Mental Health Is Political: Institutional Violence, Marginalisation And Mental Health Policies At Work

Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for May, 2022 is Gender at Workplaces. We invite submissions on the many layers of this theme throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to sukanya@feminisminindia.com


Trigger warning: Mentions of institutional violence, minority oppression and mental health conditions

Indians have always had a complicated relationship with discourses around mental health owing to a pervasive sense of it being a “taboo” subject that is deserving only of hushed whispers, if not complete silence. An unfortunate consequence of this reluctance to engage has been the lack of proper support mechanisms in institutions that an individual has to interact with in their daily lives.

One such institution is that of the formal employment workspace which has historically treated mental health concerns with contempt at worst and indifference at best. However, there has been a slight shift recently with an increasing number of formal workplaces being forced to acknowledge the importance of having policies to ensure mental health support for their employees owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has pushed forward a flurry of conversations around mental health awareness due to the collective trauma being experienced by people across the world. As more workplaces wake up to the urgent need for mental health support and sensitivity, the imagination around what this support looks like has to be inclusive of the complexities that come with living in this country; especially for those who have been forcefully marginalised because of their identities.

In recent months, State-sanctioned violence against Muslims has accelerated dramatically. While insidious and structural violence against Muslims has always been a grim reality, its current manifestation is extremely direct and unabashed in its targeted hatred. Even as having an education and a job in the formal workforce provides me with a degree of economic security and stability, my identity as a Muslim woman leaves me perpetually struggling with a gnawing sense of existential dread owing to the constant threat of brutality against my community

People belonging to Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Pasmanda communities, particularly women and non-binary persons, face multiple layers of disenfranchisement that make it very difficult for them to access and navigate institutions that are meant to empower. Mental health has been traditionally understood as being restricted to an individual’s personal context; divorced from the socio-political environment around them.

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This individualised and depoliticised understanding of mental health is not only extremely limited in its scope given that we do not exist in a vacuum; but is actively harmful for people from oppressed communities. Formal workspaces often adopt “self-care” practices (for example, leaves for positive mental health) to establish mental health sensitivity towards their employees and while this may be of value, it is woefully inadequate and often only concerned with ensuring that the worker’s productivity levels do not plummet.

Those belonging to oppressed caste and religious communities in this country are constantly at the receiving end of violence which is not limited to physical barbarity but extends to the psychological, cultural and material aspects of their lives. Considering that political realities such as these can be a significant (sometimes sole) reason for poor mental health, a workplace policy that does not account for it can do little to alleviate it. 

In recent months, violence against Muslims has accelerated dramatically. While insidious and structural violence against Muslims has always been a grim reality, its current manifestation is extremely direct and unabashed in its targeted hatred. Even as having an education and a job in the formal workforce provides me with a degree of economic security and stability, my identity as a Muslim woman leaves me perpetually struggling with a gnawing sense of existential dread owing to the constant threat of brutality against my community.

For me and others like me, the source of our distress lies in the political environment around us and the sense of isolation and fear that it breeds. Even though putting a stop to this political violence and reversing its psychological ramifications is not within the ambit of possibility for a workplace, an openness towards acknowledging that the harm exists and a sincere commitment to supporting those who continue to be harmed can go a long way in creating genuine mental health sensitivity.

However, this acknowledgement and commitment is often absent or lacking due to the abysmal representation of Muslims, especially Muslim women, in the workforce and in leadership positions in both public and private institutions. The labor force participation rate (LFPR) of Muslim women is the lowest in the country. In such a scenario, it can be difficult for the few who are in these institutions to voice their struggles due to fear of hostility and the onus should fall on the workplace to actively accommodate their mental health needs.

Sudarshan R Kottai further discusses how “pain of being not acknowledged as an equal citizen, violation of fundamental rights, the feeling that “We are not part of this country” are also mental health concerns. If this is truth, what should be done for the Pasmanda Muslim workers who are the easiest targets of state sanctioned anti-Muslim violence and in the context of their lived reality, what should be the questions we should be asking around mental health?

Mental health and the informal sector: Invisibilisation of the majority

93 per cent of the workforce in India is informal and owing to the nature of a caste stratified society, caste oppressed communities find themselves overrepresented in this sector. Amongst Muslims, Pasmanda Muslims are estimated to be about 85 per cent of the total Muslim population by scholars such as Khalid Anis Ansari, and a majority of them work in the informal sector.

Even as 93 per cent implies a clear majority, the workers in this sector are astonishingly invisible in conversations around mental health despite them being the most vulnerable group and facing the worst repercussions of any crisis; natural or man-made. To add injury to insult, the rare times when mental health is centered in the context of informal sector workers, it is to essentialise them as being “resilient”; which implies that they have an inherent tenacity that helps them “bounce back” despite how extreme a situation might be.

