Discussing Mental Health In India With Therapy Initiative Aaina

Meditation workshops. Photography by Sneha Mohanty.

Meditation workshops. Photography by Sneha Mohanty.

Our discussions around mental health here in the UK tend to focus on our particular struggles, which aren’t always globally shared. When I came across Aaina, I realised there’s a lot more to discuss outside of what we experience. I spoke to Aqseer, a queer feminist psychotherapist who launched this initiative in March 2015, using art therapy, active listening and meditation to tackle Delhi’s stigma’s around depression, sexuality and anxiety.

Having “learnt growing through bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder”, Aqseer felt a passion culminate, leading her to create the initiative Aaina. “I hate being told what to do, and default to leading in situations. I’ve been a forceful mother hen all my life and in time it broke me.”

It’s always important to tell the stories of those who are working on their mental health while helping others - I feel that mental health is always considered a weakness. I suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia and body disorders, yet I created Burnt Roti. There’s little understanding that these disorders aren’t debilitating to all - sometimes it can be difficult to function, but sometimes you can function well, with the added extra of a mental health issue.

A lot of the work Aaina does is for young people and students, “My concern is maximising leverage on limited resources. Changing older peoples’ mindset or approach to life is hard. Young people are pliable, still forming their ideas of the world. And they’re isolated, they don’t know who they are yet, they don’t know what they need. These kids need community and are closer to their vulnerability, as well as idealism. Capitalism hasn’t broken them yet. In high pressure, hyper-masculine spaces like law schools, equipping a child that feels left out means they will take the lessons with them to corporate offices, think tanks, courtrooms.”

But mental health does affect all generations - older people suffer without speaking about it. In my family groups, I’ve known them to be called churail’s and it was nazar that made them they way they are. And they are ostracised, groups gossip about them and we never visit. They have spent their whole lives suffering and the challenge is to make sure it stops happening.

Aqseer by Mir Ijlal Shaani

Aqseer by Mir Ijlal Shaani

“We’ve had these conversations and understand that what it takes to thrive in the gig economy can be too destabilising for an older person to ‘get.’ So when a person takes their eye off of the next socially sanctioned life target, they are doing double the work to start to become themselves.”

This is not easy work, “We feel like we have to hide, or battle a lot of guilt before we can start to speak up for ourselves. Asking for help comes much later or via a breakdown in our own mental health or a loved ones’ around us. A second thing is that we’re battling an unconscious disavowal of femininity that runs so deep, we still have Goddess-Slut or Madonna-Whore polarities playing out around us.

The cultural differences in our discussion is clear - one of the biggest being around caste. We have these issues underlying our communities globally, but obviously it’s more prevalent in India. “We’re a culture that can’t let each other be. We’ve been so economically insecure for so long that we’ve got a survival mindset etched into our psyches. This makes us tribal in ways that fuels other-ing along these lines of class, caste, gender, sexuality. It also sanctions a great deal of in-group policing.

“I am safe as long as I am visibly Sikh and my community is doing okay. For me to be okay will necessarily come at a cost to someone else because that is the way the world works. This means we need to stick together and be alike to survive.”

I suppose we don’t have a benevolent view of our world in India because it’s a tough life here. This is a structural issue of which gender, to me, is the deepest actionable layer. And it’s related to our difficulty with becoming ourselves because if we can’t relate to our femininity, we can never be whole.”

The work Aaina does works not only in sessions in Delhi but online too: “The subreddit is where we’re seeing what it takes for people to feel safe enough to share and just be heard. We don’t give advice. We share what we feel in response to one another, and in the process, all of us experience or witness healing. It’s beautiful.”

Outside of that, they do active listening training Jindal Global Law and Institute of Law Nirma University. But therapy isn’t always accessible, “What we’ve learnt is that young people want community and anonymity both”. The ability to reach when you can find no reason to move is important and the having digital forums for therapy and active listening are as important as face to face.

If we want to help these initiatives, there are a few ways:

  • if you work in therapy, reach out and share learning in their FB group.

  • go on their subreddit - learn, share and respond

  • if you’re having thoughts about your femininity, share your thoughts with Aqseer, who is currently working on an online course on this subject.

  • download the listening handbook and try it out


Aqseer Sodhi is a Delhi-based psychotherapist specialising in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and personality disorders. She likes to work with clients by getting them into their bodies, and in touch with their attachment styles. Check out her site www.aainatherapy.com and the Aaina subreddit for more.