Abigail S. Kellogg- on CSA, Office Culture and Mental Health

Abigail Shannon Kellogg is a St. Stephen’s College, Delhi graduate with double master’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology. She boasts a career spanning over 10 years, during which she has collaborated with organizations such as Caring for People – an Australian Foundation, RTERC-IIM-Ahmedabad, ANANDI, Blind People’s Association, SAB FREE – Speak up and Be Free, Grace Foundation, Jagriti- A Pioneering Society, and Phycolinc Technologies Pvt. Ltd. Her work has predominantly focused on empowering women and children. Abigail was a founding member of SABFREE, an organization dedicated to assisting child sexual abuse survivors. She currently serves as the founding director of Mentis Cordis Foundation, an organization committed to driving behavioral change at both individual and societal levels through research-backed, technology-enabled psychological interventions. Abigail likes to identify herself as a mechanic for the heart and mind.  

The Social Digest: You’ve been a founding member of Sabfree for the past 7 yrs., and have closely worked with victims of CSA, sexual abuse and gender violence for a long time. What are your thoughts on the rape culture in India that still prevails? How has this crucial journey preventing sexual abuse and violence been so far? 

Thank you for inviting me for this interview.  Your questions are very well thought out. Rape culture in India, unfortunately still prevails. Victim blaming is quite common. Women are still seen as sexual objects, created for the male gaze and pleasure. As my work is with both rural and urban populations from lower and middle-income groups, I have had the chance to observe the male-female dynamics from various perspectives. I have seen the growth of awareness amongst girls and women regarding their own identity, worth and value, though, at the same time, I have seen women have very regressive views as well, as they continue to blame the victim. This phenomenon can be seen in several interviews and interactions with populations from the hinterlands of India. Even today girls are ashamed of themselves, and their bodies. There is a lot of shame that prevails. 

Working on several rural projects we have seen that girls aren’t willing to consult gynaecologists or ASHA workers to be counselled on menstrual hygiene as just the act of being seen to go to meet a gynac can raise questions about her character. So girls choose to remain unaware and struggle with infections arising from unhygienic practices for the sake of their honour. 

Living in urban areas and talking to only a certain income group, one can be deluded to think that there isn’t a rape culture in India, which by the way can’t be farther from the truth. The journey so far has been challenging, to say the least. In India, a lot of work has been done and a whole lot more needs to be done. This concept of shame keeps the rape culture alive, making victims not seek intervention and ensuring the boldness of the perpetrators. Being a psychologist, I not only see it as a social phenomenon but also a part of the social psyche of society. There is a shared trauma that all women experience from eve-teasing to lude comments, sexual banter at the workplace, sexual harassment, and molestation, which can lead to rape. This can sometimes be seen as a right of passage and easily trivialised by men and women alike. We need to understand the sanctity of our bodies and this applies to both women and men, when women’s bodies are asked to be covered and hidden, men’s bodies have lost all sanctity, and even a mention of modesty by a man can start a laugh riot. I believe that it is by respecting each other’s bodies and minds that we can create better and safer spaces for all.

The Social Digest:  In the past decade, the rate of crime against children has only increased in India. Is there a way to prevent it when it could be happening in our vicinity? If there is someone in our surroundings who is suffering from sexual or physical abuse, how can we be of help or support? 

When we think of Child Sexual Abuse (henceforth CSA), tell me which image pops up in your head. Is it a sad child sitting alone? 

Well, most people think of similar images as most of us think that CSA is happening to some child somewhere in an obscure corner of this world, unrelated to our social circle and surroundings. But in reality, 1 out of every 3 children in India, has faced or is facing CSA and this includes both male and female children. This is happening in our colonies, social circles, extended family and could even be in our own homes. This is the reality which we have to contend with today. 

The most potent way to prevent CSA is to accept that this is occurring all around us.

This stance will prime us mentally and socially to deal with CSA. One can learn ways to detect behavior in children which can be a great indicator of something being amiss. Like when a child suddenly shifts their behavior and becomes reserved or very over-friendly with some people, their withdrawal and over-connection can speak volumes if one is attentive. We need to teach our children, nephews, nieces, younger siblings and cousins about Good touch, Bad touch and Confusing Touch. Most of us are aware of good & bad touches but the third confusing touch is a kind of touch which the child is not able to decipher if it is good or bad. Every child must be trained to say No, run and tell someone in their circle of trust. This training should be taught from the age they learn to speak, so say like 2-3 years of age. 

