Please tell us about yourself
Sonali Gupta is a clinical psychologist with 12 years of experience. She works with young adults, artists, children and parents to enhance their emotional well-being. She has her own practice at Khar and Mahalakshmi in Mumbai. She is currently working on her first book about therapy and mental health in India. She has worked as a Student Counsellor for 10 years with TISS. Her work extends across NGO’s corporates, colleges and schools where she focuses on preventive mental health advocacy. She used to write features for The Swaddle about parenting, relationship issues and about social media. She also had a weekly advice column for DNA.
Shruti Saxena: Could you tell us about what got you interested in the field of mental health and when you started working on it?
Sonali Gupta: Ever since I was a child, around eight years, I have known I wanted to work in the field of psychology. The credit goes to my mother who introduced me to psychology, sociology very early on in life. She picked on my sensitivity and felt it could be channelized in this direction. She used to read out articles to me about mental health and also used to cut them out, paste them in books, which were my reference point for years.
My father struggled with diabetes which came with it’s own complications, so ever since I was 10 years till the time he passed away about three years back, I spent a lot of time in hospitals with my mother as a primary caregiver. The hospital environment, coldness, lack of sensitivity always made me wonder about the caregivers. I felt this gap keenly and wanted to help bridge it. Without even realizing, I think it has shaped my career and life choices.
After completing my degree in Psychology from St Xaviers College I started my first job as a Student Counselor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2005, post my Masters in Clinical Psychology and another Post Diploma in Counseling skills.
SS: What have you seen evolve over the span of your career?
SG: In the last two years, the number of people reaching out for therapy has risen tremendously. Additionally in the last three to five years, the dynamic around relationships has also changed. There has been an evolution in the perception and realities of marriage. I see a lot of young people who do not want to get married or have children but have to deal with constant parental pressure. I see people who are not sure if monogamy is for them. With more and more blended families coming in to picture, in recent years I have been working around parenting plans recently for clients who specifically need help with parenting.
The work stress has increased significantly; the number of people reaching out for burnout related concerns are much higher. I do see a lot more women coming to therapy, however there has been an increase in the number of men who came in the last few years.
Currently mental health is a ticking time bomb for India. My worry is that as a nation we are not prepared to handle it. The number of psychiatrists and psychologists who are qualified, skilled are very few and this has led to a strain for trained professionals too.
SS: On a policy and infrastructure level, what would you like to see happen differently? What do you see as the gaps, the areas that need work, in mental healthcare in India?
SG: There needs to be a significant increase in the number of mental health professionals, across hospitals, community setups. More funds need to be directed to community organizations working in healthcare and mental health in general. I would like for our policies to focus on being preventive rather than curative, which they are right now. Changing that narrative is crucial to being able to support the growing number of people looking for therapy and counseling. We also need to invest in training for community workers in villagers, towns so that they can function as barefoot counselors.
There is also no reliable accreditation and licensing system in the field, and a lot of people who work as counselors and therapists have not been educated in the field or had any exposure to therapy, personally and professionally.
Another change I would like to see is more discussion and depiction of issues of mental health in the media. To be more precise, a curated depiction across Doordarshan and even mainstream Bollywood films.
When Dear Zindagi released, I wrote a review for the movie, pointing out what the movie got wrong about the therapy process. However, I had two people on separate occasions who reached out for therapy sessions and when I checked how they got my reference, they said they searched for ‘Therapist like Jehangir Khan’ on Google, which led them to my article, which led them to me. So if a movie, that does not do a good job at portraying what therapy does, is so powerful, then imagine what good powerful documentaries, films with popular film stars can do.
SS: What does a work day or week look like for you?
SG: Throughout my career, I have preferred to have a part-time job and have a lot of flexibility in my days. When I worked at TISS, I used to work three evenings during a week. I used to spend rest of the time teaching or freelancing for NGOs.
Thankfully, now I do have a typical day! I have my own private practice and I see about 3 to 4 clients till about 3 pm. Typically I spend evenings around my husband and daughter. I also use this time to exercise, meditate, read, and of course complete my session notes. About 3 times in a week I end up doing a Skype Session in the evening.
Earlier I used to write for The Swaddle and DNA, now I have taken a break to work on my own book, which focuses on therapy in the Indian context.
SS: What are the issues that you see come up frequently for your clients? Are they differentiated by age or gender?
SG: Most of work in therapy is around relationships, either in the context of romantic intimate relationships, friendships, parental baggage, infidelity or couples counseling. The institution of marriage has become lot more fragile and this comes up during the sessions. I also deal with issues of sexuality, polyamory and LGBTQIA+ clients, who struggle with coming out to their families.
Some of other work is around self-care, self-compassion, enmeshment, self-esteem, dealing with burnout, mood swings, and anxiety. I work with lot of people in the creative industry, so a lot of work around challenges that come with the industry itself. In fact the concerns about relationships, work stress seem to be the topmost across gender.
SS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
SG: I’m personally not very comfortable with the idea of labels around mental illness. I think there is lot more to people and often labels can become limiting. In my opinion the labels we choose to define ourselves, end up influencing a lot about how we think and feel. Labels of mental illness can become a different kind of baggage for clients.
For example labeling yourself as a high-functional anxiety person may make you push yourself hard on really bad days, which is not good in the long run. You are more than the illness. Also you do not need to tell anyone about being in therapy unless you want to and you trust them, it’s a personal process of self work.