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    AvatarKasturi Chetia

    A Reflection on Mental Health (9A)

    Kasturi Chetia

    From time to time, I’d often find myself recalling my work with a particular fourteen-year-old boy from four years ago. He was diagnosed with ‘Persistent complex bereavement disorder’. He had lost his father to suicide after watching him struggle with depression almost all of his fourteen years. So, when he came in for therapy, we worked together for several months using the ‘blueprint of dominant grief work’. This involved processing what he had been through by repeated re-telling of the event, coming to terms with trauma and ‘letting go’ by using the ‘five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance’.

    I wondered what might it take for a fourteen-year-old to comprehend the complexities of depression and suicide? I recollect wanting to protect him and lessen all the impacts of the hurt he had been through- almost taking the stance of an ‘expert’ who must have the answers to his miseries. Not a very pleasant pressure to carry around, I must admit!

    My narrative of him was only about pain, grief, trauma and his helplessness. There was a socially constructed narrative of him being at a ‘disadvantage’ and being ‘anchorless’ after such a loss. I did not ask or check with him whether he may have used his own set of skills and knowledge to minimise the effects of the recent events. I had already taken away his sense of personal agency by following the social assumption that children need to be protected and taken care of by an adult.

    I’m questioning, pondering, unlearning and trying to be less judgemental of myself. Because I’m also becoming aware of how I may have been a recipient of the system for recycling social constructionism and unnoticed dominant discourses in my life. With narrative ideas taking a front seat in my work lately, I have realised that we are all individually and collectively vulnerable at different points of our lives…vulnerability cannot simply exist without the presence of resilience. So, I’m curious to know where does the myth of viewing children as ‘fragile’ and ‘helpless’ may have come from? Why do we think they are not capable of taking care of themselves, others and showing skills & knowledge during the most difficult times? Why do we believe that children are really just ‘passive recipients’ to events that surround them? Are children more resilient than we give them credit for? Or is this another discourse that has been reprocessed from one generation to the next?

    I wondered what kind of impact my therapeutic work could have left on this boy. I felt it was important for me to take accountability for the same. Unable to hold on to this unpleasant anxiety that would visit me often, I recently reached out to him and his mother to see how he is doing. I was told that after we closed work- he maintained well, took care of his mother who was diagnosed with Depression a couple of months later, and over the years he has built a reliable set of friends in school, that he has entered college recently and is thriving in his academic life. I will acknowledge that there was a huge sigh of relief that I experienced with this information. There was a deep sense of admiration and curiosity about how he was able to heal and hold onto his choices, hopes and dreams for himself and his mother. I certainly know that I missed out on discovering his narratives of resilience and vigor while the focus continued to remain on just stories of the ‘problem’. However, If I were to meet him today, I’d definitely do things differently.

    I have recently become acquainted with the importance I hold towards awareness. Accompanying this awareness would usually lead to making similar or different choices in my personal and professional life. I value being accountable towards those I’m engaging with in therapy, and this also accounts for countering dominant discourses at play. My own new found values as a therapist along with questioning and discovering ways of working that is free from pre-conceived practice of therapy, has made space for a shift in my therapeutic approach with children lately. I do take a lot of pride in it!

    While unravelling narratives of different children I am working with or have worked with in the recent past, I observed that children really know how to make use of the therapeutic space if it’s provided with safety and trust. When they unfold experiences of mental health struggles of their parents, caregivers, siblings and/or themselves, they own the responsibility of weaving different stories and narratives of their journey. These stories are often highly complex and nuanced and I’m in awe to witness how we miss out on observing the existence of their immense capacity to cope, heal and grow.

    My commitment to working differently with children enables co-creating a space that helps separate the problem from the individual with the intention to help them feel less isolated, gain some clarity to see the problem and its effects. It’s important that we simultaneously also trace their responses, skills, knowledge, values and acts of resistance while moving closer towards their choices, hopes and dreams. This usually leads to creation and collection of richer accounts of their lives, focusing on identities over the problem, becoming aware of their local knowledge and generating a position as an advocate and an equal shareholder of their own lives.

    There also lies so much value in building connections and uncovering the contribution of the child’s family members and other significant figures in their lives. I can only imagine the power that exists in being heard, understood and to discover how every member may contribute to make a difference in each other’s lives.
    I have come to an understanding that therapy work doesn’t have to be limited to an hour within the four walls. It can take place through documenting the therapy sessions in a collaborative manner and writing letters to them after sessions. This process can together preserve their alternate stories in the form of written or typed words. It’s making me re-think how creative and powerful words can be in a therapy session and even more so afterwards.

    If these skills, knowledge and responses can be captured through writing or documentation, then take a moment to imagine this small step leading to a bigger impact! A well-documented piece by a child can in turn assist other children with similar experiences in understanding their own agency and coping techniques. Helping those who face loneliness and feel unheard, to experience a sense of solidarity, personal agency and sense of being understood as well as supported. And it is with this unending hope that I continue to works towards this practice – a small step such as writing, sharing and exchanging stories which can create a ripple effect in many lives.

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