Women's Day 2021: Dr Prerna Kohli, Founder, MindTribe.in, talks about spreading awareness about mental health

Dr Prerna Kohli, National Award-winning Clinical Psychologist, is the founder of MindTribe.in and has been a contributor in the area of mental health for over 27 years. She is a published author, and has been an adviser to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and is a member of the Niti Aayog Nutrition Committee. Dr. Kohli works towards helping people to sustain relationships and making their lives more productive, happier, and abounding with inner peace. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about MindTribe. How did it come into being?

I just followed my passion for serving others, and in return received tremendous recognition and success. In the 27 years that I have been practicing as a Clinical Psychologist, I have helped over 10 thousand cases get back their mental health. During these years I found that there is an unprecedented stigma attached to mental health, while it is like any other illness, which can be treated. Some people suffer from diabetes and others from depression. So why this shame attached to suffering from depression?

The objective of MindTribe is to spread awareness, provide affordable counselling, support groups, communities, workshops, and eLearning for improving mental health. Besides a team of psychologists, I also have a team of IT professionals who are working on a product based on Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence to make mental health more accessible in vernacular languages. Currently, we are bootstrapped, and in talks with some of the leading VCs who are waiting to see our prototype.

You have been doing commendable work with inmates at prisons like Tihar. What was your takeaway of working with them?

My experience with the inmates of Tihar was life-altering. When I was invited to Tihar jail to work pro-bono with the inmates, initially I was apprehensive of entering inside Asia's largest prison. I worked with both, male and female prisoners. My objective was to increase their self-confidence and emotional strength that they wouldn't return to a life of crime once they were released. My research on the inmates was well received and I even had an opportunity to present a paper at a Mental Health Conference in London (UK) on the same topic. What I learned from Tihar was that there are very few psychopaths and sociopaths in Tihar, most are driven by poverty, a lack of education, and employment opportunities.

You would be surprised at the number of practicing psychologists who come to me for counselling. This is a difficult profession, you can spend an entire day in your clinic addressing pain, trauma, tears. The key, I believe, is to be empathetic and not sympathetic towards your patients, also learning how to switch on and switch off.

Tell us about your journey in this field. What led you to take it up?

My journey in Psychology is interesting. I was born in a business family and my parents couldn't imagine me doing anything other than an MBA, Law, or IAS. I bucked the trend and started studying Psychology, because I was very curious to understand why people behave differently from each other, and if we could understand that then this world would be a non-judgemental, happier, loving, and caring place to live in. Before submitting my Ph.D. thesis, I got married. My father-in-law and mother-in-law encouraged and supported me through the completion of my Ph.D. I remain eternally grateful to them. Twenty-seven years ago, being a psychologist was a rarity. I joined as a counsellor in a school in Delhi for a monthly stipend of Rs 500.

You deal with a lot of people with mental health problems. At the end of the day, it must take a toll on you. How do you manage your mental well-being?

You would be surprised at the number of practicing psychologists who come to me for counselling. This is a difficult profession, you can spend an entire day in your clinic addressing pain, trauma, tears. The key, I believe, is to be empathetic and not sympathetic towards your patients, also learning how to switch on and switch off.

The moment I step inside my clinic, I am totally switched on. I give my 100% to each case. My phone is on silent and at a distance to avoid any distractions. Once I am outside the clinic I am like any regular person, a mother, daughter, sister, wife, and friend.

I don't counsel outside the confines of the clinic including counselling for my loved ones. What also helps me is the regular routine of exercise, sleep, reading, writing, travelling and doing community work.

What would you suggest for someone going through a mental health crisis, but doesn't know how to open up?

Talking to a friend or a loved one is better than keeping your trauma and emotions bottled up inside you. It is ideal to talk to a psychologist who is trained to, in a safe and non-intrusive way, allow you to open up and express your innermost emotions. It generally takes a couple of sessions to build a rapport with your psychologist. Trusting the process and being patient is important since it is a participating therapy. Otherwise, it helps to write down your feelings and emotions in a journal. What you are unable to say to someone else, can be written down in a journal. This helps in an emotional catharsis.

Talk about mental health issues and there's still a certain stigma attached to it. What do you think it will take to eradicate that stigma?

Time and awareness will eradicate the stigma around mental health. In the older generation, there was this immense fear that if someone suffers from a mental health problem, they won't get married, find stable employment, or be respected in society. The younger generation (age group of 35 years and below), is readily accepting of friends and partners who suffer from mental health issues.

The dichotomy is seen when the parents of these youngsters want to hide the fact that their child is suffering from mental health issues, while the patient feels no shame nor is shy to talk about their problems. The most heartening cases are when adult children encourage their parents to seek marriage counselling and even encourage their parents who are 65+ years of age to file for divorce so that they can find happiness.

Somewhere, there's a lack of discussion and interest in the subject from the people in power. Do you think our government needs to speak more about it?

I believe that the government is taking small baby steps in the right direction. I believe that we need far more investments in mental health. The number of psychologists, mental health workers is dismally low in India. I also believe that the private sector will step in. Just a couple of decades ago the private sector revolutionised telecom in India, the same opportunity exists in mental health today.

You have also authored books. What's happening on that front?

My first book got published last year (2019). Writing is a love of labor. I spend a couple of hours each day writing. Currently, my second book on Gratitude is with the editors, and I am looking forward to an early publish date. Two other books are about 75% and 25% written. Maybe a trip to the hills will help me to finish these books!

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