However the effects of CSA can linger much longer after the initial incident, especially when the child grows up, this can affect self-esteem, most CSA survivors have very low self-esteem, low, confidence and poor decision-making ability.  Studies have revealed that long-term child sexual abuse can lead to stunting of brain growth, and its effects can be similar to brain damage leading the survivors to have poor decision-making, and cognitive skills. 

Survivors can struggle with poor memory and emotional regulation. This can raise the risk of mental health disorders, like Depression, Anxiety and Personality disorders. 

Sexual intimacy can also be a struggle, sexuality itself becomes a difficult concept to grasp, as when one has been sexually used at such a tender age, one tends to either think of it as a commodity to get what one wants or see your body as a tool which anyone can use and have a right to do so, as boundaries where never set for these individuals.  Data has also revealed that revictimization of CSA victims at older ages is twice as likely to occur, as most survivors don’t get the tools and therapy required. I have worked with clients who have been victims of CSA and the impact of CSA is long-lasting and can be detrimental in allowing the person to lead a normal life. However, therapy and counselling can help, along with support groups. I am a survivor of multiple incidents of CSA and I can attest to the fact that the healing journey has been a long one, however, my faith, support systems and therapy have truly helped me overcome my trauma. 

The Social Digest: You’ve been a part of the Sarjan Foundation for a while now, and you’ve worked with students from grades 6th to 12th for their social and emotional needs. In this fast-paced, social media-influenced, competitive world, how do you think internet standards affect children who have grown up marginalized? And how has being chronically online affected the health of pre-teens? Can social media be one of the main factors for the rise of depression among youth? 

Yes in this competitive world, social media-centric world, those who are marginalized have a disadvantage as well as an advantage. Since they have grown up without being tech savvy, they do struggle to be efficient with different forms of tech, researching and learning online have a longer learning curve for them. However, they are much better placed to persevere after goals, and have stronger resilience and patience, as their neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin remain in balance. 

This however isn’t the case with children hooked onto social media and online gaming. The reward centres in their brain have become addicted to constant stimuli from these sites and games, as their effects are somewhat similar to that of cocaine. That is why social media addiction is on the rise and will continue to be so as it is slowly becoming a new pandemic. 

Social Media is the main factor in the rising mental health issues faced by our youth today, as their self-image gets determined by the likes, shares and reposts of their posts. 

If there are fewer likes on their posts, they can be adversely affected and their self-image and confidence can plunge downwards. Risks include Loneliness, Low Self-Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Bullying and even an increase in suicide rates. 

An estimated 27% of children who spend 3 or more hours a day on social media exhibit symptoms of poor mental health. 

The solution is to treat it like an addiction and parents must understand and educate themselves on the dangers of social media addictions, as most parents nowadays prefer to give screens to their children as a form of a pacifier. 

The Social Digest: You are working with Argusoft as a happiness coach.  What do you think adversely affects the mental health of workers of tech companies? Do workers suffer rifts in personal relations due to work-related reasons? 

India is slowly becoming a tech giant, a feat that comes with its costs attached. Most employees are seated at their desks for more than 50 hours a week, causing back and eye issues. Most of them are working in extremely competitive work environments, longer working hours and heavy workloads which take a toll on their mental health as well. 

Nearly half of tech professionals surveyed confessed to battling stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Sleep, a crucial aspect in the well-being of an organism, gets sacrificed the most, due to work pressure or stress, nearly a quarter of tech employees experience struggle sleeping. The impact of the same, spills over into personal lives as well, with 74 per cent of tech professionals forced to sacrifice time with family and important celebrations due to unrelenting work demands. This has adverse effects on the family, especially marital and parental relationships causing a decline in bonding and companionship due to intense work schedule and work pressure. It is high time that tech companies recognize that a “happy employee is a productive employee”, as fear can only take things so far, it cannot become the system on which the entire operations are built. 

Company culture, work environment, and employee deliverables will need to be seen through these lenses. 

Hopefully, this can be done sooner rather than later and the value of Human Resources is recognized. 

Interview Conducted by Siddhi Bhadeegar from The Social Digest |  Edited by Nirjara Poptani