The higher self: Mahalakshmi Rajagopal on healing, compassion, and growth

25 June 2024
Vaishnavi Desai Written by Vaishnavi Desai
Vaishnavi Desai

Vaishnavi Desai

Vaishnavi is a writer, thinker, and creator. She likes to think of herself as a reader of...

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In David Hume’s wise words, “It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place.” 

And healing work is what Mahalakshmi Rajagopal likes to do.

With her career spanning over two decades, Mahalakshmi’s approach encompasses addressing immediate symptoms and dissecting them from the root causes, promoting overall well-being. 

In a conversation with MyndStories, she discusses her commitment to incorporating diverse healing modalities—from counseling to spiritual practices—and how to create a safe space for compassion that transcends conventional boundaries.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

How did you start your career in psychology?

I’m originally from Tamil Nadu and was raised in Chennai. I pursued my undergraduate degree in psychology from S.I.E.T. College (now Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed Women’s College). I completed my post-graduation in medical and psychiatric social work from Madras School of Social Work. During my education, fieldwork experiences, particularly in juvenile homes and hospitals, sparked my interest in counseling. So, I pursued a degree in counseling psychology.

How did your professional journey unfold after your education?

Following my education, I joined an NGO in Chennai focused on non-drug therapy. Over the past 20-25 years, with career breaks for childbirth and childcare, I’ve been involved in counseling and mental health work. Additionally, I’ve trained in various healing modalities such as Reiki, acupressure, and pranic healing. 

I firmly believe that healing techniques and counseling can help someone largely overcome their issues. 

Then, I began working as a counselor in schools and colleges across various cities, addressing diverse challenges faced by students. I also served as a special counselor during the Me Too movement at NLU Delhi. In 2014, I founded the Sahayam Intervention Center in Delhi, aiming for a holistic approach to intervention and healing.

I played a pivotal role in implementing facilities for special needs children in many schools, bridging a significant gap between policy and practice. Additionally, I helped exonerate wrongly accused students and identified and supported students with ADHD, achieving academic success. 

What motivated you to start Sahayam Charitable Trust, and what did it aim for?

The higher self: Mahalakshmi Rajagopal on healing, compassion, and growth

A little background: In the initial days of my career, I started spreading awareness about child sexual abuse—as this topic is very close to me. It breaks my heart to tell you that most people today, including children and even their parents, are unaware of what counts as abuse—other than good touch and bad touch. But something that you may find not alarming, like changing your clothes in front of a child or asking a child to change their clothes, also constitutes child sexual abuse.

The Trust aimed to raise awareness about non-touch forms of child sexual abuse and invisible disabilities in schools. Unfortunately, securing funding was challenging, particularly for intangible causes like mental health and awareness campaigns. So, technically, the trust was closed in 2020 due to financial difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So tell us, what were some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had with clients?

Ah, so many!

So, a woman once came to me, bearing some issues in her marital life. I remember her walking out of my room when I suspected that she might want to get a divorce. She was, of course, devastated and in denial. But, I remember after a year, she reached out to me again, saying that I was right to suggest the divorce, and she sought my help throughout the challenging time in her life. Through our sessions, she overcame the feeling of guilt, and now she leads a life that she rebuilt. She is still in touch with me, and I feel immense pride in seeing her shine today.

Another client, I remember, was dealing with a chronic illness, and after my sessions with him, I saw significant health improvement. We worked on addressing his emotional issues through therapy and holistic practices.

Those stories are inspiring. So, how do you stay motivated and energized for each session?

I prioritize self-care with meditation, spiritual practices, and creating a positive environment for online or in-person sessions. As I am deeply involved in spiritual healing, I also light a diya before my session—the little light helps me focus on my client and brings a sense of positivity that I don’t think anything brings for me. In the end, it’s a cumulation of the little rituals I follow throughout my days, be it a diya, going for a walk, or my daily morning meditation—which I haven’t missed in years!

What is the most misunderstood aspect of therapy and mental health?

One common misconception is that therapy is only about talking, with the therapist passively listening. 

In reality, therapy involves much more than that, focusing on addressing underlying emotions rather than just sharing incidents and details. If the client comes with an aim of just listening and not talking, it simply defeats the purpose of the session, right?

That makes sense. So, do you often encounter any other misconceptions, especially among parents, since you also work with them?

Yes, another significant misunderstanding is regarding children with special needs, such as dyslexia and autism. Some parents believe that teaching or advice from teachers is sufficient, overlooking the need for therapy or counseling.

Depression is often misunderstood, with some expecting a depressed individual to exhibit consistent symptoms at all times. However, mood fluctuations are common, leading to misconceptions about the severity of the condition.

Many couples seek therapy for what they perceive as marital problems, only to discover that one partner is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness. When I come across such, I realize the importance of considering mental health issues in relationship dynamics and even sharing with other clients to focus on their relationship dynamics with others. 

Since we’re talking about myths and misconceptions, would you mind shedding some light on people’s misconceptions about therapy itself?

One common misconception is the expectation for quick results and a definitive timeline for improvement. 

It’s very important to understand that therapy is a dynamic process, and progress varies for each individual, making it challenging to predict outcomes within a set number of sessions.

Addressing these misunderstandings is essential to promote a better understanding of mental health and therapy.

How do you balance the emotional demands of being a therapist with your well-being?

The higher self: Mahalakshmi Rajagopal on healing, compassion, and growth

I maintain objectivity in therapy sessions, focusing on the client’s issues rather than getting absorbed in their emotions. Though not always, I try my best to maintain a positive work-life balance, where I prefer not mixing work with family—which really helps. Additionally, I engage in activities like gardening, learning music, and physical exercise to take care of my emotional health.

That sounds like a healthy approach! What advice would you give to budding therapists or mental health practitioners?

I’d advise them to pay attention to the importance of counseling psychology and to prioritize psychoeducation and sensitization in their practice from day 1. Another crucial factor is community mental health. It should also be a focus in this generation, especially.

Do you have any recommendations for shows or movies with positive mental health themes?

I recommend a Tamil movie called “Irugapatru,” which discusses how marital conflicts can be resolved. Another one is the Hindi movie “Three of Us,” which delves into the depth of relationships and healing. 

Oh, and there’s also a recent one called “Hi Nanna,” which speaks about the depth of love between a couple and the father-daughter bond.

Thank you for these! Lastly, what’s the biggest lesson a client has taught you?

I approach each client interaction as an opportunity for personal growth, using their challenges to reflect on my insecurities and evolve as a therapist. My clients from all walks of life always teach me that anything is possible—with a mix of effort, compassion, and consistency!

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