer to see six clients in an hour and refer them to a psychologist, than invest one hour in each client through psychotherapy."

Dutta had to move back to his hometown and find a new therapist, He tells us that he preferred his previous counsellor’s approach because he heard him out patiently before simply prescribing medicines.

Sonali Gupta 
Sonali Gupta

When to stop therapy
"This is where the movie got it wrong. Stopping therapy is always mutually decided between the client and the counsellor. The latter can never just announce his decision," Gupta explains. "Also, doling out preachy advice is not a therapist’s job. Counselling works when the therapist lets the client lead the way. His job is that of a facilitator, not a problem solver," she adds.

Dr Mirchandani agrees: "If a client shows over-dependence, it is the counsellor’s job to set it right. Therapy needs to weaned off, not abruptly stopped." This brings us to the question: What if a client falls for the therapist, as it predictably happens in the film? "The client always falls in love with the role of the counsellor, not the counsellor as a person. It is important to assert the ethics of the profession in the beginning and reinforce them through the course of therapy," says Gupta.

Such things rarely happen in real life, says Dr Mirchandani. "Many therapists wear wedding rings or keep photos of their family in the clinic to send out a subtle message."

Pick up clues from past
In the movie, Khan helps Kaira figure out that the reason for her fear of relationships is buried in her past. And that’s something Shah’s counsellor helped him come to terms with, too. "Through the therapy sessions, I realised how years of bullying in my surgical training had changed me as a person completely," he says.

Dutta’s case is no different. "When I underwent therapy, I learnt that I had been depressed for a long time," he says. Dutta has not been in therapy for a couple of years now. As someone always interested in the human mind, he completed his masters in clinical psychology and wishes to take it up professionally. "Everyone goes through some crisis in life. One shouldn’t have to suffer before seeking help," he insists.

Shah couldn’t agree more: "Therapy is healing. And healing puts ego to rest."
*Names changed on request

Shrinks on screen
Frasier (2004) the US sitcom was broadcast on NBC for 11 seasons. It was created as a spin-off of Cheers, continuing the story of psychiatrist Frasier Crane as he returned to his hometown of Seattle and starts building a new life.

The Prince of Tides (1991) is an American romantic drama based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Pat Conroy. It tells the story of the narrator's struggle to overcome the psychological damage inflicted by his dysfunctional childhood.

Analyze This (1999) is a gangster comedy. The film stars Robert De Niro as a mafioso and Billy Crystal as his psychiatrist.

Know your counsellor
"In the absence of a regulatory framework in India, there are many people who take weekend or correspondence courses in psychology and turn into counsellors. Then there are the ‘healers’ who claim to solve your problems," explains Dr Mirchandani. "Ensure that your therapist has a masters degree in psychology from a recognised university. Even when all the credentials are in place and you are not happy with the therapy, always feel free to seek a second opinion. The Icall helpline from TISS is a good source to begin with," he says.

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