In case you’ve been living under a rock, our country is currently suffering a life-threatening epidemic. What epidemic, you ask? Well, it’s easily illustrated with a few simple statistics. Take this, for example: our country is one of the highest contributors to global suicide, while depression is one of the leading causes of death. That’s because at least 6.5% of our population (60m people) suffers some form of mental illness, a number that will increase to 20% in two years. Despite this there are 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. You get this gist.
While the numbers are simple to understand, the nature of the beast is not. And while the statistics are shocking, the stories behind them are (un)surprisingly close to home. When people in India think ‘mental illness’, they imagine straitjacketed people wailing into the night. But really, the most ubiquitous face of it is your neighbor, your friend, your relative, your colleague.
Contrary to popular belief, needing mental healthcare doesn’t mean you’re “crazy”, it just means your mind is ill or tired – the same way your body would be were you to have a physical illness. And it doesn’t always look like the dramatized representations we see in films, it also includes things like depression, anxiety or stress-related breakdowns – problems almost every fifth person in this generation has dealt with in some form or the other. We live in times where competition is fierce, work hours, long; comparisons, rife; and stresses; manifold. Just as J Krishnamurthy said, ‘It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ And so it goes.
Of course, the nature and causes of any psychological problem can be entirely different from one person to the other. That’s because they're a motley mix of all kinds of factors – genetic, social, chemical or physical – and sit at different points on a vast spectrum. So, for example, most people would feel sad about a breakup or the loss of a job, but clinical depression means that sadness lasts over long periods of time, in way that can’t be shaken off, often without a trigger. We all feel fear but having an anxiety disorder means your ability to function or breathe is entirely debilitated by an attack of it.
Now, most people think good mental health is a function of self-discipline and will power (and it might be, if you don’t have a disability!) but it’s not at all in the control of the sufferers – the same way cancer isn’t in the control of the person who contracted it. This is the vital misunderstanding that contributes to how our society sees and treats it – ironic, since our explorations of mind and spirit go back as far as the holy Vedas
. Deepika Padukone’s foundation recently commissioned a study
that shows just how distorted perceptions towards mental illness are in India. And although social media campaigns, art projects and publications have tried hard to take up the cause of spreading awareness, the ‘paagal hai’
stigma means that most people are unlikely to ask for help – a sad reality, given so many low-spectrum illnesses or suicides are easily preventable with early intervention.
So, how do we help ourselves or others suffering these afflictions?
For one thing, emotional upkeep is important whether or not you have a diagnosed disorder – we’re all susceptible to stress, work-related burnouts and emotional upheavals. And in a culture that’s so focused on outward appearances, we often forget to check in with what’s within. Set personal boundaries and make time for self-care – whether it’s a bubble bath or a piece of chocolate, switching off your phone or going to a spa or doctor’s appointment. Carving out little pockets of peace or pleasure in an otherwise frenetic schedule ensures your stress won’t become too unwieldy to handle.
To those who haven’t been through it – offering ableist advice like ‘cheer up’, ‘eat more greens’, ‘exercise more’, or ‘why do you need medication?’ doesn’t help anyone (and doesn’t work either!) – if it were that easily cured, we wouldn’t have a whole medical field dedicated to it, would we? Instead, accept that you might not understand what’s going on or how to fix it. Rather than advice, offer support in the form of a loving and accepting environment, direct your loved one to a professional, accompany them to that first appointment.
To those suffering the issues, know you can’t stop people from making silly judgments or dispensing useless advice, but you can seek help. If you’re having a tough time, open up to a close friend or family. If the feeling is consistent or getting in the way of performing your daily activities, meet with a psychologist with whom you can figure out further treatment, whether that’s therapy or medication. (If this is something you’re ashamed to do, remember that your identity and any information you give them remains confidential by law) If you’re not ready to go to a doctor yet, there are helplines that can help you out in crisis situations.
Throughout it all, remember to be kind and patient with yourself, irrespective of what anyone else thinks. We all heal at our own pace, and the solutions are never one-size-fits all. Finds yours and hold it as a torch to the darkness, knowing that even wounds can flower, even scars can sing, even you can survive this.
Is therapy too expensive and time-consuming?
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Need crisis care? Call any of these helplines:
iCall (Mumbai) - +91-22-25521111
Sahai (Bengaluru) - +91-80-25497777
St Stephen's Hospital and Emmanuel Hospital Association (New Delhi) - +18-60-2662345
Lifeline Foundation (Kolkata) - +91-33-24637401