Mental Health in Academia – A session with Dr Sudipto Chatterjee

11 May 2018, National Centre for Biological Sciences

Resource person: Dr Sudipto Chatterjee is an adjunct faculty at National Institute of Advanced Studies, and works with Parivartan Trust and Sangath.

The session commenced with three anonymous accounts that were read out by the organizers and we were told of the particularly high prevalence of mental illness in academia. Sudipto Chatterjee did mention that mental illnesses are VERY common and not exclusive to academia. He said some 13% of 18-49 year olds need immediate intervention, which translates to nearly 180 million people! Mental health problems are very disabling. There’s a spin of self-despair, a loss of self-esteem and the stigma is often internalized. Mental illnesses are “exquisitely sensitive” to the environment. For example, people living in poverty are 2.5 times more prone to depression.

Sudipto said that talking about mental health is a good starting point but often needs supplementing. The biggest problem to getting better is the solitary affliction and the extreme stigmatising. We should be viewing mental health as a spectrum. He asked us to think of it as a pyramid. At the base of pyramid you’re still functional and it gets worse as you rise up. There are three important categories while diagnosing mental disorders – distress, duration and disability. He mentioned of a ‘step-care’ approach for levels of severity (I’m not sure what this means from my notes).

‘A lot can be done to help’ – not just by the individual but also the environment and people around. The system should strive to make it a healthy and happy environment. It’s always OK to TALK.

Questions to Sudipto at the end of the 20 min talk

Is there a measure of mental well-being, like blood pressure, etc?

Psychological Distress Measurement Tool – General Health Questionnaire

How do we become more sensitive? It’s difficult to gauge how others feel.

There are no one or two indicators. Like all illnesses, you notice changes in the person. Loss of interest is one of the most sensitive indicators of depression.

On a question regarding psychological first-aid, Sudipto said – “Very importantly, we need to realize that not everything can be done at your level. Needs professional help.” It is important to build a whole architecture of support system. There’s a collective responsibility to do something. The most important step is – be sensitive

To quote him, “without systems, an isolated upsurge in sympathy can only last that long.”

Simple DON’Ts:

Don’t be dismissive, but listen

The most effective first-line of treatment is patient hearing. A ‘saviour’ mindset is a DON’T.The person is not looking for advise. DON’T ADVISE.

Don’t be patronizing

It’s always good to have a team of young people who can act as “Gate-keepers”.

How can we help ourselves?

The idea of self-care – “substances are used but they shouldn’t be your preferred coping mechanism! Physical exercise is fantastic. But there are also limits to how much self-help can be done”.

Psychiatric medications are a tool if used properly, they can transform. On a cautionary note, he did add that many are discovered by serendipity and we still do not know how they work. It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss. The relationship with the doctor is very important and helps a great deal in coping.

On workplace discrimination: Mental health problems become grounds for exclusion. Now, the NMH (expand) Act prohibits any discrimination. We should never go down the pathway of psychometric testing as it could lead to more exclusionary practices and discrimination. It’s always better to build an institutional ethos.

Resilience  – there was a problem with the usage of the word resilience and Sudipto said that there is no absolute resilience. We are tuned differently to deal with social situations. The message should not be – If I were to have a problem (mental health) I should not question my competence or resilience.

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