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Indians on the couch

entertainment Updated: Sep 25, 2010 22:45 IST
Dhamini Ratnam

Ayear and a half into her marriage, Gitanjali, 28, realised something was wrong. Her husband, Mahesh, 30, spent all his time after work watching television with his mother. Moreover, the couple, both Mumbai-based software professionals, were having sex only once in three months.

When Gitanjali broached the topic with Mahesh, he told her to talk to his mother! “She’ll tell you how hard I’m working and how tired I get,” he said.

Gitanjali spoke with her mother-in-law, but added that she wanted to visit a psychotherapist with Mahesh to sort the problem out.

That night, Mahesh’s mother had an unexpected message for her son: Go for therapy with your wife.

Mahesh and Gitanjali’s story typifies a changing mindset in urban India, where young professionals have no qualms about seeking expert help for personal and emotional issues.

Mental health professionals in India’s metropolises confirm this trend. Sailaja Manacha, a Bangalore-based therapist, said the number of married couples approaching her has tripled in the past five years. Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, sees 15 clients a day while a decade ago, she would see two. N. Shalini, a Chennai-based psychotherapist, daily sees twice the number of clients that she did five years ago. “Far more people come to than I can take on,” said Manacha.

Young professionals in nuclear families miss an extended family’s implicit support, while those who do live in joint families find the previous generation can’t identify with their problems and aren’t equipped to help them.

“Even though my mother-in-law supported me, only a therapist could have helped,” said Gitanjali. “I couldn’t fully express the anger and hurt I felt towards Mahesh in front of her. And he couldn’t do so towards me. She would have thought we were heading for a divorce.”

Once in therapy, however, the couple became aware of their underlying resentments towards each other. After several discussions, the couple returned to their lives more confident about their relationship.

“Families are too involved to provide an objective, non-judgmental solution,” said Manacha. “But people can speak their mind on a therapist’s couch without worrying about being labelled or judged.”

Even a decade ago, Gitanjali’s pro-active stance of seeking outside help for a sexual problem would have been rare. But with increased exposure to the Internet, to the West, where therapy is socially accepted, and to pop psychology, young, urban Indians have undergone what Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy, a Jungian psychotherapist who practised for nearly three decades in Delhi before moving to Mumbai in 2008, calls “a shift in collective conditioning.”

Love, work and more

It’s not surprising that relationships and professional problems top the list of issues young people are bringing to the couch. “Love and work,” said Sigmund Freud, “are the cornerstones of humanness.”

But even people without any apparent “problems” are now undergoing therapy -- in order to feel better or as a pre-emptive measure, said Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist. “Some clients ask me to help them improve their performance at work or make them more immune to criticism.”

R. Sathianthan, a Chennai-based psychiatrist, agreed. “An increasing number of young people are approaching mental health professionals to learn how to stay ahead of the competition.”

Sometimes, people are just looking for confirmation that they are normal.

For example, Pritika, 41, a Delhi-based mother, was convinced for a long time that her adolescent daughter disliked her. “My father was an alcoholic and I feared I could never form trusting relationships,” she said.

After two therapy sessions, Pritika realised she that had a perfectly functional life, that her daughter was only being an adolescent. “My therapist pointed out the discrepancies between the reality and the story I was creating around it.”

While it’s no longer taboo to be in therapy, it hasn’t quite become the lifestyle statement that, say, seeking the advice of a stock broker was soon after liberalisation and before the advent of Internet trading.

Nilay, 36, for instance, began visiting a psychotherapist four years ago in Mumbai after a family feud had him single-mindedly seeking revenge at the cost of his family, professional and social life. He had no friends and no job. But Nilay slowly bounced back and reconnected with old friends. Yet he told no one he was in therapy.

Some are more open. Kali, 21, started seeing a therapist when a seven-year relationship ended and she became a recluse. She did not want her real name to be used only because her parents did not want her to reveal it. As her therapy progressed, she began meeting her friends again. “I told all of them I was in therapy,” she said. “I had a problem and was seeking a solution for it. What’s so shameful about that?”

(All clients’ names have been changed.)

With inputs from K. V. Lakshmana, Chennai