By: Avanti Savur
For the past several years, seven, to be exact, I’ve lived my life under the shroud of depression and anxiety. There are times when it is bearable, when I can ignore the intrusive thoughts and attempt to soldier on, and other times, I am on the precipice of collapse, but it is always there at the back of my mind. Indian culture, and society in general, dictates that mental health isn’t something to be taken seriously, and the general attitude of my peers was that speaking out meant I was asking for attention. This conditioning that I had internalized and believed to be true, left me shuddering at the prospect of opening up my inner world to well-intentioned loved ones, for fear of being misunderstood, laughed off, not taken seriously or dismissed. I am now happy to say that I’ve been seeking therapy, and am surrounded by friends who try to understand, and will always listen. Still though, I ferociously guard the existence of my depression and anxiety from everyone other than my inner circle; a part of me still clings to the shame I was taught to feel.
About a month ago, news broke of a popular Indian celebrity’s tragic suicide, and with it came a flurry of posts on social media, stressing the importance of mental health awareness and telling their followers to message them whenever they felt like they needed to talk to someone, and that they would always be there for them. Despite being an advocate for mental health awareness myself, and in a way, being the target audience of such posts, I can’t help but be wary of yet another spate of attempts to bring mental health awareness into mainstream conversation. By now, I know what this means for us. I know that despite the cries for awareness, it means seeing the word “suicide” splashed everywhere on the internet without any thought given to trigger warnings. It means uninstalling Instagram and calling my therapist three times a week instead of the usual one. It means practising self-soothing techniques and wondering when mere words will stop affecting me to this degree, blaming myself for my strong reactions in spite of knowing that I have no say on the matter. And the most frustrating and disheartening- I know that this conversation will take place in an echo chamber of neurotypical and non-mentally ill voices, be reduced to a hashtag and will last less than two weeks.
These sorts of discussions wrongfully assume that mental illness is a monolith consisting of only depression and anxiety- aspects of the conditions easily lend themselves to aesthetic quotes and romanticised renditions in all forms of media- but they couldn’t possibly encompass the pain these illnesses bring with them. Mainstream cultures adopt and appropriate whatever symptoms are deemed to be palatable and discard the rest- reducing the biopsychosocial model of mental illnesses to plot devices and sympathy-inducers and almost seem to imply that these devastating, life-ruining conditions are desirable in order to be seen as unique and quirky. It hurts to think about how much easier my diagnosis and treatment would have gone, had I known better, had my peers and the media we consumed done their due diligence and researched the topic before attempting to tackle them.
There is also a crushing need to recalibrate conversations surrounding mental health to accommodate for the heterogeneity of mental illness. Conversations around mental illness display a clear dissonance- we find ourselves picking and choosing the issues we’re comfortable with and shying away from the facets that induce discomfort. At times like these, those suffering from less-talked about conditions like paranoia, bipolar disorder, OCD, addiction, schizophrenia, or PTSD, to name a few, are completely ignored. Not only are these conditions not addressed in these conversations, they’re often reduced to caricatures of themselves- for example, OCD being perceived as a “neat freak” tendency rather than a debilitating illness with a plethora of symptoms that takes years of professional help and possibly medication to cope. The accepted representation of these conditions perpetuated by the media are nothing but running jokes that are meant to be perceived as eccentricities in the character, and other times, they’re demonised and used as one-dimensional plot devices in the arc of villains to justify their destructive actions and personalities.
The rampant misrepresentation of mental illnesses adds to the already-pervasive stigma that exists in our society- one that contributes to the already distressing emotional hardships mental illnesses bring. We’ve been taught to perceive certain aspects of mental illnesses as wrong or scary- seeking professional help, auditory/visual hallucinations, consumption of medication, for example. Dealing with these issues is hard enough on their own, the added stresses of dealing with the slander and vilification from society can often be too much to bear.
It’s incredibly, unimaginably hard for us to acknowledge our feelings as valid and worthy of receiving help, much less opening up to others, with the taboos around mental illnesses. I treat my illnesses like they’re deep, dark secrets; very few people in my life know of their existence and that I seek professional help. Despite everything I now know about mental health after much reading and listening, society’s conditioning takes over and I find myself feeling ashamed about my feelings and anything to do with my illness must be dealt with in clandestine fashion. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by family, friends, teachers and other authority figures to simply “not be stressed,” as though any feelings, those having to do with mental illness or otherwise, can be turned off by a flick of a mental switch. Even well meaning responses of “just open up to people around you” tend to do more harm than good- negative stereotypes of mental illnesses make it almost impossible to do so, not to mention the people who post such messages aren’t professionals and therefore aren’t qualified or able to take on the emotional burden of becoming deeply acquainted with someone’s struggle with mental illness, especially when it’s one that is already underrepresented.
There’s so much secrecy and misunderstanding around mental health and mental illnesses, from the causes to the effects. It’s important to understand that different conditions manifest themselves in different ways, and the exposure to and consequence of all mental illnesses are not the same- and they’re all equally valid. We as a society need to acclimatize ourselves with the aspects of mental illness that we don’t fully understand. Every person with a mental illness has different experiences, and it’s important to not apply the details of one person’s unique struggles as dogma that others with the same illness must adhere to, but rather use that knowledge to broaden our understanding of mental health. Mental health is a heavy topic to deliberate, but it’s vital that we do so while keeping in mind those who are most affected by these discussions and being mindful of boundaries we may accidently cross. Perhaps that’s how we can make this conversation marginally easier to have. Perhaps then, we can truly achieve the allyship that’s so desperately sought after; we can find it through inclusivity, empathy and education.