Demystifying mental healthcare: Dr. Shefali Batra | Verve Magazine
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October 10, 2019

Demystifying mental healthcare: Dr. Shefali Batra

As told to Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Illustration by Osheen Siva

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DR SHEFALI BATRA
Psychiatrist

Keeping the ethics and legalities of medical care in mind — and the parameters involved in dispensing health care online — the psychiatrist, cognitive therapist and medical entrepreneur launched her healthcare venture and website, MINDFRAMES, in 2004. This was followed some years later by InnerHour, the digital self-help platform conceptualised jointly by Batra and Dr Amit Malik to fill the gaps in mental health support, and bring information, accessibility and acceptance. Firmly believing that the quality of care available now has been enhanced by technology, she continues to explore innovative ways of making people comfortable with therapy.

“My aim in using technology in mental healthcare was to improve access. It’s about time people avail the best care while sitting in the comfort of their homes, offices, on vacation, or literally anywhere. Wellness needs to become a part of our everyday existence. With that in mind, what better tool than technology to disseminate information and alleviate stigmas about mental health, offer simple lifestyle solutions and provide a platform to share information via support groups. There are also the more common sense advantages in its use — especially audio and video conferencing — like comfort, flexibility, accessibility, ease of use, confidentiality and the ability to deliver high quality of mental health care to anyone who might reach out.”

“Over the past decade or two, we have seen a gradual paradigm shift in the attitude towards mental health. But surprisingly, those suffering from mental illness continue to feel that they will be judged. So, I believe that although the public stigmatisation of mental illness has decreased, self-stigma has persisted. But, in general, people do believe that seeking professional help is of advantage; they’re more open to taking medication as well as undergoing structured therapy. And realise the importance of preventive healthcare as opposed to coming forward for therapy only when anxiety or depression, for instance, strike.”

“Celebrity speak definitely has a much needed positive impact. Speaking openly like Deepika (Padukone) did is brave, commendable and meaningful. It has created ripples that I am hoping will impact the entire ocean of existence gradually and make people realise that we’re all equally extraordinary or ordinary enough to feel the way we feel, and that we should, and can, do something to make it better.”

“Establishment of rapport is a challenge in mental health, and finding a way to do that online while using the offline experience of therapy was an interesting and welcome trial. Empathy, respect for the client and genuineness help to establish a rapport both online and offline. My in-person sessions involve detailed history taking, understanding of symptoms, gauging deep thought processes, analysing negative thoughts and using cognitive and emotive techniques. All of this is the foundation of therapy, and applying all it was, in fact, a lot easier online. Confidential knowledge management platforms helped information gathering and have enriched the therapy process.”

“The new generation in general has an information overload, and they may not have the wisdom to make appropriate use of it. Hence over-identification with symptoms can make young users over-diagnose their problems, which itself can become a cause of anxiety. I think it’s very important that the platforms for mental-health are rooted in a strong foundation of expertise, experience and qualified mental wellness professionals. But overall, I think democratisation and awareness are significant, positive undertakings. If the quality of information is maintained, I see these to be effective tools in enhancing mental health.”

“InnerHour’s self-help app lets the user pick the psychological area they feel they need to work on. There are courses on depression, stress, anxiety, sleep, anger, and one simply focused on happiness. After a quick initial assessment, the user is offered a personalised plan that requires 5 minutes a day for learning new psychological strategies based on cognitive behaviourial therapy (CBT), mindfulness and positive psychology. Just about 5 minutes on the app every day allows the user to engage in emotional and behavioural awareness. Other supporting tools in the app enhance engagement with the plans — these include symptom and goal trackers, personalised psycho-educational content, a chatbot (Allie) to provide guided activities at times
of distress, and access to actual human therapists to support the client when needed.”

“At one time, the only way in which a doctor would see or treat patients was through a consultation. Now with technology, blogging, social media and public forums, the whole world has access to our expertise. For instance, on Quora the other day, I had an anonymous exchange with someone on the management of refractory depression that is unresponsive to treatment. It was not medical advice (as that is unethical), but our exchange did give her a better understanding of her illness, and she was going to speak to her treating doctor about it. So our interaction was successful in initiating an action in the right direction. ”

“Gratification comes from making a difference in the lives of people, and money could never substitute that. I say this because blogs, content on public forums like Quora, expert views in print and digital media, designing of scripts as well as audio and video recordings for relaxation voiceovers, online wellness modules, and cognitive homework strategies are not financially remunerating. But, if this information is available free of cost, it can encourage people to take further steps and seek more in-depth professional help. So, as Victor Frankl put it, ‘the purpose of life is to find purpose in life’. I can only feel thankful that I have found my purpose.

Read part 1 here

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