A Session With the Student Counsellor
Thousands of students come to Manipal every year, from every part of the country and from countries in other parts of the world, making the university town a cocktail of cultures, languages,and personalities. The effects of this heady brew has intensified over the years. Many are enriched by this experience and leave Manipal as improved and changed versions of themselves. But there are a few who fail to cope with their metamorphosing lives. It is to cater to the needs of such individuals that the office of the Student Counsellor came into existence at MIT. Nearly twenty years have passed since the first student counsellor occupied the office at the ground floor in AB1. Currently, there are four counsellors who visit the institution on different days of the week and are available for a session on every day of the week excluding Sunday.
One such mental health professional is Professor Shalini Sharma who agreed to dedicate some of her time for an interview with us. Professor Sharma has worked as a student counsellor in Manipal for a period of sixteen years and is also associated with the Nitte Group of Institutions where she presently works. Professor Sharma’s lengthy association with Manipal University made for an eye-opening account of life in Manipal.
The number of people who could use a professional psychologist’s help is bewildering. According to Professor Sharma, at least a quarter of the students of MIT could potentially benefit from a chat with one of the counsellors. ”Depression, anxiety disorder, interpersonal issues, and obsessive compulsive disorder are pretty common”, she explains. She also points out that within this demographic itself there were a few people with severe psychological disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or delusion, and that they urgently require medical attention. Elaborating on the kinds of cases the counsellors generally deal with in MIT, she explains, “Students have all kinds of problems”. Ranging from inability to concentrate in class and problems with authority figures to recurring suicidal thoughts. She also went on to explain how a variety of factors affects a student’s life and can go on to manifest itself as a psychological disorder.
At what point should one consider seeing a counsellor?
If you have a problem that is bothering you, which is making you lose sleep, feel irritable or skip meals, a problem that has persisted for more than two or three days, and you don’t know what to do about it, that would be the time.
” Anybody who has something chewing at their brain, making them feel uncomfortable, disturbing their routine,and disturbing that feeling of comfort with themselves. I think they should come in for a chat. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a problem.”
“Everyone loves to dispense free advice. Be it about medical ailments or heartaches, this is something most of us can relate to. But this is in no way a substitute for professional counselling”, warns Professor Sharma. She then recalls a shocking incident from her career in Manipal where a mentally depressed student of MCA had committed suicide. In the months leading up to this incident he regularly met a senior faculty member in his college who would counsel him in an attempt to treat him. The treatment, clearly, was in vain since the faculty member in question had no knowledge of human psychology. Professor Sharma believes that the boy could have been saved had he been referred to a professional. She stresses that although it is good that people read up on the internet before approaching a counsellor, it is never alright to use this as an excuse in order to avoid meeting one. She says, “Making self-diagnosis is okay, but you are not trained to deal with your issues yourself. So I think a consultation would not harm you at all.” Elaborating on this point, she further explains how psychologists have to assess and consider the entire life history of the patient while treating them, something that is not achievable by reading an article online. “I’ve gone through eight years of training to be able to do this” she points out. To make things easier for people who seek her help, she also offers to reach out to them through Whatsapp.
Unlike physical illnesses, psychiatric problems are not always easy to detect. It alters the behaviour of a person and may result in gross misunderstandings. Professor Sharma talks about a case where a student had a scuffle with a teacher who found him to be very arrogant. “Now this was an illness, just because he didn’t show physical symptoms of being ill doesn’t mean he wasn’t ill”, she explains. In a step towards sensitizing the faculty towards psychiatric problems, the process of training faculty members to identify these problems was initiated five years ago. Short four-day workshops are regularly conducted and fifty faculty members from various colleges have been trained so far.
