The Journey of a Mental Healthcare Advocate - An Interview
Updated: Aug 30
Recently, Covid-19 Helpline India interviewed Harjas Gulati, a venture capitalist-cum-mental health advocate. In this piece, he addresses his personal realisations about the importance of mental health, and recounts his experience of co-founding Untangle.Space, a mental health advocacy initiative. Read on for some of his interesting insights into this subject ; and also for some smart tips on keeping your mental health in check!
Q. What have been your motivating factors to take up mental health advocacy?
So it goes like this: Many people experience mental illness themselves or watch a loved one suffer and then it hits them- that something is wrong; that something must be done about it. But for me, it has always been the opposite. I was always at peace with my emotions.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there were no obstructions in my journey. It’s just that I always made my way through them. And just like most of us, I thought, if I could do it without a helping hand, so can everyone else, right?
Wrong! (It took me years to understand that.)
It slowly started hitting me as I saw my friends in college (and later at work) suffering to make peace with their own emotions and seeking professional help. It is then that I started to realize that I was actually pretty condescending about the entire concept of struggling with one’s emotions and therapy. Yes, it has taken all of my (and even some borrowed) courage to call myself out for it. But boy, am I glad that I did!
As I advocate about prioritizing it now, I can redeem myself of the incorrect attitude towards mental health at large.
Q. What were the initial steps that helped you start your journey as a mental health advocate and what processes have you been able to incorporate in your journey until now?
I figured out early in my life that there was some problem with how people dealt with their mental health. But given my lack of expertise in the field, the only way I could get to know the root of the problem is through my own experience. And how do I get that? By talking to people!
So I would talk to everyone who would listen- about mental health; about dealing with your emotions, about realizing that you need help.
Then it struck me- I should use the power of social media. So I ran a LinkedIn campaign called #LetsBrainstorm (which is still going on) and started asking people questions. I wanted answers, and they wanted a platform to share their stories. All the pieces fit together. I learnt by being in other people’s shoes. But I slowly realized that people had limitations, which sometimes stopped them from narrating the entire story.
So on my friend's recommendation, I started reading books. I read to get an understanding of how people think and how they express. It’s one of the ways I tried to connect to the concept.
Surprisingly, the word got out. I was approached by my acquaintances and juniors from my college as well, among others. As they spoke to me about their life problems - everything from broken hearts to bad grades to bullying- I listened. And I realized that I was wrong. Sometimes emotions are too heavy to be carried alone. People need someone to support them as they struggle with themselves.
Q. As a mental health advocate, what have been your key findings so far?
I would like to break it into parts:
As I spoke to those who were new to the concept of therapy, my major findings were a Lack of Awareness and Stigma.
Most people in India still do not understand that there is something that could go wrong with your mental health. While it is shocking, it is definitely true. But what’s not shocking is the fact that the stigma that comes with mental illness is harder to deal with than mental health itself. Even when you do decide to seek professional help, you start working on your mental health, but the stigma still remains to be fought.
Another barrier is Accessibility. How does someone like a college-going me, with absolutely no understanding of psychology or mental health, decide which therapist is the best for me?
From my discussions with people, I found that despite many portals and organizations displaying a list of mental health professionals with the right qualification and experience, choosing the one for yourself is a difficult task. I observed that on an average, people went to 3-4 therapists before they finally settled for one (either because they finally found a match, or they were tired of exploring). This is a whole different weight that people who need immediate help, need to carry.
When I spoke to people who had started seeking professional help and even the ones new to the concept, I realized that what stopped them from continuing is unaffordability. No therapy ends in the first session. As there are more and more sessions to be attended, the cost eventually started to burn a hole in their pocket and they stopped.
I did not leave the therapy givers out of these conversations. I wanted to explore both sides of the coin.
Let’s consume this fact: India has 4.4 mental health professionals per million people vs global average of 40 (A difference of 10 times!) So I spoke to as many therapists and psychologists I could reach and found fundamental issues in mental health education and training mechanisms. First of all, mental health education, which begins with a degree in psychology, has not been given representation. Let’s look at the basics, out of the ~90 colleges in Delhi University, only 10 offer Psychology as a course. 10 on 90, which translates to about 10%! On the other hand, 42 colleges offer Economics, which translates to about 50%. No doubt there are scantily few licensed therapists in the country, which one only becomes after their M.Phil in Clinical Psychology. Trivia 1: There are only around 100 seats for the course all across India in a year! It makes sense now, doesn’t it? Even for the pre-M.Phil stage of education, most of the teachers who conduct classes are scholars and academicians, rarely practitioners themselves as against MBBS (for example) where teachers have real experience in practicing medicine themselves. Moreover, there is a lack of a proper training and mentorship mechanism at the educational level. Trivia: Psychology is probably one of the very few fields where students have to pay to bag internships and most students that I spoke to were not even happy with the quality of exposure they received!
