Our silent relationship with mental health: Stigma is still strong in India

In rural India, it is quite common to see people taking their children to temples and faith-healers rather than hospitals and doctors; even more so in cases when the issue is related to mental health.

But not too long ago, even in urban India, mental health was a topic that never made it to the discussion-table; and if it needed mention, it was only spoken about, rather uncomfortably, in hushed tones. Even though people knew there was some issue that needed to be addressed, sweeping it under the rug seemed a more feasible option than visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist and earning the coveted title of being "mad".

 Our silent relationship with mental health: Stigma is still strong in India

Doctors say roughly 10 per cent of India’s population suffers from depression. Photo from freeimages

Last year, Deepika Padukone stunned fans by admitting that she had been suffering from anxiety and depression. This move was bold considering she broke this news at a time when she was one of the most sought after actresses in Bollywood, and people in India have a tendency to discriminate against those diagnosed with mental illness (Shidhaye, 2012).

Deepika went on to launch the Live Love Laugh Foundation to raise awareness about mental health issues. Many celebrities were inspired to come out in the open and talk about the need to address mental health — Varun Dhawan spoke about being depressed during the making of Badlapur, and more recently, Honey Singh admitted that he had been undergoing therapy for bipolar disorder. While depression is a term often used loosely, many people had not even heard of bipolar disorder until Honey Singh or Shama Sikander admitted to having battled it.

More than 50 million people in India suffer from a mental illness. In 2011, India recorded the highest rate of major depression in the world at 36 per cent. According to doctors, roughly 10 per cent of India’s population suffers from depression.

Approximately, one in five women and one in 10 men are victims of a major depressive episode at some point in their life. This number is alarming because it means you have more than one person in your circle of friends and family who could be thoroughly depressed despite their brave exterior, and you’ve probably had no clue about their condition.

Jiah Khan and Pratyusha Banerjee became talks of the town when news of their suicide reached the masses. Media and people chose to focus their attention on digging out the dirty linen of their failed relationships or stagnant careers, instead of looking at the issue of suicide in a larger context.

In India, almost 11 people in every lakh commit suicide every year; hundreds more probably attempt it. Suicide being on the rise is a strong indicator of the need to address issues surrounding mental health. Making suicide illegal is not the solution — it only makes it difficult for the person who has attempted suicide to receive emergency care. Many people do not report failed suicide attempts as they do not want the police to get involved.

In today’s fast-paced life, stress persecutes each one of us. A student worries over not having delivered his best in the exam. A teenager, not as well-off as his other friends, tries hard to combat peer pressure. An intern tries hard to prove her worth. A working woman, at top management level, grapples with domestic violence at home. A man deals with feelings of inferiority while struggling to impress his boss at work.

How many of them are willing to talk to a professional about such issues? “What’s the need? It happens to everyone.” “It’s no big deal!” Not one of them would approach a mental health practitioner for their issues because each one of them believes doing so will make people believe that they are creating mountains out of mole-holes.

So, can one say with certainty that stigma surrounding mental health has reduced? Perhaps, yes; but to a very minuscule extent. True, people are not shunning topics related to mental health; conversations are now taking place more in the open. But it is an issue that is still trivialised.

There continues to be a dearth of mental health practitioners in India. For every four lakh Indians, there is only one psychiatrist. We applaud celebrities for speaking up about their issues, but how many of us appreciate our near and dear ones for trying to talk about what is bothering them? So many times, in the first counselling-session, clients make comments like, “I feel so light! This is the first time I felt heard. I have finally unburdened myself by sharing it all!”

All of us are so engrossed in our daily lives that devoting quality time to someone in need often poses a genuine issue. However, giving advice without even understanding where the person is coming from, dismissing the issue as being totally unimportant, or going to the extent of rebuking the person for seeing a "shrink" seems to be a relatively easier task.

We can blame Westernisation for the rise of mental health issues or, like Rakhi Sawant, blame the poor ceiling fan for increasing suicide rates, but it does not change the fact that our society is in a state of constant flux, and we are not going back to the old ways.

The first step has already been taken by a courageous few who have brought the issue of mental health in the limelight, but it is up to us now to walk the rest of the path. We need to bring about a shift in our attitude and develop a more open mind-set on mental health. In the past, many of us lost the battle against mental illness by letting our fears get the better of us. Since then, we have become experts in pushing our issues away and some of us have even failed to acknowledge their existence. To reduce the stigma around mental health, we need to start with ourselves — first, we need to identify our concerns and stop judging the inner voice inside our head that begs us to speak to someone.

The writer is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Mumbai. She runs “The Silver Lining”, an organisation that addresses issues related to mental health.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2016 15:06:21 IST