Knowledge and beliefs about seeking professional help vary across regions, cultures, and it is highly influenced by the perception of mental distress/ mental illness and its causes, education, and many more.

Treatment and Help-seeking Behaviour

Choosing a particular service or treatment method to treat mental distress/ mental illness depends on our understanding of mental health, mental illness and how we respond to it. This helps us to understand the myths, misconceptions and awareness regarding mental distress/mental illness. Thus, understanding how we can seek help to treat mental health issues can make us aware of the various sources of help and support available.
People seek help from different sectors like family doctors, general practitioners, traditional healers, local religious leaders, and from there may get referred to a mental health professional or sometimes not. Seeking help can depend on many factors like accessibility, affordability, belief systems, recommendation by a friend or relative, belief that illness has supernatural causation, and so on.

When to seek professional help?

Sometimes challenges in our everyday life can be so stressful and hard that it becomes difficult to move on. When this happens to us, how do we know that our problems require professional help? The major factors to consider when deciding to seek professional help are our level of personal distress, our functioning at home, school, work or social settings and the symptoms we show. It is normal to have times in our life where we feel sad, may be due to stress, tension or stressful events like loss, death, divorce, interpersonal issues, job-related issues, marital conflicts and many more.
However, when this unhappiness takes a toll on us for several weeks, months or years, then we might benefit from talking to a mental health professional. It is important to have a close look into our daily life and social relationships and how well we are functioning. We may feel that the emotional problems we face affect our daily activities, friends, family and work. Short term effects are normal but if it is going on for some time and is severely affecting our daily life and relationships, then it is better to consult a mental health professional.
Friends, family and colleagues may or may not notice changes in our behaviour, so it is important to consider their perspectives as well. Our emotional problems can manifest as changes in physical sensations, behaviours, feelings and thoughts. These are called symptoms by mental health professionals. Some of the symptoms associated with mental illness like depression are changes in our appetite (more or less), changes in sleep (more or less), feeling of worthlessness, feeling hopeless or helpless, and thoughts of death or suicide. Symptoms can vary according to the disorder and its intensity. We may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional to understand the symptoms more and for appropriate therapeutic support.
However, we do not have to wait until the suffering gets worse to get help. Early help-seeking and interventions are the best and will help with good recovery.  If unsure, we could always explore the possibility of getting help, but we must make sure that it is the right kind of help. A mental health professional can help us to address our mental distress, build self-confidence, and to figure out self-help approaches, set goals and feel stronger.

Connect with mental health resources: What we need to know

Nowadays we are all familiar with the terms such as psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers. Even though these names are widely known, many people do not know who they are and what is it that they can do to help us. This lack of knowledge about mental health professionals is a major issue preventing people from seeking appropriate professional help. It is every person’s right to know about the qualifications and skills of the mental health professional they seek help from.
Below are the qualifications required for working as a mental health professional in India:
  • Psychiatrists
Psychiatry is an area of medicine that deals with the causation, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental and behavioural disorders. A psychiatrist has an MBBS degree as a basic qualification and an MD in psychiatry, which is a three-year program. A diploma in psychiatry or DNB in psychiatry can also be pursued to become a psychiatrist. They use medications, talking therapy and other methods for treatment for mental distress/mental illness.
  • Psychologists
Psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour and mental processes. A psychologist studies the emotional processes of individuals by observing, talking and recording their behaviour. A psychologist is one with a Master’s degree in psychology from a UGC recognized institution. They are allowed to do research related to psychology and academic activities as well as work related to the subject, they specialize in during their post-graduate studies. Different categories include clinical psychology, counselling psychology, organizational behaviour, educational psychology, school psychology etc. that they can opt for during post-graduation.
Psychologists focus on an individual’s mental processes and behaviour patterns. So, they have knowledge and expertise in dealing with daily hassles, family issues, emotional issues and so on, as part of their training.
  • Clinical psychologist
Clinical psychology is one of the common psychology specializations and includes the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. According to the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), a clinical psychologist means a person having a professional qualification in clinical psychology recognized by RCI, obtained from an RCI approved institution and granted by a university recognized by University Grants Commission (UGC). They should have registration in the Central Rehabilitation Register (CRR).
Currently approved qualifications are MPhil in Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatric social workers
A psychiatric social worker has a Master’s degree in social work along with MPhil in psychiatric social work from an institution recognized by UGC. Psychiatric social workers work with persons with mental health issues, their family members and the community to provide holistic care to the person. The psychiatric social worker works to rehabilitate the person with mental illness back into society. The services offered by psychiatric social workers are counselling, family and individual therapy, rehabilitation, community psychiatry, and include legal and other psychosocial support.
  • Psychiatric Nurse
As per the Mental Healthcare Act 2017, a psychiatric nurse is one with a diploma or degree in general nursing or diploma or degree in psychiatric nursing, recognized by the Nursing Council of India established under the Nursing Council of India Act 1947 and registered as such with the relevant nursing council in the state.
Below listed options can also be helpful for you:
  1. A general practitioner/ General Physician, who is one with a medical degree recognized by the Medical Council of India, often acts as a primary accessible professional for people. They can refer individuals to more specialized care and give appropriate advice.
  2. A professional having a postgraduate degree (Ayurveda) in Mano Vigyan Avum Manas Roga or a postgraduate degree (Homoeopathy) in Psychiatry or a postgraduate degree (Unani) in Moalijat (Nafasiyatt) or a postgraduate degree (Siddha) in Sirappu Maruthuvam

Traditional methods of treatment

Traditional beliefs can influence ideas around the causes and also the choice of treatment for mental health issues. This has deep roots in culture and religion and thus can vary accordingly. MeHeLP research shows that often a traditional healer is the first choice when it comes to treatment in Kerala, especially in rural areas. Each treatment sector, be it traditional or modern, has its understanding of the causes and treatment of mental disorders.

