Why India needs a feminist approach to mental health activism

Encouraging such a medley is not to give birth to a new kind of activism. Collaboration is the key.
Why India needs a feminist approach to mental health activism
Why India needs a feminist approach to mental health activism

Mental health in India has now found its era of activism where reformers, thinkers and social workers are taking on an arduous task to abolish the oscillating stigma. At the same time, the country’s feminist movement is also on a rise, with outcomes that are hard-hitting. But less is known about welcoming a relationship of both.

Feminist psychology came around in the early 20th century when women like Karen Horney and Naomi Weisstein eradicated the so called masculine influence in behavioural research. They criticised the Freudian establishment that upheld discriminatory methodologies, called out the sexism in the field, and redefined the comprehension of gender roles.

But for the kind of healthcare that subsists in India, be it mental or physical, the inclusion of terms like ‘feminist’ seems a little too ‘burdening’. A universal reason why it appears tedious for mental health disciplines to embrace the ‘F’ word is that the societal understanding of feminism has been denounced.

It starts from a feminist understanding of mental health

The benefits of mental health interventions that are inspired and supported by feminist philosophy become clear when we understand the significance of psychosocial factors and the experiences, that stem from subjugated pressures. When we think of women, queer folk and other minorities in the gender and sexuality spectrum, it is evident that a major portion of their mental health issues are attributed to the oppression by the regressive masses. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand why women are unnecessarily dumped in mental institutions by their in-laws or aren’t taken seriously when it comes to menstrual pain. Similarly, trans people in India have their mental health implications associated with homelessness.

There has to be a basic fallacy to such horrid consequences. A fallacy that has embedded itself into the very medical practices that professionals follow and preach. The hassle is with the “male point of view” that still prevails in the diagnostic manuals and clinics adding to the same abuse, only this time with a prescription. It doesn’t stop here. Incidents of social discrimination within therapy sessions have become a present-day reality despite its inclusion as a wrongdoing in the latest mental health bill.

Mental health concerns which are also distinctive from problems that feminism addresses, can still reap the benefits of the feminist movement. In some critical areas, the work has already begun.

“Any deviation from a woman’s expected roles increases her chance of being diagnosed with mental illnesses. This does not happen to men. Research also shows that labeling women as unsound is a way to disempower them legally – whether it is for property or for custody of children. There are no tests for what constitutes an unsound mind and everything is based on stereotypes,” says Bhargavi Davar, an activist from Pune who has been very vocal in making these problems noticed and in pointing out patriarchy’s role in maintaining them. Bhargavi’s work includes advocacy and community outreach with focus groups for women, men and children.

CEHAT’s commendable project, Dilaasa, sensitized the public health system to the problem of domestic violence, which among other things, is also a mental health issue. They provided training to the staff, modified them for referrals and worked on their coping mechanisms in a respectful manner without urging them to “leave the husband”. This was perhaps the first time that manuals on feminist counselling were prepared for an Indian background.

Mental health awareness among the activists

Apart from issues that are within the purview of mental health, there is so much more to take into account. While feminist activists in India continue to induce effective sub-revolutions and are gaining integral radicalism, there is very little covered or known about the mental health of the activists themselves. This is perhaps one of the key issue surrounding the social justice community that goes unaddressed. It’s also because we only ‘prefer’ talking about mental health in an environment that is ‘psychology-like’. We harbour the knowledge of mental health as something unique when it is as normal as someone catching malaria.

Sonam Mittal, the founder of Azaadi which mainly works against sexual harassment at workplace, says, “As feminists, we need to focus on mental health in a way that it breaks stereotypes. At the same time, as activists who are out there fighting for human rights, it's critical we understand the seriousness of secondary trauma.”

Vindhya Undurti is a name which represents this much-needed intersection on the Indian forefront. Generating groundbreaking researches on studying the affected lives of oppressed women from the lens of psychology, Vindhya also contributed in editing the Handbook of International Feminism that lays out the domain of feminist psychology quite extensively. She now chairs the school of gender studies at TISS’s Hyderabad campus.

Encouraging such a medley is not to give birth to a new kind of activism. This approach is purely integral, a mutual aid that will help both feminists as well as people working with the mentally ill. It is simple and blooms at small levels. Let’s talk about feminism within mental health groups and keep the conversation of mental health active within feminist circles. Collaboration is the key.

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