As per Abraham Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs, mankind’s dilemma beyond basic needs of physiological safety opens up to a plethora of psychological needs. That is to say, surmounting material deficits and securing financial comforts open up spaces for psychological navigation and existential dilemmas. It can be argued that mental health problems are reported more widely in the more affluent strata of the world. After all, it isn’t unusual for CEOs of multimillion-dollar industries to suffer from insomnia. Or for a skyrocketing celebrity to be silently spiralling into depression? Or for privileged youngsters like you and me to have it all on the surface, while still grappling with anxiety and a sense of emptiness every once in a while. A common theme across each one of these simplistic examples is their joint accomplishment of basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid. Often touted as ‘first world problems” by the less fortunate bottom half of the pyramid, this seemingly biassed human predicament is anything but selective. Rather, the universal sufferings generated by mental disquiet and torment grapple with our civilization with the gravity of a silent plague. 

Saumya Singh.

Similar to the massive gaps in mainstream healthcare across the spectrum of privilege and affluence, mental healthcare is an even more remote denominator. What does one say to popular rural practises of dealing with mild to extreme mental disturbances with clairvoyance and voodoo fixes? The relative absence of free accessibility to organised therapeutic recourse in most rural sectors further adds to the already complex problem. For the financially well-off, informed recourse is undoubtedly more accessible than it is for the rest. And yet, the disparate ways in which mental healthcare is perceived remains a ubiquitous fault line worldwide. 

This rampant cross-cultural stigma vis-a-vis mental health often renders most of us hapless victims. But every once in a while, an outlier emerges out of their tribulations and takes on the systemic change that they’d wish to see in the world around them. Rajputana Collective proudly introduces Saumya Singh, an enterprising young psychologist who jointly endeavours to bridge the mental healthcare gap in privileged as well as less privileged strata of Indian societies.  

Her recently-launched venture into independent counselling is known as The Talking Cure, wherein Saumya conducts hour-long sessions with working individuals between the ages of 20 and 60. During these counselling sessions, Saumya helps her clients navigate through a variety of concerns such as grief, anxiety, depression, work-related stress, and relationship issues. She introduces the multiple theories upon which her counselling approach is based. My approach to therapy is perhaps most deeply influenced by Carl Roger’s humanistic or person-centered framework, which emphasises the quality of the relationship between the therapist and client. In line with the Humanistic school, I strive to provide a space for my clients that is characterised by genuineness, empathy, positive regard, and equality. I believe that when working with clients, it is necessary to recognise their agency, dignity, and inherent capacity to grow. 

I am also drawn to the post-modern therapeutic approaches, such as Narrative Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy, as they view people as social beings, identify how many problems stem from dominant but oppressive social structures and discourses, and acknowledge individual and community strengths and resources. “Relatedly, I have also extensively used Interpersonal Therapy in my work, which is a model of therapy that focuses on how fractured social relationships and support networks cause or exacerbate mental health problems,” Saumya says. 

A postgraduate in Counselling Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Saumya is preparing for her doctorate in counselling in the United Kingdom starting this September. For the time in between the two, she had started The Talking Cure to keep in touch with mental healthcare practise in the Indian context. 

Saumya’s decision to opt for a career in mental healthcare stems from chance and choice in equal parts. In her own words, “I have personally struggled with emotional difficulties in my adolescence and was unable to seek the help I needed.” The culture of silence around mental health prevented me from recognising and expressing what I was going through at the time. This certainly contributed to my decision to enter the field, as I knew from first-hand experiences that mental health was an aspect of health and well-being that was insufficiently discussed and severely underserved. At the same time, I would not say that a career in mental health was always the plan, or that it came as a calling to me. I think I grew more comfortable in this role gradually, and only after I gained hands-on experience of the work during my master’s training in counselling psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.”

Beyond her independent counselling venture, Saumya’s journey as a mental healthcare professional extends to the relatively underprivileged sections of society as well. Speaking of which, she introduces us to another venture she led alongside some of her peers, known as The Coping Corner. Born in times of the pandemic, this is a voluntary organisation that provides mental health counselling services to the underprivileged at no cost. Last year, during the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were successful in bringing together 8 volunteer therapists and 6 supervisors who conducted over 150 pro bono sessions. Motivated by the positive feedback we received in 2021, we are preparing to run the project this year as well. I am quite proud of the work we have done through the Coping Corner, particularly because this initiative allows me to translate my passion for accessible and culturally competent mental healthcare into action. Moreover, it is a small step towards decolonizing mental health practise by creating spaces that are accessible, collaborative, and cognizant of social realities, “she elaborates. 

Returning to the opening paragraph of this feature, Saumya makes a very interesting point that largely challenges and expands the scope of the argument. She states, “Research evidence overwhelmingly suggests that poverty, stigma, and social marginalisation are all serious risk factors for mental health issues – indicating that, contrary to popular beliefs as well as Maslow’s theory, mental health issues are not first world problems/issues that only come to the surface once material and physiological needs are met. Mental health problems are consistently found to disproportionately impact the less affluent in society”. 

Thus, Saumya’s two-pronged approach to broadening counselling access across India’s diverse population is indeed a trailblazer in its own right. Her story is also indicative of a wider contingent of educated youngsters broadening the scope of mental healthcare in India. Despite securing her pedagogical seat in distant lands, Saumya deliberately chooses to serve her remaining time in India as a counsellor to those in need. And for this reason amongst others, she is an inspiration to many other young aspirants across disciplines. Rajputana’s freshest advocate of accessible, culturally competent healthcare poignantly concludes, “Over time, I also became cognizant of some of the reasons for the mental health treatment gap in India, including significant social stigma, inadequate or inaccessible services, and low levels of public investment. I strongly believe that these challenges are reflective of the traditionally individualistic lens of psychology that has often neglected to take into account structural, social, and cultural factors in understanding and treating mental health issues, and has thus alienated many people in the developing world. Such learnings now motivate me to continue in this line of work and to do my bit to address the limitations I see within the field.