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Quarter No. 125: Sitting Down With the Student Support Centre Team

We recently got the opportunity to chat with Dr Gayathri Prabhu, the Coordinator of the Student Support Centre, which is the first of its kind in an Indian University. Joined by the psychologists running the show- Ms Debasmita Phukan, Ms Kangkana Bhuyan, and Mr Shafeer KV, the conversation encompassed topics ranging from the causes of mental illness and the stigma attached to them, to what one can do to help dear ones going through a tough time.

With what vision was SSC founded and what are its objectives?

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- SSC was founded because we wanted to create a space where students would find exclusive psychotherapy and mental health support, away from a hospital, in a comfortable and safe space, which is free, since it is supported by student medicare and is completely confidential. Your records here are separate from the ones at KMC and from your college records. We also wanted to create a welcoming and warm environment in the University, so that people can be much more open about the difficulties they face, and can seek professional help, from people who are trained to do this, rather than someone who is cluelessly patting one’s shoulder and saying ‘there, there’. We’ll be completing one year on April 1st.

When did you decide to join SSC as a psychologist?

Ms Debasmita Phukan- My neighbour in Manipal told me about SSC and that they were looking for psychologists. I decided to give it a shot and I instantly knew I’d love it here– Dr Gayathri was the perfect person to work with. I’d known Kangkana from the time I was doing my Masters in Philosophy and as we needed more people, I contacted her. She accepted my offer readily and we all have been working together ever since.

Mr Shafeer KV- I used to be a student of Kangkana’s. As soon as she started working here, she contacted a bunch of her students and I happened to grab the opportunity.

What is it like to work here?

Mr Shafeer KV-  We love working here. The environment is very calming and most of all, we love the work that we do. Talking to at least one client makes my day go really well.

From left to right- Ms Kangkana Bhuyan, Ms Debasmita Phukan, Dr Gayathri Prabhu, and Mr Shafeer KV

In recent times, there is quite a lot of stigma and taboo attached to mental health issues, which causes people to be doubtful to ask for professional help. What is your opinion on this? 

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- I think that the situation is improving. The fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Depression as the theme for the World Health Day in 2017, which was extensively covered by the media, means that people have started to treat these illnesses as a real issue. I feel like people have started conversing about these issues, and with celebrities coming out to talk about their mental health problems as well. On one hand, there is more conversation, but at the same time, I don’t think it has made any real dent in the situation, vis-a-vis stigma and taboo. Even the people who are perhaps the most open-minded and would speak about these issues in very openly would not want people close to them to know about it if they themselves were going through these issues. There’s a common perception that if you ask for help, you are admitting defeat since you’re not able to cope by yourself. It implies that you are weak. That’s why the tagline of our centre is- ‘It takes strength to ask for help’, and it does, it’s true. I can vouch for it.

You have seen a lot of people, from different backgrounds and walks of life, come in. Is there a certain set of people that are more susceptible to mental illness, or is it a general thing that can happen to anyone? 

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- I’ve been reading this book called the Noon Day Demon, by Andrew Solomon. It’s wonderfully written. He talks about the relationship between anxiety and depression, and about preconceived notions people have about these things. He elaborates upon a lot of theories about where depression may come from, whether it could be genetic or circumstantial, and about the kind of effects it has on people. The truth of the matter is, depression is very complex, and there’s no easy causality. It’s something that people are still studying.

Ms Debasmita Phukan- Diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have a more genetic and biological basis. So, if one has the genetic predisposition for it, they’re more likely to get these illnesses. Sometimes, it’s not about genetics, but the environment that one is brought up in, or the kind of lifestyle they lead. If someone comes from an unhealthy, dysfunctional, or toxic family, or is exposed to a lot of mental and emotional stress very often, it makes them more susceptible to certain conditions.

What kind of cases have you seen the most, and why do you think these problems are eminent in Manipal?

Ms Debasmita Phukan- Unlike most people, who have different social groups – a family at home, friends to hang out with, and co-workers at the workplace – students in Manipal are usually with the same peer group throughout the day. This complicates things and due to that, the problems here are a bit different. Certain interpersonal problems occur here more often than elsewhere.

One of the three welcoming counselling rooms at the centre.

How is approaching the SSC different from seeing a psychologist at KMC?

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- The University has an excellent psychiatry and clinical psychology department, but we’re here because we know that students need another avenue, due to the sheer number of people who feel that they need help. We just want to have all hands on deck. Sometimes, the students are deterred by the brown hospital files, since they don’t want other doctors to see their mental health history, or for other people to know about their problems. Also, if you’re a KMC student, it is difficult to go and get help in your workplace, where you’re supposed to be a professional. Someplace like this, away from hostels, is very approachable and warm. You see, this is a two-bedroom house that has been adjusted to suit our needs. In all good, reputable universities across the globe, there always is an exclusive support centre, just for students. I realise that we here are unique in the country.

Ms Debasmita Phukan- Another big difference is that we cater to this population specifically. Since Manipal is so unique, there are problems which only exist here. After seeing a lot of students, we know how to address those issues specifically. Secondly, as you can observe, the SSC is a very homely place. With an environment as such, no student would feel like a sick person coming to visit a doctor.

Most problems in MIT stem from the fact that students believe they’ve been coerced to do engineering while they don’t think they belong here. Do you think along with SSC, there’s a need for a Career Counseling Unit? Do you plan to start anything along that tangent? 

