Understanding mental illness: When Psychology fails to politicise, socialise its understanding of trauma

Editor's note: What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering).

A few weeks ago, #MeToo stories from the world of Indian journalism and media were exploding on Twitter. Victims spoke about incidents after years of silence, corroborators came out, the accused went off Twitter or denied allegations or attempted apologies and took to psychotherapy to better themselves. Prurient Twitter bystanders (mostly men) irresponsibly encouraged women who weren’t ready to name their harassers to “name and shame”, oblivious of the psychological consequences for an already traumatised person who names her perpetrator and then has to face a barrage of questions, doubts, attacks on her personal life, even defamation suits. These same bystanders, who seemed to be enjoying themselves, gaslit victims by questioning whether certain incidents (like stealthing) could even be counted as sexual assault. They questioned why the victims took time to come forward, little realising the irony of the answer: that such questions and over-scrutiny are part of the reason why a recently traumatised victim does not choose to come forward. Attempts to argue with these people seemed to exhaust and re-traumatise the women who were coming out with their stories.

In short, Twitter reflected the same pattern that repeats itself in real life: victims who come out with sexual assault stories are often re-traumatised by society in the form of the police, the medical community, the psychiatric/psychology community (through stigmatisation of a traumatised patient and refusal to acknowledge the sociopolitical aspect of trauma), the media, the justice system (cue #FeebleNo), personal and professional ostracisation, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, gaslighting, or even simple disbelief without concrete reason. This pattern of re-traumatisation shows itself not only in the context of sexual assault but in all forms of psychosocial oppression: we need to take notice of the way in which “the system” (patriarchy, Brahminism, capitalism, military power), operates to keep this pattern going.

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Illustration by Satwick Gade

In a recent essay, journalist Divya Kandukuri wrote about mental health and caste and the re-traumatisation of oppressed castes who turn to the system for help: “From my own experiences I have realised that mental health of a lower caste person is not considered important; you are often told 'to be thick with your emotions when you are from the community'. People, including therapists, have told me that caste oppression is a brutal fact and you have to make peace with it.” She goes on to “discuss a few things that I have faced problems with, such as the language of mental health, access to medical care, finding therapists who understand structural oppression, and the importance of community healing.” Psychology’s failure to politicise and socialise its understanding of trauma results in re-traumatisation too.

I have come to believe that re-traumatisation is one of the system’s most effective weapons used to preserve the status quo and that the mental health sector, with its flawed language and perspectives, regularly helps the system wield this weapon. Traumatised patients are regarded as “unstable” and lose their credibility. The onus of their personal healing lies on them – the government is mostly interested in punishing the guilty and not so much in the rehabilitation of the victim. Any history of being hospitalised in a psychiatric ward, taking psychiatric medication, attempting suicide, or even going to therapy is easily used to discredit victims.

What would happen in the absence of re-traumatisation? What would happen if victims of all forms of social and psychological oppression were understood and supported? What would happen if speaking out against casteism didn’t immediately result in a volley of anti-reservation rants? If sexual assault victims were not immediately blamed and gaslit? If oppressed voices were truly heard? Would the oppressors begin to lose the special privileges and favour that have been enjoyed so far?

One thing I learned in the early days of my “falling ill” – when a diagnosis of mental illness meant that I was dislocated from the fabric of the society I used to inhabit – is that people will believe and do anything to preserve their worldview, including isolating a traumatised person. The tectonic shift in thinking that must occur when awareness is increased and marginalised voices are heard is to be avoided at all costs, because it just might destroy the status quo, shake things up, and effect actual change.

The reason why women’s perspectives on sexual harassment are so different from men’s is that living through trauma (in this case, equivalent to being a woman) changes your perspective. It results in clearer seeing. It produces painful insights about the way society works that cannot be unlearned or forgotten – and that someone who hasn’t themselves been traumatised will only ever be able to understand intellectually. It uncovers hidden agendas and reveals backlash for what it is. Most of all, it produces the one insight that many of these skeptical Twitter-men are completely blind to: that violence is the rule, not the exception. It is systemic, structural, inbuilt. Someone who understands this is dangerous to the status quo and must be silenced. And re-traumatisation is an effective tool for this.


Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 09:43 AM

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