Major services offered by mental health professionals

Timely access to mental health services can provide better recovery. When intervened in a proper and timely manner mental health services can help to reduce risk and increase chances of recovery. Mental health services include assessment, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. The major services include:
  • Medications
Medications can play a significant role in treating several mental health disorders and conditions. A psychiatrist prescribes medications by considering the individual’s needs and medical situation. Medications should be taken strictly under professional care. These medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, stimulants and mood stabilizers. All medications have side effects and this is the case with psychiatric mediation as well, and that’s why it needs to be prescribed by a mental health professional with medical training.
  • Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy, otherwise called talking therapy, is simply a general term used for treating mental health issues by talking to a mental health professional. Psychotherapy can be provided by several mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical psychologists, psychiatric social workers, licensed counsellors, licensed marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurses and others with specialized training in psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy can help an individual to understand the behaviour, emotions and thoughts behind their issues and resolve them. Therapy can be given in a variety of formats like individual, group, couple/marital and family. It can help treat many types of mental disorders like anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, addictions, personality disorders etc. Therapy can also be helpful to deal with life’s stressors and conflicts that can affect anyone.
However, before seeing a therapist one should check their background, educational qualification and license.
Types of Psychological Therapies 
According to American Psychiatric Association, the different approaches in therapy are:
    1. Psychoanalysis or Psychodynamic therapy: This approach focuses on changing problematic behaviours, feelings, and thoughts by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivations.
    2. Behaviour therapy: This approach focuses on the role of learning in developing both normal and abnormal behaviours.
    3. Cognitive therapy: Cognitive therapy emphasizes what people think rather than what they do. Cognitive therapists believe that it’s dysfunctional thinking that leads to dysfunctional emotions or behaviours. By changing their thoughts, people can change how they feel and what they do.
    4. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT): a form of therapy that integrates theories of cognition and learning with treatment techniques derived from cognitive therapy and behaviour therapy. CBT assumes that cognitive, emotional, and behavioural variables are functionally interrelated. Treatment is aimed at identifying and modifying the client’s maladaptive thought processes and problematic behaviours through cognitive restructuring and behavioural techniques to achieve change. Also called cognitive behaviour modification, cognitive behavioural therapy.
    5. Humanistic Therapy: This approach emphasizes people’s capacity to make rational choices and develop to their maximum potential. Concern and respect for others are also important themes.
    6. Integrative or holistic therapy: Many therapists don’t tie themselves to anyone approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client’s needs.
  • Counselling
Counsellors address the physical, emotional and social concerns anyone faces in different stages of life. This can include concerns like resolving conflicts, learning to manage unhealthy interactions, addressing a serious physical health issue, getting better sleep, conquering exam fear and so on. Counselling is generally a short-term process, unlike psychotherapy.
  • Psychosocial rehabilitation
Psychosocial rehabilitation helps people with chronic mental health issues to function independently, emotionally and socially, with minimum professional help. It aims to develop the emotional, social and intellectual skills of these people which aid them to live, work and improve their quality of life.

Creative arts as a therapeutic intervention

Art has a significant influence on mental health and mental well-being. People have been using art for communication and to express themselves, similarly, using art and creativity in enhancing mental health makes it a therapeutic approach. Thus, exploring art and expressing oneself through art can work as an important healing strategy. There are many types of art therapies like dance therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, expressive therapy, writing therapy and so on. It helps mainly in reducing stress and anxiety. It also helps in building self-esteem, confidence, understanding ourselves better, spending time with ourselves and emotional release. You don’t need to see a therapist for this, but you could use any media to express yourself by writing, painting, dancing, sculpting etc. The only thing is that you feel comfortable doing so.

Recovering from mental illness

Recovery can mean different things to each individual; however, the most important thing is to live a life in the way you want. Mental illness or mental health conditions are widely stigmatized in a society like ours. One widespread belief is that mental illnesses are incurable. It is very much possible to recover from mental illness and in fact, many people do, especially those who receive adequate support and treatment. Sometimes the symptoms may reappear, but with proper treatment and self-help strategies, we can be more confident in managing these symptoms. This is still possible in the case of serious mental health conditions. It is important to remember that recovery is not necessarily going back to what life was like before we had the illness, but finding a new way of life, with improved quality. Our family, friends and employers play a major role in the recovery process. Having a supportive environment, providing safety and protection to the individuals, aids in faster recovery. With time and adequate medical and social support recovery is possible.
Always remember that healing and recovery are not linear. It might take many different pathways for recovery. There are no quick fix solutions for healing and recovery. We have to work at it with family, professional, social and employer support.

Recognising Mental Illnesses

Addressing Mental Health Stigma

What is Mental Health Literacy?