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- Wherever there’s a large body of young people, services like psychotherapy and career counselling are a must. The university needs as many professionals trained to handle issues like these as they can get. We currently have our hands full, and this is something we’d have to consider seriously before pursuing. Frankly, I feel like career counselling does not need to be attached to a psychotherapy centre. While these issues do sometimes overlap, it needs to be a completely separate venture, with people who are trained specifically to provide guidance to students. Career counselling requires lots of pre-requisites, such as knowledge of the courses that one could pursue, according to interest and qualifications. This is something that only people who specialise in career counselling can provide help with.  If the University does start this venture, I’m sure it would be very successful, since it’s much-needed. It’s common to have a career counselling unit in universities abroad, and that is with due reason. The problem is that students, in India, more so than other countries, are made to choose what they want to specialise in at a very young age when they may or may not have complete awareness about the courses they choose to pursue.

SSC is almost always booked out for straight weeks, and getting an appointment is usually not an immediate thing. People usually call to book their first appointments in times of incredible stress or need. How do you think we can help facilitate getting people like them immediate help?

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- Our work is fairly seasonal, and we aren’t booked out throughout the year, but there are certain times that see more students approaching us for help. We have a system where an appointment must be booked in advance since we cannot take cases immediately, or on the spot. There are quite a few options other than us, that can be explored in case of an emergency. There are counsellors that work with the office of the Director of Student Affairs. The Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Departments of KMC are also approachable, and you can walk right in and get an appointment.

The model of a student psychotherapy centre doesn’t quite facilitate emergency services, but I agree that eventually, we might have to expand and become larger than we are so that no call for help goes unheard. If you check out our website, we do have numbers for emergency contact, such as KMC, and also those of suicide helplines that we personally find reliable. The kind of support that is required for situations that need immediate attention is very different from what we are trained to provide.

All said and done, there are a lot of avenues for anyone who needs help, and as difficult as it is to reach out, it does change things for the better, albeit gradually. Moreover, a student reaching out to us isn’t the only way in which this system works. It’s also about us reaching out to you all so that you each of you can be a one-person support structure as well.

The two-bedroom University faculty quarters, that have been converted into the clinic.

How is the process of diagnosis? What would a new person expect when they walk into SSC?

Ms Debasmita Phukan- The students usually call and then we fix an appointment for them. Once they visit and the registration form is filled out, the psychologist assigned to the student has a conversation with the student to understand what the problem is. In the first session, we try to find out how long it would take for us to fix the individual. Then, we allot further appointments accordingly.

How do you figure out the number of sessions a particular student might need?

Ms Debasmita Phukan- At first, we try to understand the type of the problem. For example, if we deduce that it is a personality related issue, we predict that it would take a couple of months or maybe, years. Depression might have the duration of six months or less. Each type has a fixed stretch and by that, we predict the number of sessions required. But then, each individual is different and variations do arise from time to time.

These days, people trivialise mental illness quite often. They casually throw comments about illnesses such as bipolar disorder or depression at people who seem to be having a hard time. Do you think this is true? What is your opinion on this?

Ms Kangkana Bhuyan- When people use these expressions, it means that deep down they are normalising and integrating these ideas into their everyday lives. But then again, it is indeed painful to see that mental illnesses are getting normalised too much; to the extent of mockery. I believe that spreading awareness of what these illnesses are and their effects is the need of the hour.

Do you think mental awareness should be included in school curriculums like environmental and sex education are?

Ms Kangkana Bhuyan- I have never thought of that but since you’ve pointed it out, that sounds like a really great idea. Everyone should learn about mental illnesses and the various self-help techniques to tackle them. It can be really beneficial if people get to know about the various illnesses early on so that a few prominent and menacing myths can finally be busted.

Ms Debasmita Phukan- We do have a lot of programs coming up at present day by various organisations. With various outreach programs targeting schools and colleges all over the world, more and more people are getting to know about mental illnesses.

What other initiatives does SSC take, other than those straight-up related to mental health? 

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- We have been approached by different institutes from time to time. Our various outreach programs help us to spread mental awareness and to approach those who need our help. We started off with a rock concert on the 1st of April, 2016, in which F16 from Chennai had come. We’ve also conducted art exhibitions, book readings, a photography exhibition, and leading to our first birthday, we are having more programs so that our reach increases manyfold.

Is there a message you’d like to put across to the students who may have stumbled upon this article looking for help?

Dr Gayathri Prabhu- The hardest thing is to believe that help is actually out there because, at times, things feel so hopeless. One could find themselves constantly questioning whether or not they’d ever get out of the dark, bad mental place they’re in. The most important thing is to believe in yourself and the people around you. Help comes from a lot of places, we here are only one avenue. However, even if we are one of many, we are an important answer. You have to hang in there, reach out, and just keep swimming.

Contact the Student Support Centre via their website, or call between 9 am and 8 pm– 0820-2922430
For a medical emergency, please call – 0820 2923154/ 22246
For Ambulance services, call – 0820 2922761

Need help? 
AASRA (Suicide Prevention Helpline) 022 2754 6669
Spandana, 24-hour Helpline – 65000111, 65000222
For more sources of help in Manipal, as well as all over India, check out SSC’s list of helplines.