Mental health research days- The case of childhood sexual abuse

Dr. Asif said, there are plenty of women who will keep their stories of sexual abuse to themselves till they die. No one will ever get to know about it.

Disclaimer: Sensitive content ahead |The banner image has been generated using AI, any resemblance is purely coincidental | The story has been tweaked heavily to disguise the exact person, place, profession, etc.

Is this conversation chargeable, she asked.

I said, no, Feel free to talk.

I don’t want to exist anymore she said.

“I didn’t react,” I simply said, “Hmmm.”

During the trial phases of Neuragram, my conversations with people having mental health issues were happening under the monitoring of Dr. Asif Ali Khan, our principal consultant.

I always kept a WhatsApp tab open in my browser and when I encountered any difficulties during calls, I would text him for answers and he would try to provide them quickly. He had already advised me in the past, not to get emotional while listening to any case, no matter how horrific their experiences may have been.”

It was difficult for me because I was not a psychologist. My designer self was so trained in getting into people’s shoes before designing something that feeling someone’s emotions became unavoidable.

Additionally, I am sensitive, and witnessing someone in agony tends to make me reflect their pain onto myself and experience intense discomfort.

Nonetheless, the conversation continued.

What makes you feel this way? I asked her.

I don’t know, she replied.

She paused for a while and added I’ve been crying constantly lately and when I go to sleep, I pray that I won’t wake up the next day.

From when has this been happening? I asked.

Since last month, she replied.

Was there any specific incident that happened a month ago? I asked.

No, nothing, she said.

What do you do? I asked, trying to get an idea of her age.

I’m a 4th-year computer science engineering student, she said.

This meant she was in the age group of 18-25. I thought it might be related to a break-up issue as I had received several calls on our official helpline number from this age group seeking ways to move on.

Has someone hurt you? I asked, trying to understand if she had gone through a breakup.

No, she replied.

To ease the conversation, I asked her if maybe she was unable to crack the FAANG DS-Algo problems, referring to the interview questions from Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. She chuckled at the joke, but suddenly her expression changed to intense pain and her voice became tearful as she said, ‘I was sexually assaulted when I was 8 years old.

I was shocked and my hands trembled with disbelief. My mouth hung open in disbelief. The human side of me couldn’t follow Dr. Asif’s advice of not showing a reaction this time. With anger in my voice, I asked her, ‘Who the f*ck was he?

That’s not typically how psychologists work, but I am not a psychologist and this time I did not seek guidance from our principal consultant. I was experiencing a multitude of complex emotions while speaking with her.

She informed me that it was her father’s friend. Upon hearing this, my heart sank.

Did you share this with anyone? I asked.

No, she replied.

She paused for a moment before continuing, My father has a business partnership with him and they are extremely interdependent. They run a restaurant together.

What would happen if you speak about it? I asked.

I don’t know, she replied and started sobbing again.

I listened to her sobs and we both were quiet for 2-3 minutes.

She continued, “You know, every morning my pillow is wet from crying all night, and I have to hide it from my roommates in the hostel. Whenever a boy approaches me, I see that person’s face in him and I run away. I am unable to focus and don’t enjoy anything. I wish I didn’t exist.

I responded, “Hmmmmm,” as I tried to calm myself first.

I listened to her and attempted to gather more information.

She mentioned that she had gone through an internship a month ago and her senior manager had tried to touch her inappropriately on her shoulder and back. She questioned me, “Why are men like this?”

I asked her, From the incident that happened when you were 8 years old to the incident with your senior manager, have any other men touched you in a similar manner?

She began to recall her memories and said, “I think no, nobody has touched me like that before. I went to an all-girls school and was only exposed to boys during engineering, but I was more focused on my career and didn’t get into relationships.”

I asked, “By any chance, were there any similarities between your father’s business partner and your senior manager?

She thought for a moment and replied, “I think they have a similar accent and their voices are similar.”

What is the approximate age of your senior manager? I asked.

She responded, “Maybe 40, I don’t know”

What was your father’s age when you were 8? I asked.

She answered that he was 38.

Was your father’s business partner the same age? I asked.

She said, Yes, I think so.

I further asked- didn’t you tell about that incident to your mom when you were 8.

She said- No.

After a pause, she added- At that time, I was not even aware of things like “sexual abuse”. I have faint memories of the incident. That man made me sit on his lap and….

she stopped the narration. She was not crying, she was not sobbing, it was just getting hard for her to explain.

I drifted the talk immediately and asked- Did the inappropriate touch by your senior manager instantly triggered the memories of that incident when you were 8 years old?

she again paused for a while and said- “I think…..I think it happened the next morning or a few days later. I am not sure”.

I conducted a preliminary assessment of her mental health and based on her answers to a set of 9 questions, she exhibited symptoms of depression with 7 positive responses. There was a high likelihood that she might experience regression, which could result in her exhibiting behaviors similar to when she was 8 years old.

I was familiar with regression from my previous reading of Freud’s work. In fact, our first client was a 3-year-old autistic child who would revert to a 1-year-old state when certain rhymes were played.

My conversation with the girl lasted approximately 45 minutes and was quite intense.

By this time, my “emotional” side accepted the fact that there are childhood sexual abuse survivors. I was talking to one of them.

