Smruthi Rajan had the most amazing experience of her 23-year life during her visit to Ladakh. The Mumbai girl was interning at a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which sent her there to work at a hospital under a psychiatrist. It was fantastic and invaluable first-hand experience. The doctor gave us responsibility, briefing us on each mentally ill patient and allowing us to sit in on sessions, she recounts.
As you can deduce, Rajan, who did her bachelors in psychology, is fascinated with the working of the human mind. Her MA in counselling — which combined clinical psychology theory and practical experience in psychotherapy — from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai has trained her to initiate the thinking process in individuals to solve challenges in life.
There is better social support for such courses today, she says, unlike in the past when parents forced children into either engineering or medicine, never mind what the children wanted.
The demand for psychotherapy, and therefore counsellors, has shot up. Marital disharmony, balancing children and career, workplace tensions — everyday stress is threatening to swamp individuals. The rise of nuclear families with single children and the will to fight any battle to the end have bred tense, edgy people who often need professional help.
The demand for psychologists has increased today because of the steady increase in problems in our lives, says clinical psychologist Sangeetha Madhu, an alumnus of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore.
Gauging the needs of the market, educational institutions are coming forward to offer more counselling courses. The University of Calcutta is planning to upgrade its one-year evening postgraduate diploma course in counselling psychology from next year. The details are still being worked out, says Dr Subrata Dasgupta, head of the department of applied psychology of the university. The Madras School of Social Work has brought in a senior psychology professor to give a facelift to its MSc in counselling, while Ambedkar University in New Delhi is on the brink of starting a clinical studies programme. Other universities have ramped up the counselling component in their applied pyschology courses while TISS introduced an MA in counselling two years ago.
Traditionally, counselling was limited to providing career guidance but its scope has since expanded. Counsellors are in demand today to help people face challenges such as rearing children, handling emergencies or tackling depression. They are also required to manage suicide prevention helplines, lend a sympathetic ear to senior citizens, guide individuals through life transitions and counsel menopausal women or those suffering from gender confusion.
Chennai-based consultant psychologist Sangeetha Makesh, who has a postgraduate degree in applied counselling, set up her own practice five years ago. She specialises in what is seen as a developing area — marital therapy. Makesh, who is completing her doctoral thesis on marital discord, advises students to opt for courses that offer practical experience. It also helps to superspecialise in an area like marital therapy or adolescent behaviour, she says.
Rajini Konantambigi, associate professor, School of Social Sciences, TISS, says students should have a background in psychology and human development to pursue a masters in counselling and extended training. However, some individuals have the sensitivity and, if adequately motivated, are able to profit from intensive training, she points out. Which means that if you have the knack, you dont need the background but you do have to train very hard.
And no, certificate courses that last three or four months do not provide the requisite training. Experts warn that such courses do not provide even the basic knowledge to administer psychological tests, leave alone hone your skills.
To be a successful counsellor, you need to be empathetic, non-judgemental, a good listener and above all, maintain confidentiality, says Dr Sheela Julius, head, department of counselling psychology, Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Womens University (SNDT), Mumbai. A counsellor, unlike a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist, is able to spend more time with the patient. He or she listens to their problems, helps them to think and guides them in the best possible direction, she explains.
Though the number of jobs in the field has grown by leaps and bounds, salaries continue to be low. While NGOs and health-related settings offer as low as Rs 15,000 a month, the remuneration in schools and colleges drops further. As a result, many students opt to specialise in organisational behaviour and join the HR departments of big firms just for the large salary.
Many students also branch out into research, since counselling courses provide a strong grounding in research skills. Rajan, for example, bagged a job in an ethnographic research organisation in Mumbai, which provides data to hospitals, NGOs and child developmental centres. Another TISS student works in a knowledge lab that does research on mindset changes. Such firms offer starting salaries ranging from Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 a month.
But counsellors who do not want to shift to research neednt lose heart. The good news is that after a few years of slumming, they can start own practice and charge an average of Rs 500 (or more) an hour for a session!
And as the world and human relationships get more complex, counsellors will be the most sought after professionals.