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Reflections of a therapist

A function was held in the city to felicitate senior psychologist P. M. Mathew Vellore, who turned 70 recently.


A TALL, bespectacled man with a Freudian beard and imposing presence, P. M. Mathew Vellore, at 70, carries with him a zest and vitality uncommon among men of his age. Forty years ago, when psychology as an academic study was not popular as it is today, P. M. Mathew ventured to study the subject with the aim of becoming a clinical psychologist. Today, Mathew is, arguably, the most sought after psychologist in Kerala. He is a voracious reader and a prolific writer who has penned more than 15 books. Apart from being a columnist, he has worked as chief editor of `Manashasthram' (a popular journal of psychology in Malayalam) and `Kudumba Jeevitham'. Mathew has the gift of rendering complex ideas in a simple and captivating format. His popularity as a writer and columnist, to a large extent, rests on this ability.

Mathew is not a conservative, dogmatic therapist. His mind is ever open to novel ideas that challenge and even provoke.

"After obtaining doctorate, I qualified as clinical psychologist from NIMHANS, Bangalore. Thereafter, I was on the faculty of the CMC, Vellore, and served as clinical psychologist at the CMC hospital. There were not many practising psychologists then and I was the right person at the right time. Circumstances were favourable and I struck success early in my career."

What motivated him to pursue this career? "Recently, while on a visit to my ancestral home at Karipuzha, I found an old diary, which I wrote when I was young. On the first page, below a self-portrait, I had entered my name as `Dr. P. M. Mathew, psychologist'. One of my boyhood fantasies was to visualise myself as a psychologist. I admit there is a guiding principle that decides man's destiny. Like a painting or a symphony, there is a decipherable pattern that slowly evolves and completes itself through time."

He has been dealing with mentally disturbed people, neurotics and psychotics, for over 40 years. How have they affected him in shaping his vision of life?

"Well, in a way, they have helped me more than I have helped them. They have made me reflect on myself. I am indebted to them. Meeting people with delusions, fantasies and distorted perception of reality, a sensitive therapist will be motivated, sooner or later, to seek the real. My perception is that there is something that can be called `basic Being' - I mean something that has no qualities or attributes. This is the real self. Generally, we all carry within ourselves `multiple selves' or `role selves'. An affectionate husband has to take on the role of an assertive boss or that of a loving father or a dutiful son. In a single life, we play many roles. There are two types of people - the task-oriented and the defence-oriented. The so-called `normal people' are task-oriented and they succeed in bringing these multiple selves to a state of harmony and integration. Neurotics and psychotics are defence-oriented. Unable to adapt to what seems to them a hostile and threatening world, they withdraw into their inner world and exhibit symptoms, which, for them, act as defence. Either you adapt and fight the world in order to survive or you flee it and inwardly stagnate."

Then, what is mental health, according to him?

"To me, psychology is the study of one's real self. Mental health consists in being consciously aware of what is happening around you and inside you and in the ability to abide in the here and now."

With such a definition of psychology, is he not bringing it close to religion or philosophy?

"A good clinical psychologist is a healer. He should intuitively grasp the psychodynamics of his client. I oppose institutionalised religion. Religion, to me, is a very personal affair and to be religious means you have a perception of the true self. For a clinical psychologist, spirituality is inevitable."

Does the present therapeutic scenario call for a revision of norms? "Certainly. For decades we've been relying on western norms and standards. Within the context of our culture, western medical models are often inadequate. The present scenario calls for an `Orient-ation', a turning to the East. In our approach to mental health and hygiene, we should be culturally grounded."

At a time when the social psyche itself seems to be sick, what advice has he for parents?

"Parents have a crucial role to play in enhancing the psychological well-being of their children. Children are like mirrors in which parents can see themselves as they are. As far as possible, parents should shed rigid assumptions, prejudices and should create an atmosphere of mutual trust. Parents should not be unnecessarily dogmatic; they have to be democratic. However, reasonable assertion is necessary and beyond a wholesome discipline, they should be gentle and co-operative to their children."

Mathew has freely voiced his views on sex. Is this a strategy he deliberately employs to win the attention of readers/viewers?

"It all depends on how you look at it. We are a conservative, inhibited and sex-starved people. Sex is man's birthright. If you've a healthy and mature attitude to sex, then what is wrong in it?" he replies.

One final question, how does he analyse himself?

"An ordinary man with strengths and failings. It is said that psychologists in the evening of their lives start resembling their patients. At times, like many, I'm a little crazy, but I enjoy it. And I am certain that my greatest strength lies within me, as in all, in the power and glory of my real Self."

Mathew's words remind you of the story of this beggar in Benares, who stood on the same ground everyday for many years and went on begging. He grew old and ultimately died on the same spot. The local people decided to give him a fitting burial. They started digging the spot where he had stood and when they finished digging four feet, they found a treasure underneath. All his life, the beggar was asking help when he was actually standing on top of a treasure!

K. SENTHIL KUMAR

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