Beyond Traditional Roles of Therapy: Social Justice Advocacy in Mental Health


The present political and social landscape of the country and world is dismal. It only heightens the struggle to achieve a more inclusive society for all. The social movements for justice and equality that we see today are questioning centuries old customs and social structures.

Several of these movements have been successful in bringing about the change that they aimed for as well. The LGBTQAI+ rights movement has been successful in decriminalising homosexuality in India when the Supreme Court on September 6th 2018 overturned the 2013 judgment that upheld a colonial-era law — Section 377 of The Indian Penal Code, 1860. In another ruling in September 2018, the supreme court lifted the Sabarimala temple’s ban on the entry of women of menstruating age, holding that equality is supreme irrespective of age and gender. The age old ban prevented women of menstruating age to enter the temple since it was believed they were unable to maintain ‘purity’ owing to menstruation. Chief Justice Dipak Misra said that banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and that the practice violates rights of Hindu women.

While the verdict has set a revolutionary pace in the fight against gender discrimination, it has not been able to address the mindsets of those who hold beliefs against the ban. A similar trouble lies with the ruling of the decriminalisation of homosexuality as well. Homosexuality is looked down upon by several people who invariably discriminate or have a prejudice against the LGBTQIA+ commmunity. Protests are being held outside the Sabarimala temple to block the entry of women inside the temple. As seen in the #MeToo movement, those who have suffered any form of abuse are still questioned about their need to speak up or are told that these events are a part of life or a normal occurrence.

While the legal system of our country is setting milestones, it is the mindsets and beliefs of the people that need to be addressed to bring about a smooth and efficient application of these rulings. What role can mental health professionals play in this?

Bias, prejudice and discrimination are the manifestations of our beliefs and mindsets that are set over years of exposure to the same thoughts and when opinions or facts that oppose these mindsets are expressed by other members in the society, we defend our views. As mental health professionals, we study and understand how we function in a society and how society affects our functioning. There are several studies on the relationship between social injustice and the effects it can have on the mental health of those belonging to the group. As mental health professionals, what we do, say or stand for even outside the bounds of therapy has an impact on the mental health of the clients.

In 2008, the President of The American Counselling Association, Brian Canfield said that as counselors, “we engage in the work we do so that we might better meet the needs of our clients and create a healthier society.” The therapy setting provides a non-judgmental space for people irrespective of their social identifications. The purpose of counselling is to help the client deal with their problems in their personal and social lives. When these problems are largely social, for example, the fear of judgement one faces for coming out as belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community being the primary cause of their distress, the therapy can no longer be limited between the client and the therapist. The need extends to educating the family about the psychological and social aspects as well.

While being a therapist, one may provide an unbiased view of events and a non-judgmental space, which would not imply harbouring actions and ideas of social injustice. When someone convicted of a criminal activity is sent for therapy, their actions are called out and at the same time, they are corrected as well. Thus as mental health professionals who have studied how a behaviour can be corrected, we have the capacity to correct the society’s discriminatory behaviour.

Going beyond the scope of traditional therapy, the role of mental health professionals would also include social justice advocacy where even seemingly small but efficiently administered interventions can be a step towards a healthier society.

  • A small step such as speaking out about issues of social injustice would not only encourage discussions but also indicate to clients that their safe space is determined to make society better for them. This could encourage them in their sessions and encourage more people to seek help for their distress as well.
  • Conducting and participating interventions and awareness programmes about various social issues: the awareness programmes encourage people to talk about their distress which helps them seek help and helps us as mental health professionals to gain a better understanding of their issues as well.
  • Providing equal and affordable access to all members of the society: affordability is a major concern for several people. In the light of the #MeToo movement, several mental health professionals and organisations provided free or affordable counselling to anyone who had experienced abuse.
  • Lastly, participating in movements that support issues and providing palpable solutions for these issues can aid in bringing about the next step towards a more inclusive society and not just limit it to judicial aspects but truly and socially.

Vini Doshi is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.

Featured image: NeuroNews24

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