How the Bombay High Court is Prioritising Mental Health
The Sukoon project provides free counselling services when you need them most - inside a stressful courthouse.
The Sukoon project provides free counselling services when you need them most - inside a stressful courthouse.(Photo: iStockphoto)

How the Bombay High Court is Prioritising Mental Health

During mental health awareness month, the Bombay High Court made a strong commitment to upholding the mental healthcare of litigants within the legal system.

On 4 May, they inaugurated a counselling center inside the court’s premises. The project - called Sukoon - is a collaboration between the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) and is the first facility of its kind in an Indian high court.

Speaking to FIT about the aim of the initiative, Rajvi Mariwala, director of the Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) said, “Research shows that persons who access Family Courts deal with conflict, stress and dense emotional issues with mental health implications,” and they need a safe space within the system to discuss their issues.

So Sukoon aims to supplement the court’s process by looking at mental healthcare within the system, with free counselling services right when you might need them most - inside a stressful courthouse.

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‘Independent of Legal Proceedings’

“Family courts have marriage counselors, but these face a huge number of clients and need to work within the legal frameworks. They often don’t have enough time to spend with each litigator, and this is where Sukoon steps in,” says TISS’ Dr Amrita Joshi, co-director of Sukoon.

She stresses that the project runs independently from legal proceedings, but provides support for the trauma and stress of dealing with it.

This is the continuation of another similar project initiated by Sukoon’s other co-director, Dr Aparna Joshi from TISS.

Joshi’s earlier project - SEHER - worked from the Bandra Family Court from 2006 -2010 to provide counselling and other psycho-social services to litigants and sensitize the legal system to the ligitant’s mental health by training advocates, counsellors and judges.

“In just 18 months, over 500 litigants have been served and 100+ stakeholders within the Judicial ecosystem across four courts have been trained,” says Mariwala of their journey to Sukoon.

‘Focus on Choice, Not Reconciliation’

According to data from the OCED Family database, India has one of the lowest rates of divorce in the world, at 1%.

But as this article from The Guardian says, less divorces are not always a good thing and most certainly not an indicator of the good health of marriages. Despite amendments in the Hindu Bill Code, women typically face a disproportionate brunt of marital conflict, from financial dependency and stress to physical violence.

Here is where Sukoon aims to step in, and fill the gap of focused attention to gender discrimination and other vectors of inequality, and center choice and agency.

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The Court’s primary motive is promoting reconciliation, in tandem with larger social structures, and norms. Such a stance can be problematic and ineffective in the context of domestic violence or abuse, and adds to pressure on women to reconcile. Thus, it is imperative to have a psycho-social, rights based and intersectional approach to mental health counselling in courts.
Rajvi Mariwala

Focus on Gender Discrimination, Unequal Power Balances

Mariwala added, “Women and children are more vulnerable to discrimination, inequality, power and violence — therefore, Sukoon counsellors are trained to provide care that is non-discriminatory, gender-sensitive and promoting individual agency and choice.”

The Sukoon structure can thus help focus on individual client’s and deal with more sensitive and nuanced issues. Amrita Joshi gives us an example,

One woman approached us as she was going through a very difficult divorce. She didn’t want one, her partner did, and since marriage is so sacrosanct in our culture she was having a hard time adjusting. Our counselors helped her make meaning of her situation, and move on. She was not financially independent, but through this process she started looking for jobs and finding herself. This was a beautiful journey to witness,and we helped her imagine an alternative life.

Working with the court offers a wider range of people across socio-economic spectrum to avail of the services as they are free and readily available right inside the court.

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Being housed in the court helps litigants with quick and easy access to services. Plus, being here signifies that we have been accepted by the system and it legitimises mental health. It shows that the courts have also acknowledged that litigants have stress related issues and want a space to talk.
Joshi

The project directors see their project scaling up and across India. A benefit of working with the system is that it usually ensures sustainability.

Why the High Court?

In March 2017, Sukoon operated counselling centers at the Thane and Bandra Family Courts in Mumbai.

After a year and a half, the directors of the project realised that in areas where there were no family courts, litigants went to district and sessions courts. And since these address both civil and criminal cases, the space for mental healthcare for individual litigant shrunk. So in January 2019, they started a stress management center in the District and Sessions Court in Kalyan, Mumbai.

On why it was called a ‘stress management center,’ Mariwala said that the stigma of counselling still looms heavily in the Indian context, and people were more likely to think of mental health issues as stress and come to a center marked as such.

Has the court system been cooperative? “At the beginning it was tough, but the honourable judges have shown faith in our vision and are pro mental health in their approach,” says Joshi.

“The biggest indicator of success for us is that our clients want to come back,” she adds.

Also Read : The Psychology of Divorce: What Happens When a Marriage Unravels

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