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‘The role of mental health systems in pathologising homosexuality cannot be discounted’

‘The role of mental health systems in pathologising homosexuality cannot be discounted’

In a widely welcomed judgement, Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court on June 7 issued a set of guidelines to ensure the protection of LGBTQ+ persons from police harassment and barred the barbaric practice of “conversion therapy” that claims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The judgement has been hailed as particularly remarkable for the judge’s frank admission that society and his upbringing have treated the LGBTQ+ community as anathema and for his decision to undergo psycho educational sessions to overcome his prejudices while deciding the case.

Scroll.in spoke to Vidya Diankaran, the clinical psychologist who counselled the judge and the parents of the petitioners, on the significance of the process, the adverse role a section of psychiatrists have played in pathologising homosexuality and why school carricula should change to educate students on understanding the LGBTQ+ community.

What is psychoeducation?

An interventional aspect in a therapeutic journey that focuses on providing evidence based information or resources enabling an individual to and work through the issue at hand. It also aids in coping with the condition so that optimal functioning is not affected.

Your report on the counselling session you held with the judge is entirely extracted in the copy of the High Court order. How significant is an authority figure like a High Court judge admitting to harbour preconceived notions on homosexuality (thereby identifying with views of large sections of our society) and expressing his intent to undergo counselling and then transparently documenting that process of understanding and change?

The greatest significance is destigmatisation of seeking mental health support. To witness a person with such systemic power and privilege normalising therapy provides a sense of validation (that it is human to experience difficulty or confusion) to many who are apprehensive of taking their first step to seek help. And any political or systemic change is long lasting and powerful only when the process starts with oneself.

This also falsifies the notion that age, religion and ignorance are barriers to change. That privilege can be used in the right sense to create actual change that leaves a society a better place for the marginalised population.

The extraction of the entire report also helps in pointing out that open conversations around sex and sexuality are necessary to work through rigid belief systems. These conversations are not deviant or perverted rather thought provoking and enables change in the required direction

Could you take us through your work with the LGBTQI community. How did you start and what sort of cases have you dealt with? What have been your own learnings on the challenges sexual minorities face in our society.

The foremost experience came from my work with PCVC (International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care) as a part of their Psycho-social and Outreach team. The focus was providing informed and affirmative service to women and queer survivors of gender-based violence. This involved conducting gender sensitisation programmes in educational institutions, developing Individualised Service Plans after carefully understanding the journey and crisis of the individual and providing necessary psycho-social support during legal proceedings.

Working with queer individuals in my private practice helps me to understand that unlearning is a long-term process. It constantly reminds me, how mindful I need to be of the unique stressors that the minorities face as a mental health practitioner as years of normative conditioning requires effort to not slip into discounting the struggles pertaining to the community

Hasn’t the pathologising of homosexuality been aided in some measure by psychiatrists? While the Indian Psychiatric Society, in the wake of the 2018 NALSA judgement that decriminalised homosexuality, stated, that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, there are still those who offer ‘therapies’ to correct what they believe is a ‘perversion’. Aversion therapy, hormonal therapy, even ‘corrective rape’ are documented to be fairly widely used methods.

Could you take us through your first hand understanding of any such case/s you have dealt with and can you tell us about the physical and mental trauma inflicted by way of these therapies.

The role mental health support systems had played in pathologisation of homosexuality cannot be discounted. The dangerous notion of curing homosexuality was a mere resulting of viewing it as a deviant or a maladaptive behaviour.

In a way making heterosexuality the norm had patriarchal benefits. Not only such practices achieve what it proposes to but also induces harm. Any mental health professional who understands the purpose of psychological support wouldn’t find it difficult to understand that these methods go against the very ethic of non-maleficence which forms the core of the practice. Such maladaptive interventions can result in adverse deterioration in physical and psychological health even resulting in death. Though the clients I have worked with did not have such gruesome experiences many express fear of the unethical practice still prevailing which includes shaming and threatening to reveal the identity. Not only does it cause harm but takes away the hope of finding support.

One of the potentially far-reaching changes recommended by the High Court is for implementing changes in school and university curricula to make it more inclusive. How do you view the significance of this?

It is high time. The notions and exploration of one’s identity begins exceedingly early in life and educational institutions play an integral part in it. Developing age-sensitive content pertaining to understanding gender, sex and sexuality with ample space for conversations is the way to go.

This will also enable breaking of rigid societal norms, open discussions with peers and families and a life where the focus is living to the fullest and not struggling through it. Not only does this offer safe space for questioning and exploration at an early stage but also aids in promoting a healthier development of sense of self. The staff at the educational institution need to be sensitised before such changes take place in the curricula for this to create the impact it could.

The court has recommended awareness programmes for judicial officers, police and prison officials. How significant is this?

The number of runaway queer members are on the rise due to the lack of safety and the acceptance. The onus is on the stakeholders to provide not only safety but also employ an informed and sensitised approach in resolving the issues. The police station has usually been the space where the sexual minorities face added insensitivities some even to the point of inducing trauma all of which arises from the lack of understanding with regard to who the minorities actually are and how it is we who even created the rigid systems in society that selfishly benefits us at the cost of their lives.

The uniqueness of every individual needs to be acknowledged in providing services of any kind and hence the functioning of societal systems must be well informed of normative privilege and protect the rights of marginalised populations.

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