One Future Inspire | Richa Vashista: Gender, Mental Health and Advocacy

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One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

Team One Future interviewed Richa Vashista, an ardent gender rights activist and a mental health specialist.

What made you take up Psychology?

I was one of those rare humans who decided to become a Psychologist when I was in class 6. I used to tell my bench mates and friends that I wanted to take up Criminal Psychology, but by the time I got done with my graduation, I felt more in sync with Clinical Psychology. While most people around me didn’t know what they wanted to do for the longest time, I would really take interest in psychology and the study of human behaviours. Also, I always preferred Psychology over Psychiatry as I firmly believe in therapy over medication.

We understand that your work is centered around sexuality, gender and mental health. What drew you to focus on this demographic?

In 2014, fresh out of Masters, I got the opportunity to work with The Humsafar Trust (HST), Mumbai, an organization that works for the health and human rights of the LGBTQ community in Mumbai. Surprisingly, my father told me about the vacancy at HST and asked me to apply for it. My only exposure to this demographic before joining the organization was this one school friend who would keep telling me how she wanted to take a girl out on a coffee date and had a romantic interest in her. Sexuality and Gender were new concepts for me then but now are an integral part of my life, personally and professionally.

What are the challenges you face being a mental health professional working with LGBTQ individuals? What are the resources or requirements  you need to work in this field? 

Having studied in India, formal education doesn’t cover issues around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and how to support LGBTQ individuals who have mental health concerns due to their sexuality and/or gender identity. When I started practice, I would use a lot of trial and error methods to understand what works and what doesn’t. More than education, my clients have taught me so much and my experience is evolving even today.

What are the top three qualities you would look for, in a counselor?

Being a counselor myself, I can be a very cynical client. If I have to look for a counselor for myself:

  • I would need them to be sensitive of LGBTQ issues. If a counselor is not LGBTQ friendly, it’s a no no for me.
  • Someone who uses humour in counseling (tricky but very helpful) and
  • Someone who is congruent and/or genuine within the counseling setting. 

Describe a day in your life.

There are days when I have seen too many clients and that has made me heavy in the head or there are days when I am taking awareness workshops on LGBTQ and have dealt with a lot of homophobes. A day in my life includes a lot of food and people. I make sure to eat all meals and have human interaction, whether they are with my colleagues, friends or family.

Richa at the Pride March, Mumbai

What is Strengthening Bridges about?

In 2016 I co-authored a manual for counselors on how to counsel parents of LGBTQ individuals- “Strengthening Bridges”. In the manual, we have spoken about the different terminologies that professionals should know while speaking with someone who identifies as LGBTQ, the stages of coming out, the process that a parent goes through once a child has come out to them and some frequently asked questions that most parents ask. I have since, taken my learning from writing this manual to other practitioners and encouraged them to adopt the best practices we observed through the course of writing and researching for the manual. This manual helps as a wonderful guide while counseling or conducting trainings and workshops with health care providers on how to be LGBTQ sensitive practitioners.

What is the most common question you’d expect from a parent of an LGBTQ person?

Most mothers blame themselves if their child comes out to them as LGBTQ. A very common question has been, “Can you change my child?” or “Why did this happen to them?”. What is very important for most people, who come out to their parents, is to understand that parents will also take time and their journey of your acceptance has just begun. Very recently, I co-facilitated a workshop with a parent support group of LGBTQ individuals called ‘Sweekar’ on basics on sexual orientation and gender identity. While a lot of parents are being more accepting of their LGBTQ child, awareness building around this is the need of the hour.

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

I am a mental health professional who wants to reduce discrimination toward LGBTQ individuals in India, through awareness workshops and counseling. I also want to empower LGBTQ individuals through counseling or trainings by talking about their right to access mental healthcare. There are numerous issues related to care and support related to sexuality, gender and mental health where I have contributed .

Tell us about some people that have impacted your life

  • My immediate family (mother, father and younger sister) for supporting all the work that I want to do even though it is challenging in a country like India.
  • Some key people at The Humsafar Trust – Vivek Anand, Alpana Dange, Shruta Rawat, and Koninika Roy for never giving up on me and my dreams for increasing mental health visibility and believing in my potential when I would lose hope.

What is your advice to the youth?

We are the voice for a better tomorrow. Be your own role model and engage in conversation with anyone and everyone on an issue that is close to your heart. I am the youth of India just like you and I question stereotypes and everything that we have been conditioned to say or do. Take up any kind of an opportunity that comes your way and don’t worry about the hurdles as they are part of the journey.