The one issue that frightens most people away from counsellors is confidentiality. The thought of a stranger spilling the beans about your deepest darkest secrets is a nightmare. Professor Sharma explains that she is not obliged to share any information of any kind with any authority, at any level. She minces no words when she says,” To come and meet me, to come and talk to me, I needn’t tell anybody. It’s absolutely confidential”
“Parents will be brought into the loop only under very specific circumstances such as when a student shows high suicidal tendency or requires medication to augment the psychotherapy” she explains. Not just the nature of a case but the case itself is kept confidential. She recalls another incident that took place in WGSHA to make this point clear. In an attempt to identify the students visiting the counsellor, the administrator of WGSHA had installed cameras outside the counsellor’s office. This was done after being refused access to information on the identities of students by Professor Sharma. To accommodate the large number of students who were shying away from the counsellor’s office, she was forced to meet students beyond her office hours. ”We are very particular about confidentiality”, she concludes.
Professor Sharma delves into her records to give us an idea of the variety of cases she has come across.
”Depression is very common in colleges”, she mentions. She explains how it is only mild depression that can be dealt with by non-professionals, reiterating the importance of seeking professional help. She cites the case of a boy who was depressed to the extent of collecting sleeping pills from different medical shops in order to poison himself with them. She had found him shuffling listlessly outside her office. On being ushered in and spoken to, he reluctantly divulged his story. He had been bribed by a local politician to indulge in an act of hooliganism for which he had been reprimanded and held in the custody of the police. This incident took such a toll on his mind that it was driving him to commit suicide. “I asked him to take my phone and call up his father, he was suicidal and that forced me to lift the clause of confidentiality.The father was included in the treatment process that ultimately helped save that boy’s life”, Professor Sharma says with a smile.
Self-confidence and body image are also issues that the counsellors regularly deal with. Professor Sharma recounts the case of a boy who was referred to her by the English Department. “He was from a very poor family and couldn’t speak a word of English, but he was gritty and determined to do his engineering”, she described. The college had offered him an opportunity to withdraw from the course and expected him to do so until Professor Sharma stepped in and requested the Director at that time (Dr. Pabla) for a month’s time. During this time she worked closely with the boy’s roommate and other friends so that they could work towards improving his language skills and self-confidence. A month passed and the boy was allowed to continue the course. He continued to see the counsellor, allowing her to work on his self-confidence. ”Ultimately the boy successfully completed his course and got placed during campus placements”, says Professor Sharma, with a satisfied tenor.
Students also come to meet the counsellor, questioning their sexual identities. On the other end of the spectrum there are students who have gone ahead and been very careless in acquiring sexual exposure. “I always tell them to be safe and use condoms since contracting HIV can be very dangerous”, says Professor Sharma.
Another common issue that seems to bother students seems to be a lack of interest in the course or even frustration with regard to academics. Professor Sharma narrates the case of one girl who had come to her, completely frustrated with all her subjects despite being a very bright student. She saw no point in studying any of the subjects she had. Luckily for her, her problems seemed to vanish within the second session of counselling.
People also come to the counsellor asking for advice on how to improve themselves. One such case Professor Sharma dealt with was that of a boy who was unable to sleep for more than four hours a night. He was in search of a method to use his time more productively. So, an arrangement was made to allow him to work with the teachers as a teaching assistant.
“Not everyone comes here with a problem; sometimes people come here looking for ways to improve themselves too. Give yourself a chance; you have nothing to lose by talking to a stranger about your issues. Whatever has been bottled up will come out and you’ll feel so much lighter.”
The helping hand of counselling services is useless if people continue to view the counsellor’s office as a space reserved to treat the abominable. This stigma against seeking professional psychological help hurts a significant number of people, stopping them from receiving the help they need. This stigma is greater in the older generations, believes Professor Sharma. She recalls a gathering of students she had once addressed. “The number of students who came up to me afterwards seeking appointments came as a surprise”, she exclaims. “I think I have more problems with parents than with students, honestly. Students are okay. Once you explain to them, they’re willing to come”, she continues.
Professor Sharma narrates the story of a boy who had been referred to her by a teacher. The boy had displayed psychotic behavior and had developed paranoia. Since he was at a stage where medical help was required, Professor Sharma had to contact the boy’s father. The father however, having met the counsellor, went on to forbid the boy from speaking to anybody about his problem, fearing ridicule, and thus denying his son the treatment he required. Professor Sharma goes on to explain that it’s usually the first session that decides whether or not one needs to continue meeting a counsellor. She says that it is very often that the symptoms disappear after just one session.