“It’s all in your head.”
If there is one line that can completely break a person suffering from anxiety or depression, it is this oft-repeated casual dismissal of the problem. In South Asian countries, India being no exception, mental health problems have always been taboo. People feeling low are advised to get over it and go on with their lives. Any suggestion about seeking professional help is absolute sacrilege. After all, log kya kahenge!
A prolonged state of desolation and apathy, depression is one of the most common forms of mental illnesses to affect people. A person suffering from depression can feel hopeless, anxious, nervous, consistently tired, lose interest in all activity, and have increased mood swings. Though a mental issue, it often affects various bodily functions, causing insomnia, loss of appetite, or even binge eating and weight loss or gain.
A severely depressed person may have suicidal thoughts. Depression often leads to social isolation, as the depressed person tends to push away friends and loved ones. Talking about such issues is difficult for most people even in very tolerant and progressive environments, and the social stigma attached to depression (as to all other mental health issues) in India adds untold pressure on the depressed person.
There are a number of reasons why mental health issues continue to be taboo in India. Most of these reasons arise from the superstitious mindset of the majority of the populace. The stigma attached to depression and other mental illnesses is not surprising at all, considering ours is a country where people still practise exorcism and consult gurus and holy men rather than doctors for perceived problems of the mind.
Any person who feels the need to consult a psychiatrist or psychologist is labelled as ‘mad’. The person is feared and abhorred by his or her own friends and family. Misconceptions and stereotypes about people suffering from mental health issues – they are all either cold-blooded psychopathic killers or possessed by demonic spirits – make others avoid patients instead of providing the care and companionship essential for their recovery.
Despite living in the 21st century, with the miracle tool of the internet available to large sections of the Indian population, people prefer to live in complete ignorance and denial of such pertinent social problems. Though relevant help and information are a few clicks away, people prefer to stick to their traditional, regressive mindsets. Many mental illnesses including depression are treatable, and instead of dealing with them as one would deal with a physical wound, parents and friends often advise a sufferer to “snap out of it”, ridicule and rebuke them for “acting weird” and dismiss their complaints, choosing to place the blame on the sufferer for his or her condition.
Juvenile depression is a stark reality in urban India today. Large numbers of students in schools and colleges suffer from depression. Most of them do not have access to counsellors and mental health experts, and without any support from parents and friends, many of them are driven to drastic actions like self-mutilation, substance abuse, and even suicide. School teachers, the only adults children spend large portions of their days with, are no better than parents in such matters.
Instead of noticing and recognizing signs of depression in students, school teachers often end up worsening the condition though their callous and often pettily vengeful treatment of students.
Depression is a reality that many of us try to avoid or deny. All of us have felt sad or lonely at different points in life. Imagine, then, what a person with depression goes through. That feeling of sadness does not lift. Life seems completely pointless and empty. The mind is like a blank slate that no longer registers happy emotions. One pushes through life like a bonded slave works in the fields – with no prospects, no hope, no light.
Pushing oneself to get out of the bed in the morning becomes a tremendous task, because one has to convince oneself that going about one’s business for one more day is necessary. One wants company, and yet blocks out anyone who wants to come close. Friends are pushed away, shut off from oneself. This is often because one is afraid of opening up, fearing that friends may become judgemental and cut them off from their lives.
Depression is like walking through a dark and empty tunnel, a tunnel that seems to be never ending, with no opening at the other end.
Imagine having to live like that on a daily basis. With studies suggesting that anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of Indians are suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, awareness is the need of the hour. It is imperative that people get rid of their orthodox and superstitious ideas and accept depression for what it is – a disease of the mind, as curable as diarrhoea or fractured bones.
India is sadly lacking in mental healthcare facilities, hardly surprising when the majority of the population prefers to live in permanent denial of the existence of the problem. More psychiatrists and counsellors and mental health clinics need to be set up. Awareness campaigns should be organised in schools and colleges and even workplaces about mental health issues.
In this context, it is important to laud celebrities like Deepika Padukone and more recently, Karan Johar, for coming out of the closet about their own battles with depression. When people see their favourite stars acknowledge having suffered from such problems, they will hopefully be more amenable to the idea of seeking help for themselves and their loved ones.
On a personal note, here is a request to everyone reading this. Look around you. Observe. Learn to recognise the symptoms. You will be surprised at how many of your loved ones may be hiding depression under a brave veneer of cheeriness. Be there for them. Let them know that they are not alone, that you will stick to them on their darkest days. And please, please, do not tell anyone to “get over it”. You never know when one casual statement of dismissal may act as someone’s final push over the edge.