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THE MIND TRAVELLER

Life is all about choices, what you need or what you don’t need. At an impressionable age, Chandni Vijay decided what she wanted, rather what she did not want. Aversion to mathematics, in fact, opened up vistas for her to explore other options and a chance encounter with the director in her school triggered a spark in psychology. And literally, there was no looking back. From then on, this fiercely independent student has carved out a path of her own In a chat with Team Fayz, Chandni opens up about her formative years, her rise from a tiny hamlet in Kerala to Bangalore, where she is currently pursuing her MPhil in psychology at NIMHANS.

IN FIRST PERSON

My decision to turn to psychology was not as noble and honourable as I wish it were. It was a way for me to get rid of mathematics. When the new school that I wanted to join for my Class XI (Mar Dionysius) had a science option that replaced math with psychology, it really was a no-brainer. I remember being intrigued by the book cover first and thinking it would be a breath of fresh air from the constant reminders to choose between engineering and medicine. At least, I would have a reason to say ‘no’ to engineering other than not wanting to do it. Funnily, “what do you want to do” was a question very seldom asked a 10th standard student. It was always “engineering or medicine”, “regular or repeat”. Always. And it was nauseating, to say the least.

But then I had a conversation with the director of my school about the potential in psychology as a career. When he said clinical psychologists were in huge demand, a whole new horizon just opened up before me. I have to definitely thank my Psychology teacher in Class XI and XII too for planting my roots firm in the subject. The more we studied, the more we discussed, it just became clear how enamoured I was with the subject. There were grandparents and uncles and aunts and teachers who looked down upon the direction I was taking but thankfully parents were happy as long as I knew where I wanted to go.

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Google led me to perhaps the best psychology department in Kerala, Prajyoti Niketan where I had the privilege to be taught during under graduation by many brilliant psychologists and clinical psychologists. The possibilities just continued to increase day by day. It was exciting to know that I could teach or do research at universities, work with hospitals, NGOs, even Defence departments of India; do private work and on and on. The sky was the limit, really. I veered towards clinical psychology as it became clear that it led to interaction with individuals who required help that I was ignorant of just two years ago. The challenges of the field became apparent when I joined for post-graduation at Christ University (Bangalore) and I had the opportunity to interact with individuals dealing with psychological issues. It made my resolution to pursue MPhil in clinical psychology, which is the necessary degree for legitimate expertise in dealing with such disorders. MPhil has another level of exposure and experience altogether. It has been humbling to see so much distress and resilience on the face of it.

Psychology doesn’t equate to mind-reading or hypnosis as it’s widely believed. The work done is as varied and deep as your imagination allows. Clinical psychology uses different types of psychotherapy to deal with the distress brought about by unique combinations of brain chemistry, personal characteristics and society. There are no quick fixes and a lot of disorders require medical assistance as well. But there are research-based solutions to a lot of “it’s all in your head”. But psychology is also for those without any diagnosis as well. It helps you understand yourself, your decision making and troubles better.

It’s a profound experience to understand another human being at the depth that therapy allows us to. I would say that even my day-to-day interactions have become more meaningful because psychology adds so many more dimensions that I was unaware of before. It makes your life richer, you are more compassionate and our fellow beings more understandable. It has been a hard journey but I am definitely glad that I took this road less travelled.

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A tete-a-tete with Chandni.

When you decided to pick psychology as a subject, what was the reaction from everyone, especially because you hail from a small village in Kerala?

I think my declaration was met with confusion more than anything else. I remember having long conversations with a lot of people during my Class XI and Class XII because they didn't know much about psychology. They thought it was one and the same with psychiatry and closed wards. Public awareness of mental health care, or the lack of it, was very evident. Most movies don't help. It's not all screaming and physical aggression and hearing voices. So yeah, lots and lots of explanations. Some were cross with me because I ditched mathematics or because I refused to give the entrance exam. They all seem to have come around lately.

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You have mentioned that the best psychology department in Kerala is Prajyoti Niketan (Pudukkad, Thrissur). Why do you say so? So for aspiring psychology students, do you think it’s the best option in Kerala?

Prajyoti is a very small college on top a hill on the Thrissur-Ernakulam Highway with five departments. But the psychology department there is formidable if you ask me. All the professors have years of experience in academia and some of them have worked in a clinical setting as well. And I think psychology exists more among people than in books. The library is a treasure trove for someone just stepping into the field. The college also has lots of extra-curricular options, including yoga classes, writers’ club and inter-department competitions. I am not saying it's the perfect place, but I don't think I could have chosen a better place for myself at 18. There are not many places where you can attend classes by Dr Pauly (Physiology), Dr Sandhya (Statistics), Dr Moncy or Dr Milu and get blown away by their knowledge and creativity.

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From Prajyoti Niketan you moved to Christ College, another prestigious college, for Masters. How was the experience? Also, which are the best colleges for post-graduation in psychology in India?

Christ University is huge, from the size of the campus to the number of students in the class. It was difficult to uproot myself from a hilltop full of trees to the hectic rush of Bangalore. Everything I felt very mechanical and repetitive for the longest of times. Christ focuses a lot on building the students' research capabilities, so that was an interesting experience. Coursework is heavy, of course, but the opportunities that opened up for me, people I got to mingle with or hear were huge. Post-graduate programmes are becoming more and more specialised. For those interested in clinical exposure, KMC, Manipal and Montfort College, Bangalore are good options. For MA in Psychology, Calicut University, Gulbarga University, St. Agnes College, Delhi University are all known to have good departments.

From then you moved to Nimhans, another top institute in the country, for your MPhil. Tell us how gruelling has been the experience.

NIMHANS is a hospital and overwhelms anyone who comes from a university set-up with the things you are expected to be doing from day one. Expectations are unbelievably high- from yourself and your supervisors. Your best is not enough, often. It's a constant grind towards more- academically and clinically. On top of that, you have to hold your own among colleagues from different departments who have their own idea about your work. The number of patients coming in is increasing but the number of trainees available is hardly keeping up with it. Mental health care is a taxing job. You have to hold a lot of distress from your clients and not have it drown you. Accountability and professionalism and self-reflection are noble ideals but are really heavy to hold up on a daily basis. It's exhausting. I am glad it's done.

What next? Which global university do you think will be a good option for you next?

The logical next step, academically, would be a PhD. There are quite a few good campuses internationally for the particular speciality I am interested in- Neuropsychology. British Columbia, Queensland, Edinburgh, Johns Hopkins- all have admirable cognitive neuroscience departments. Recently IIT- D and Queensland University has proposed a dual PhD programme as well. Lots of opportunities are out there. The difficulty may be in figuring out a speciality and a guide who suits you. Workwise, practice is an option- in hospitals or on your own. A lot of MNCs are recruiting psychologists. Teaching is another option. I don't think I am outright planning for anything as of now. Focus is to finish the M Phil. Probably work for a while and then think about further studies.

Tell us one unforgettable incident at Nimhans while dealing with patients?

I was doing assessments with an 18-year-old who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Among other things, it renders it difficult for the individual to understand another person's emotional state and respond to it. I was sick, had a very bad cold. He asked me if I was sick and looked at me for a few minutes and then went on to suggest how I should apply Vicks and that will make me better. I remember being so overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness and reminded me yet again to look at the person first and not their diagnosis.

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If there is one a habit of yours that has helped you become what you are, what would that be?

  • I think the tendency to wonder about the whys and hows definitely help. If you're curious about the backstories, it becomes easier to find that information from your clients, which help us understand and help them better.
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