Life in India is hard. Really hard. Right from getting a decent hospital for a delivery to getting a job, commuting to work, buying a house and even just surviving the rains, life for an average Indian is incredibly difficult. With normal life being so difficult, feeling frustrated, angry, upset, sad, disappointed and anxious is just part of life.
Hence, when someone mentions ‘mental health conversations’ or caring for people with ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, most Indians go: “What the hell are you talking about?” This is how all Indians feel as part of life. How is this even a problem to be treated? People complaining about this are just ‘weak’ or ‘misfits’ or ‘losers making excuses’.
Not understanding this Indian sentiment, our current mental health ambassadors continue their messaging. They say ‘mental health issues are like any other disease’ or ‘repeat after me, depression is real.’
Indians get gobsmacked. To Indians, diseases mean dengue, TB, cardiovascular problems, cancer, diabetes and now Covid. How is feeling ‘low’ or ‘anxious’ the same?
The reason for this disconnect is that current Indian ambassadors of mental health are cutting and pasting American models of mental health communication, even their slogans. It doesn’t work for India.
This is why despite Sushant Singh Rajput being on strong psychiatric medication, despite testimonies of multiple top mental health doctors about his disorders and despite multiple teams of doctors saying that his death is a case of suicide, we refuse to acknowledge or discuss his mental health issues.
However, since SSR’s death has had national resonance, this is a good time to at least discuss the broader issues around mental health. First, mental health is important. According to a WHO report, 1 in 4 people globally have a mental health issue at some point in their life. Closer home, according to a govt-supported NIMHANS study, 1 in 10 Indians have a mental health condition and 1 in 20 Indians have depression. Hence, for Indians to deny it, and to say this is all ‘touchy-feely, new-age hogwash’ and ‘our daadis and naanis didn’t get depressed’ is really not facing the reality.
Everybody gets upset, feels low or even feels anxiety at some point in their life. That’s not a disorder. The disorder comes when those feelings become intense, do not go away and hamper your everyday life. It’s when the feelings stay for weeks, months and years. It’s the intensity and longevity that classifies it as a disorder. It needs attention and interventions. To deny this even exists because ‘I saw him smile’ or other insensitive talk is harmful.
However, there’s also a problem in saying that mental health is like ‘any other disease’ as well. It isn’t. First of all, most mental health issues are classified as disorders, not diseases. Many times, it becomes a disorder only if it affects your quality of life — if you can’t work, never feel happy, can’t socialise.
However, unlike other diseases, help can come in different ways for mental health problems. For infectious diseases, we can pop antibiotics, kill the bacteria and recover our health. For mental health, medication is one of the options. Therapy, which involves a trained therapist changing the way you think or approach life, may also help. Sometimes, a therapist helps identify what is causing the condition — a bad job, heavy losses, a relationship, a highly-competitive career (for instance show business) that you need to walk away from to fix the problem. Sometimes, therapy alone doesn’t work and/or medication could be given. Since psychiatric medications work on brain chemistry and can have side effects, they need to be taken under medical supervision. This is too vast a topic to be discussed here, and I am not an expert on the same. However, the point is psychiatric treatments are also not a panacea and are fraught with risks. This is something the mental health advocates also need to communicate.
The response to SSR’s death, where loony, zero-real-evidence conspiracy theories trended for months, but an important discussion on mental health was dismissed as talk by ‘depression gang’ is highly unfortunate. Statistics show people with mental health issues are in big numbers. Covid and economic stress will make the numbers shoot up further. We must destigmatise mental health so that people can talk about it openly. Making India sensitive to mental health would be a much better tribute to Sushant, who I am sure would have valued it a lot more than never-ending conspiracy theories