Also read: ‘You Don’t Behave Like A Muslim’: Being Muslim At The Workplace & Facing Islamophobia

Resilience of informal sector workers should always be situated in their economic, social and financial compulsions. A formal sector worker can afford to be non-resilient or vulnerable and take time to build back resilience due to different kinds of support systems that come embedded in formal sector jobs, for example, an ability to take leaves without fear of losing income or livelihood.

An informal sector worker does not have these provisions. In such a situation, vulnerability becomes a luxury the worker cannot afford and resilience, a necessity. Such essentialisation places the responsibility of resilience solely on the workers themselves and enables the State to escape accountability by carrying out half-baked interventions, if any.

An example of this is how the central government had instructed mental health institutions to assist migrants in the face of the migrant crisis which had led to multiple counselling helpline numbers. Sudarshan R Kottai, clinical psychologist and professor, writes in Migrant Workers and Mental Health, “Mental health concerns are not to be resolved through counselling over telephone or distributing pills when people are being discriminated, physically assaulted, humiliated, denied food and shelter and left to die on the highways for mental health and human rights are co-constructed”.

Sudarshan R Kottai further discusses how “pain of being not acknowledged as an equal citizen, violation of fundamental rights, the feeling that “We are not part of this country” are also mental health concerns. If this is truth, what should be done for the Pasmanda Muslim workers who are the easiest targets of anti-Muslim violence and in the context of their lived reality, what should be the questions we should be asking around mental health?

A 600 member Muslim fishing community in Porbandar, Gujarat, has filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court to seek mass euthanasia for themselves because of religion based political persecution and discrimination that is preventing them from earning money for survival. What does mental health mean for this community? If the State is not just negligent but actively vindictive towards a particular community – stripping them of shelter, livelihood, dignity and identity, anything less than material and social reparations is inadequate. 

However, what about the workers without a workplace – the informal sector? For any kind of meaningful mental health interventions for the well-being of informal sector workers, the State has to acknowledge the workers’ humanity and accept responsibility for ensuring that their rights are not violated without consequence. This cannot be achieved through tokenistic measures such as providing counselors who only address the symptoms while avoiding the dehumanising structural abuse that is so normalised when it comes to informal sector work. It needs a broader framework of action that is motivated to provide social, material and legal justice

Way forward

More and more doctors, advocates and researchers have been emphasising on the need for approaching mental health from a human rights perspective rather than a purely health perspective. Dr. Soumitra Pathare, Director of Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy and the architect of India’s rights-based Mental Health Care Act, 2017 along with his colleague Arjun Kapoor writes, “Mental health problems must be understood as psychosocial phenomena which are an individual’s response to the effects social structures and relationships produce in the form of inequality, poverty, abuse, discrimination and oppression among others”.

This multi-dimensional approach is what must be adopted by formal workspaces when designing mental health policies. In terms of the policies themselves, there are many trained professionals who have worked on what would constitute a good workplace mental health policy. Raj Mariwala, director at Mariwala Health Initiative highlights how according to the psychosocial model of mental health, marginalisation increases one’s vulnerability to poor mental health and in such a scenario, UN CRPD’s ‘reasonable accommodationprinciple can be applied which enables both support and accountability.

Mental health policies should also extend beyond the affected individual to the whole workplace, so as to address ingrained biases that make the workplace stressful and permit discrimination and micro-aggressions to go unchecked. Raj Mariwala stresses on the importance of anti-discrimination policies, grievance mechanisms and supportive spaces at work to tackle these.

However, what about the workers without a workplace – the informal sector? For any kind of meaningful mental health interventions for the well-being of informal sector workers, the State has to acknowledge the workers’ humanity and accept responsibility for ensuring that their rights are not violated without consequence.

This cannot be achieved through tokenistic measures such as providing counselors who only address the symptoms while avoiding the dehumanising structural abuse that is so normalised when it comes to informal sector work. It needs a broader framework of action that is motivated to provide social, material and legal justice.

As far as the poor Muslim workers who are bearing the worst of institutional violence are concerned, reversing legislation that exists to erase their existence and restoring their deliberately destroyed homes and livelihoods would be a good start.

Also read: Asserting Their ‘Muslimness’ Fiercely: Women Undeterred By Islamophobia & Misogyny


Aiman Haque is a feminist Muslim researcher trying to find her words in a world that expects her to not have any. Her current work involves research and data work on a wide variety of themes about the lives and livelihoods of women in the informal sector.She has also been involved in the capacity-building of grassroots teams in data collection to help increase community level engagement in the research process. She is on Instagram and Twitter

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