After fighting all odds and finally becoming a mental health therapist/counsellor/practitioner or clinical psychologist, there are barely any financial returns to compensate for all the efforts gone into the process (at-least not in the first 10-15 years of your career, as many psychologists point out), not to mention the poor placement processes at the institute-level that contribute to bleak prospects.
Yes, these facts are shocking. But what’s more shocking is that all of us are only talking about the issues in seeking therapy. It’s high time we started acknowledging those that arise on the other side of the table.
Q. Having spent a sizeable amount of time in venture capital and consulting, could you please share with us a few ways in which professionals of this field cope with this high-pressure job?
There are two perspectives to this. One is that of the employee (the one suffering at the hands of poor work-life balance), and the other is that of the employer (who probably is going through the same, but also has more power to change things).
These are some things an employee can do to ensure productivity while balancing work and life properly:
Have a routine. Like Rancho says in ‘3 Idiots’, your mind will believe anything you tell it. So start following a routine. Once your body does it, your mind will follow. This might not look like the best of ideas now, but once you get into the rhythm, things will definitely start falling into place.
Take those breaks. Yeah, but wouldn’t it be better to just get the work done and then chill later? No, it won’t. The more work you do, the more you will be tempted to do. So it’s important to give yourself those short breaks and come back with a jolt of productivity.
Have a dedicated workspace. Be it a room, a table or even a corner of your house- dedicate that place to work. This is what separates your life from your work.
Be kind to yourself. Feeling stressed? Frustrated? It’s all right. These emotions are a part of you and the only way to deal with them is to acknowledge them.
Make a routine. Follow it. There are two steps to this one. Don’t just stop at first. When you decide that you want to do something, your motivation will surface on its own. But it’s your responsibility to keep that motivation and get things done!
Talking of employers, there is a high chance that they also find themselves in tough spots just like the rest of us. Situations where they are unsure of the future and are frustrated because of it. The right step towards coping with this can be a conversation. It changes things entirely.
Imagine this, a good conversation between you and your employer/employee, where you tell each other about the problems you face and what each of you can do to make life easier for the others. It would do wonders.
Q,What impact do you think the pandemic has had on the mental health of corporate workers who now must work from home?
Oh, where do I even begin!
There is seclusion, stress, depression, financial constraints, body image issues, suicides, domestic violence, poverty, self-hatred and a hundred other things that people are silently suffering from. There are:
People who have lost their jobs
People who have their job but hate it and can’t switch, because, pandemic.
People who live alone and have no one to speak to all day.
People who are struggling with their work-life balance.
People who escaped their toxic homes to go to the office are now stuck in the place they so badly want to escape from.
People who are forced to return to their hometown, a place they hate and struggled to get out of.
People who do not have enough space at home to work in peace, or work at all.
Many other people with many other concerns.
There is an entire gamut of issues that people worldwide are experiencing. And uttering one of the most common phrases known to mankind in 2020, “In these unprecedented times”, we need to be there for ourselves.
Q. How do you currently plan to apply your research findings in the area of mental healthcare? What is your vision regarding future possibilities?
After finding what I found, I was convinced that there were real problems to be solved. And I could either just keep talking about it, or actually do something. So I joined hands with a former colleague (who also happens to be a very good friend) with her own experiences in the mental health space and has a similar vision- and chose to do the latter.
Together, we have started Untangle.Space: a social initiative that builds awareness about mental health and illness connects help seekers with the right help givers and makes quality assured therapy affordable. Our aim is to make mental health mainstream, by increasing access to it.
In the long term, we do not want to be just another platform making money out of mental health. We want to be a social organization who works for the areas that everyone wishes are worked upon. Realizing that stigma cannot be eliminated overnight and would be a revolution of its kind, we also want to focus on self-help. So that by the time people make peace with the concept of professional therapy, they can take measures to take care of themselves to a large extent.
We are also thinking of where we could intervene to improve the problems on the therapists’ side of things as discussed above. Additionally, we have begun exploring conducting awareness camps in schools, making young children understand mental health, so they can make better decisions in life; improve therapist training, so everyone who wants to help people can do it without any barriers. If mental health has to become mainstream, it needs to be prioritized very early-on in life!
When we hear people telling us that therapy is magic, we hope, with all our hearts that it is available to all those who seek it.
We are grateful to Harjas for having shared some key insights into his meaningful work. If you or anyone you know is suffering from impaired mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are people who understand you, and are willing to extend genuine help.
By - Abhishek and Yastika
Graphic by - Yastika Shetty