Using Western Ideas from Psychology and Psychiatry Leads to Difficulties for Indians

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From Mad in America: Researchers Sunil Bhatia and Kumar Ravi Priya conducted a study on how the spread of psychology from Europe and America is affecting work and identity in India. They studied three main topics in their work. First, they looked at how Indian companies are increasingly using Euro-American “personality” tests to hire, evaluate, promote, and motivate employees. Second, they noted the conflicts faced by Indian youth as they deal with their identity in a Western corporate culture. Lastly, they studied the impact of neoliberalism on mental health in India through the experiences of villagers in Nandigram.

Neoliberalism is a philosophy which consists of certain values such as individualism, growth for the sake of growth, and ideas of freedom and competition. In neoliberalism the self is seen as a project forever in need of change. It tells individuals to look for solutions within themselves for problems which are often outside their reach, such as pain caused by cost-cutting, low-wages, no access to healthcare etc. It has been previously linked to increasingly loneliness and worsening mental health.

Bhatia and Priya explained that a form of colonialism still exists in India and shapes culture, labor, relationships, and academic knowledge. An example is how psychological concepts and practices from Europe and America, along with neoliberal forms of governance, lead oppressive systems.

They say that psychology has supported neoliberalism, for example, by using positive psychology to get workers to maximize productivity and efficiency. This type of corporate culture sees caregiving and human distress as a distraction from productivity. This approach ignores the influence of social and political factors on pain and suffering, and instead sees these issues as only individual problems.

The authors also discussed how Western mental health categories do not always fit the experiences of people in India. This is because these theories do not see the socio-political context and community factors that lead to distress. Psychologists often use these neoliberal ideas to tell people that their problems are individual problems which can only be fixed within them.

The researchers write that psychological ideas from Europe and America have been used in Indian workplaces, influencing management practices and shaping corporate culture. In the past 25 years, management schools and corporate offices in India have been influenced by Euro-American psychological and organizational language.

Through this lens, communication between Indian software engineers and clients are seen as a problem. This is not because Indian software engineers are not fluent in English, but, their cultural communication style and “cultural perceptions about time, work, productivity, and planning” are called problematic and deficient. As a result, these phrases, tests, and theories change people’s idea of their own “Indianness”. They write:

“The presence of American cultural symbols and practices, the establishment of the IT industry and call centers, and the insertion of cross-cultural psychology, psychotherapy, testing, and personality evaluation through psychological science and new-age psychology is not only impacting the work life of young Indian workers, but it is also reconstituting the very meaning of ‘Indianness’”.

Bhatia and Priya highlighted the impact of Western mental health discourse on Indian society – the focus is on personal problems and the outsourcing of emotional care to mental health workers such as psychiatrists, and not to one’s friends, family, and larger community. Doing this creates distance and further hurts marginalized populations. The authors write that to understand mental health we must look at larger social and societal factors too, and not just inside the person.

They studied the experiences of survivors in Nandigram, where people faced violence and loss. Their suffering was about feeling a sense of betrayal, loss, and biographical disruption (sudden change in one’s social and family roles). Priya’s research found that these experiences were tied to the person’s relationship with their community, government, and family members, and did not fit into Western trauma theories. For example, mental suffering caused by social oppression does not fit into the label of PTSD but Indian psychiatrists often look at it through that lens. As a result, they only focus on treatment of the person; these treatments are also often funded by corporations. Citing the work of Derek Summerfield, they write:

“He states that it was not only that the survivors found the category of PTSD to be irrelevant for their post-trauma experiences, but the PTSD treatment packages often funded by the corporate social responsibility segment of various organizations also made little sense to survivors. For the survivors, more than their personal trauma, it was the afflictions caused by the socioeconomic and political conditions on the opportunities to engage in their traditional occupation and on their collective (or religious) identity that was highly distressing.”

Bhatia and Priya concluded by writing that Euro-American psychology is being imported into Indian society, influencing corporate development, human resources, and people’s lives. They called for a decolonial perspective that challenges the dominance of Western psychology and seeks to understand and honor diverse experiences and histories of the Indian people.

This article originally appeared in Mad in America and can be read here.

This is an AI generated version edited for a South Asian audience.


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