How Can Dalits Access Mental Healthcare With Systemic Barriers?

Mental healthcare is expensive, and there aren’t enough trained therapists out there who understand Dalit issues.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Cases of atrocities on Dalit women like the Hathras gangrape hold a very high potential of causing mental harm to the people of these communities even if they are not directly related to the victim. However, the question of mental health is something that affects Dalit women and the community at large in their everyday lives.

The Dalit community has been experiencing all-pervasive systemic exclusion, caste-based discrimination and violence for generations.

The forms of exclusion and violence are sometimes extremely brutal and in some cases it is more subtle, ‘sophisticated’ and insidious. However, atrocious caste behaviour and toxicity is present all around us all the time in rural as well as urban spaces.

Whether Dalits chose to be open about their caste identities in public or chose to conceal it, nothing helps in alleviating the stress and anxiety that they experience. The fundamental reason for this stress is rooted in the vulgar social attitudes of the dominant caste groups.


Caste Atrocities Are All-Pervasive – Here’s How They Operate In Rural & Urban Spaces

In rural areas, they indulge in committing extreme forms of brutality on the Dalit community. This brutality of dominant castes, particularly on Dalit women’s bodies, has been legitimised in our society – and these incidences are serious triggers for us. In urban areas, they manufacture their atrocious attitude in a more subtle form. One prominent space to experience this is university spaces.

Caste dominance is structurally embedded in universities and other ‘modern’ institutions.

Dalit women and men are harassed in different ways in order to remind them that they ‘don’t belong’ here. This is an everyday battle they undertake in classrooms, student politics and academic spaces. There is a constant discomfort that the dominant caste students have with Dalit students, and within the university space this discomfort is very evident. The discomfort is often reflected by strongly holding an opinion that is anti-reservation, consistent denial of caste as a social reality, and the continuous dismissal of experiences coming from Dalit students.


Sham Of ‘Progressiveness’ – And Putting Onus Of ‘Explanation’ On The Marginalised

The more advanced version of discrimination that creates chaos in the lives of Dalits comes from the ‘progressive groups’ that are vocal and active in public spaces. In university spaces, it is primarily the leftist organisations and feminist groups who pull up their arms against Dalits. Their discomfort and caste hatred is camouflaged with the pretence of progressiveness.

These so-called progressive groups have an expectation of educational, informative engagement with Dalits.

In such a case, the onus of offering explanation along with the ‘clear articulation’ which is convincing to the dominant groups is thrown onto the marginalised. Engaging and educating these groups often do not lead to any substantial agreement on the concerns raised by Dalits. What is often offered in return for this mental and physical labour is subtle denial via phrases like ‘we chose to respectfully disagree’ and ‘we should agree to disagree’, ‘we should accept the differences’. In the process, Dalit students are left completely exhausted, with the feeling of not being understood, and feeling insulted. This takes a serious toll on our mental health.

In the case of Dalit activists and leaders, the experience is similar and in cases where young Dalit women emerge as activists and leaders, the burden of fighting the Brahmanical state and the police administration falls on Dalit women leaders while trying to seek justice for their sisters and community at large.


Double Standards Of Dominant Caste Groups

The amount of mental pressures and building the mental strength to deal with benevolent violence and physical brutality on an everyday basis requires exceptional effort from the people of the Dalit community.

The dominant caste groups suffer from a duality – on one hand they want to project themselves as ‘progressive’, and on the other hand they also wish to maintain caste hierarchies.

When they attempt to balance these two, they end up employing coercive approaches which have a negative effect, and it often leads to strengthening the caste hatred against the Dalit community.

Mental Healthcare: Problem Of Accessibility

If we are to speak about mental health and self-care remedies, then it is common knowledge that remedies like therapy, counselling and trauma healing are not equally accessible for the communities who are experiencing multiple and generational marginalities.

The present market of mental healthcare is over-priced, and when there are so many gaps like the inherent prejudices that are prevalent, denial of the social reality – that the caste system still exists – it is obvious that there will also be a dearth of professionally-trained therapists who are equipped to address the issues Dalits face.

Some groups that presently claim that they are in a position to address the issue of caste, how it impacts Dalits and can provide support to marginalised groups, are not equipped – and lack professionally-trained therapists. This is the reality of mental health discourse in India right now.


Historic Resistance & Resilience Of The Dalit Community

Mental health has to be located on the larger canvas along with the socio-political and economical context in order to make it effective and accessible to everyone, and more critically if the purpose is to support the individuals or the communities who face multiple marginalities like Dalits.

Talking about mental health and caste is a sham when the larger collective intention of the dominant caste groups is all about dismissing and delegitimising the lived experiences of people from the Dalit community.

Despite the state of mental healthcare in the country, people from the Dalit community have been finding ways to cope with everyday anxieties, severe breakdowns and frequent gas lighting.

Deeply-entrenched caste hatred and denial has been causing severe harm to the community physically and mentally, and has obstructed people from realising their full potential and from living a life free of threat.

However, I have always been amazed and sometimes surprised by the incredible resilience of the Dalit community; they have been historically participating in the processes of resistance and resilience – and that really comforts the present generation in the process of coping and moving ahead.

(Riya Singh is a doctoral researcher in Women & Gender Studies at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi - Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is a part of Core Leadership Group in India’s single and largest dalit women-led collective, Dalit Women Fight. She works on the ground with the Dalit survivors of caste-based atrocities in six states of North India. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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