While we survived lockdown there are so many women who are still living in a nightmare and trying to survive an abusive relationship. Being in a pandemic with an abusive partner not only jeopardizes an individual’s mental health but also increases their chance of being in danger. It’s important to create spaces and develop ways to reach women who are in vulnerable situations because we need to remind women that they are not alone.
Rachana Parekh has dedicated her career to helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She shares her inspiration and journey in becoming a Mental Health Counselor and offers tips on how women can get help.
Boss Up: What inspired you to become a Mental Health Counselor?
Rachana Parekh: My inspiration comes from my community, seeing what was lacking and striving to fill that void. Growing up, mental health was not a concept that I was aware of because it was something I never heard of nor was taught anywhere. Particularly in my culture, as a South Asian, the idea of mental wellbeing was never a topic. There were so many times when I felt like something was wrong and I wanted to get support but was discouraged because “everything needs to stay within the family.” As I got older and began to learn more, I realized just how important it was to take care of our mental health. I remember the guidance counselors in my high school and how insanely supportive, encouraging, and open to listening they were. I remember feeling so good every time I spoke with my guidance counselor and I knew immediately that this was a field I wanted to get into. I wanted to provide support and access to mental health resources to those who may have grown up the same way I did, not knowing anything about the importance of their mental wellbeing. I wanted to provide representation in a field that was lacking in South Asian representation, to allow folks from the South Asian diaspora to feel more comfortable seeking services because they’ll see someone that looks like them. I wanted to help normalize that asking for support from a mental health professional and going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re “crazy” or “mentally ill;” it means you are taking responsibility for working towards becoming your optimal self. Therapy is and can literally be for anyone who’s ready for it. If we can take care of our physical health by going to a doctor for our check-ups, why can’t we take care of our mental health by going to a therapist?
I took an advanced psychology course in high school, made it my major in college, and then went onto graduate school for mental health counseling. Now, I work at Sakhi for South Asian Women in NYC as a counselor. Sakhi is a non-profit organization striving to end gender-based violence by providing support and access to resources to those who otherwise may not have access. I am a therapist for folks (regardless of gender) who identify as from the South Asian diaspora and are seeking mental health counseling at Sakhi.
Boss Up: How has the pandemic impacted women who are living with abusers?
Rachana Parekh: The pandemic forced a lot, if not all, of us to isolate and quarantine. For many, that also meant being stuck at home with their abusers with nowhere to escape. Everything changed, which also meant that the access these impacted women once had was no longer available to them. Many places shut down or became remote, which meant that even if they were in services before covid, they may not have been able to continue during covid because their privacy was compromised. Even going to the grocery store became dangerous because of the fear of covid exposure. It was dangerous for these impacted folks to stay home and it was dangerous for them to leave.
Boss Up: What are the challenges women face that are in vulnerable situations?
Rachana Parekh: So many. Women who may not have other financial support outside of their abuser may be increasingly vulnerable because they have to depend on their abuser to sustain life. Women who also may have children with the abuser have another challenge of making sure their children are taken care of, often preventing them from leaving the abuser. Especially for immigrant women who have no family locally, and even more so for those who may not speak English, it is hard to leave their abusers because of how dependent they are on the abuser.
Sometimes, abusers may even have hold of the papers and legal documents, which these women cannot leave without. Lastly, culture plays a HUGE role in the challenges impacted women face. For many cultures, leaving your partner (especially if married and/or if they have children together) is a big no-no. Divorce comes with a ton of stigma for women, specifically. Women are seen as tainted, impure, and unwanted if they leave. They feel pressure from their families to stay and work things out. This is by no means an exhaustive list of challenges, but these are some of the major ones that come to mind and that I’ve seen with the clients I work with.
Boss Up: What are some misconceptions society has about women who are in toxic relationships and how does that contribute to the problem?
Rachana Parekh: This is my favorite question because this is exactly why I wanted to get into the field– to dispel these common beliefs. One of the most common misconceptions is that if the abuse is so bad, then the woman can just leave; but if she hasn’t left, then either she is being dramatic or it’s not that bad. THIS IS SO WRONG. Please see above for a shortlist of challenges that impacted women face in trying to leave their abusers. But to add to that, sometimes it’s also incredibly DANGEROUS for a woman to leave her abuser.
There is research that shows when a woman is getting ready to leave her abuser– which doesn’t happen in an instant, it takes a ton of advanced planning– and the abuser gets wind of it, the abuser can become even more violent and potentially life-threatening towards the woman. Add to that all the abovementioned challenges. Another common misconception is the idea that women don’t fight back or they allow the abuse to continue. That is also so far from the truth. That is just another form of victim-blaming. The behaviors of the abuser are the abuser’s responsibility. Women do not ask to be abused. They may also fight back, but often may not be able to come out of it safely. One last misconception that comes to mind is that people believe abuse (domestic violence, intimate partner violence, gender-based violence) only refers to physical abuse. NOPE. Abuse can happen in so many forms, such as emotional abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse (yes, even if you’re married, consent is not guaranteed), technological or digital abuse, and reproductive coercion. (See thehotline.org for definitions of each.) So just because a person may not be getting physically abused, it doesn’t mean that person isn’t being abused in any other way.
Boss Up: What are some ways survivors can get help?
Rachana Parekh: There are organizations and 24/7 hotlines that are available to all. No matter where you reside, I can guarantee there are at least free and confidential hotlines available to you. For NY, Sakhi is one non-profit that works with folks who identify as South Asian (helpline: 212-868-6741; text line: 1-305-204-1809, Mon-Fri, 10-5 pm), but there are other victim advocacy organizations that also help, such as Safe Horizon, Sanctuary for Families, Family Justice Center, and more (a quick Google search will help). Hotlines have now also provided the option for texting or online chatting if calling is not safe. And, you have the right to ask for an interpreter in case you prefer to communicate in another language. As always, if you feel you’re in immediate danger, call 911. Here are some hotlines that are free, confidential, and available 24/7: National DV Hotline (1-800-799-7233; text “START” to 88788), NYC Well (1-888-692-9355; text “WELL” to 65173); National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).