Saturday, November 27, 2004

Counsel of hope
Reeta Sharma

Sunita Bhatnagar with her husband
Sunita Bhatnagar with her husband

WHEN you meet Sunita Bhatnagar, you will find a sprightly, chirpy woman with a naturally smiling face. You will also notice that she is on her toes all the time, busy doing one thing or the other. But one thing you will never know, unless told, that she is suffering from a life-threatening allergy. Those suffering from serious diseases should draw inspiration from her. Every morning she has to gulp down a handful of pills. Despite this she has to be rushed to the intensive care unit rather frequently. As if this was not enough, I later discovered that she was also suffering from cancer. She had to go through a major surgery in which one part of her body was removed. She is still undergoing chemotherapy. Incidentally, she never talks about it.

After doing Masters in Psychology, Sunita went to the USA in 1985 and enrolled herself for Ph.D. By 1989, she had got a Green Card. Despite suffering from life-threatening asthma and allergies, she went ahead with her second Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in 1990. Soon she became a licensed professional clinical counsellor.

In Texas, a chemical plant quite similar to the one in Bhopal had burst. Many people had died and those who survived had suffered immensely. Sunita did research on the psychological effect on the minds of these survivors, which was acknowledged as a serious work. Then she worked as a psychotherapist at the Family Service Centre in Texas, where she was awarded the Certificate of Excellence. In 1998, she moved to Louisville in Kentucky.

Sunita’s work includes counselling individuals, families, groups of children and adolescents. She helps families deal with emotional, behavioural, social and school-related problems, immediate crisis, issues related to long-term and short-term stress, and mental illness. In addition, she is skilled in counselling children and adolescents who run away from home. She has also conducted workshops on parenting skills and enhancing the self-esteem of children.

Commenting on the kind of cases she has been handling, she reveals, "In the USA, the institution of marriage has crumbled, specially in the working class. Multiple divorces have brought chaos in the lives of children. So, in one family there could be stepchildren and stepparents, leaving no scope for building any emotional bonds between parents and children. When these children grow up with insecurity and lack of emotional stability, they end up with behavioural problems. Besides, they do not have any role models in their parents, as often either their mother or father or both are in jail. Irrespective of state social welfare funds or the rules and regulations to save children from child abuse, these children suffer throughout childhood and adulthood."

The widening gap between the poor and the wealthy in the USA has been the cause of the rising crime and deteriorating social structure. Commenting on this, Sunita says, "Poverty nails human beings to difficult conditions, which can be a major cause of depression. And then they opt for the easy way out to escape depression by taking to alcohol and drugs. With the arrival of alcohol and drugs, however, all doors of hope begin to close. For instance, even the state welfare funds made available to the poor often get misused for buying alcohol and drugs. Such families suffer from hunger, have school dropouts and have idle brains getting into crime. In this kind of grim scenario, there is no scope of inculcating values in children."

She continues, "In India people find it very difficult to perceive and understand the concept of foster parents. In the USA, the government has to, in many cases, take away children from the biological parents and hand them over to voluntary foster parents. This is because the biological parents sometimes prove beyond doubt that they are totally incapable of rearing their children. What do you do, if a mother as well as father is a drug addict? With such parents, children are unsafe and vulnerable. What is sad is that the number of such children is not small and on the rise. I get cases of children with behavioural problems, having trouble at school, suffering from attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, impulsivity and poor academic performance."

Sunita has been handling psychotic cases, patients with hallucinations and marital problems. The cases of child abuse are the highest. "Mostly stepfathers and stepmothers abuse children both physically and mentally." In the midst of this depressing scene, Sunita is blessed with highest sense of optimism. Her counselling is based on her belief that we can achieve anything if we set our minds to it. By having confidence in ourselves, we can achieve our goals. All we need to do is to recognise our strengths, overcome our weaknesses, and take one step at a time towards our goal.

This feature was published on November 20, 2004