In meantime, I had to leave for somewhere, so I quickly got ready, got into my car, and connected my phone to the car’s stereo while still on the call with her. I was trying to wrap up the conversation. I realized that she would benefit from Cognitive and Behavioral therapy sessions, but I was not qualified to provide them. If I would, I would have done it for free. I attended a few CBT sessions previously at our clinic to understand how it is done so that I could design something based on it. In that pursuit, I knew how to reinforce positivity through “non, motivational” way.

I had two options to suggest to her: either refer her to a third-party therapist or have our principal consultant take the case.

While driving, I got trapped in a traffic jam and my conversation started to lose its intensity due to the distractions on the road. My emotional side started to get overpowered by practicality.

I suggested therapy sessions, but she responded with a hesitant “hmmm”. After a short silence, she stated that she couldn’t afford it as she would have to ask her dad for money and wouldn’t be able to explain why she needed it.

At the same time, I was thinking to myself, “Can I keep talking to her? No, I have many important legal, financial, operational, and personal tasks to attend to. Will talking to her pay my bills? No. Doing a CX or UX project for a client as a design thinking consultant would fetch $100 an hour instead! If I hand over the case to our Principal consultant, will he do it for free? No! that’s his bread and butter.”

At that point, she said, “It’s alright, thank you for listening to me.” As she was about to end the call, I tried to keep the conversation going by saying, “Hey, we can still talk, I’m stuck in traffic anyway.” I attempted to lift her mood, but she stated that she had to go. The call was then disconnected.

I immediately contacted Dr. Asif and shared everything with him. He responded, “Babu (a casual Hindi term for addressing someone of their son’s age), I have encountered numerous similar cases in my practice. This may be new to you, but many women and men suffer from abuse in silence and are mentally suffocated until they pass away.

As a man, I can understand the pain of a woman who has been abused at the age of 8, but I cannot truly experience it. It’s like a blind person can learn about the wavelength and frequency of the color red, but they cannot truly ‘see’ it.

Toward the end of my conversation with Dr. Asif, I asked if he could provide at least one counseling session for the girl, free of charge. He agreed and said why only one? If she is in need, I can provide 2-3! My capitalist assumptions got challenged by his response. He told me that he usually dedicates a few hours to such cases every Saturday while driving from Patna to Nawada, which is a 5 hour of drive to his ancestral home in Nawada, Bihar, where he would spend his weekends.

The next day, I texted the girl on WhatsApp and she responded. We talked for about 15 minutes about her emotions and well-being. I informed her about the opportunity for professional counseling with our Principal consultant without any cost, and she said she would think about it. During our conversation, she raised questions about life, her existential crisis, and the young girl who had suffered from abuse. I was able to answer some of her questions but had no answers for others. Our conversations gradually diminished over the course of 4-5 days. I used to feel guilty for not talking to her and asking how she is feeling.

A few months later, I talked to a senior female police officer in a casual setting. My dad is the Additional District Magistrate of Patna and he told about my startup on mental health to her. During our conversation, she shared her experiences dealing with crimes related to women’s abuse and how difficult it is to be a woman. She mentioned the frequent withdrawal of FIR reports related to abuse at police stations within her jurisdiction due to societal pressure, as people would not marry those girls and would view them differently once they knew about their experiences. She also revealed her experiences of dealing with cases in which fathers used to molest their own daughters! It was length on the discussion that made things more clear.

We both agreed to the point that there are many women, and even men, who were sexually abused when they were young and they still carry the trauma. They never share this with anyone and sharing them would create way more havoc in their lives because usually, the abusers are some close relatives, neighbors, and in some cases even fathers!

Nonetheless, this was not an isolated incident where someone could not avail CBT sessions, as we encountered many individuals from the lower middle class and poor backgrounds who could not afford even INR 1000 (approximately $12) per therapy session. The reason is that undergoing 5-7 sessions would completely disrupt their monthly budget. Although, this was the first case when someone from a well-to-do family could not afford it, because the person would require telling parents on why she needed a few thousand rupees.

These conversations with the Senior Woman Police Officer and our internal team discussions made us question our priorities. We had to choose between solely making money from someone’s suffering or actually solving mental health issues.

If our intention was to make money out of suffering, then why not sell fast food and later get into a hospital business? We can mint money from end to end till a person dies!

This realization led us to reconsider our capitalistic plans and re-evaluate our approach. We went back to the whiteboard and started brainstorming. As a result, Neuraschool was born. This is categorized under our mid-term plans.

We decided to focus on making mental health services accessible to all, regardless of their financial background. Our team did not have any interest in seeking venture capital and we were not in a rush to make profits. Instead, we wanted to create a sustainable solution that solves problems for everyone regardless of their social strata.

Key learnings

  1. Childhood sexual abuse is one of the “family secrets” and, to prevent permanent social damage, most individuals or families stay quiet.
  2. Therapies, talking to someone close, and developing a coping mechanism can help regulate the trauma in adulthood but people might show unconscious behavior that would reflect their experiences. For example- They might have problems forming intimate relationships.
  3. Early education about “good touch”, and “bad touch” is helpful but it does not guarantee that a kid will speak about such incidents out of fear.
  4. Kids might forget such incidents over a period of time but incidents might trigger childhood memories when something similar happens.
  5. Repression of a traumatic experience needs either a mental conflict resolution or a blind eye. One can either form a conclusion or one can keep ignoring the incident as if it never happened.
  6. The legal aspect of childhood sexual molestation such as the punishment of the abuser is a different discussion. Seeing the molester getting punishment and feeling a sense of getting justice is a different discussion. The Trauma someone carries for a long time is a different discussion.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *