Real Stories of Dealing with Depression is the first book in Simon and Schuster’s ‘Mindscape’ series. The book includes a set of first-person accounts and informative articles written by mental health professionals. It is put together by Amrita Tripathi, the founder-editor of The Health Collective, an online portal focused on providing a safe space for conversations about mental health, as well as information and resources. She is assisted in this book by psychologist Arpita Anand, who offers a psychologist’s perspective on each account.
Books on mental health have slowly started to appear on the Indian landscape. Noteworthy titles include Shubhrata Prakash’s The D-Word, which is the testimony of an IRS officer — someone who has, by every Indian middle-class standard, made it — about her struggles with depression. Prakash is one of the ten people who have offered first-person accounts in this book as well. Another book that caught my eye was Vijay Nallawala’s A Bipolar’s Journey.
While these longer accounts have their own merits, this title is the first title that I have noted that collects multiple accounts. Depression, as a landscape, is rich in diversity, with many strange and unique flowers and birds peopling it; while no account feels entirely alien, no single account feels like a dead-ringer for one’s own experience. Given this variation, collecting a diversity of voices in the book feels important.
Before I speak about the diversity, there is one factor that I want to point out as most important: what is common in each of the accounts in the book is that everyone here has contended with mental illness in one way or another, and found a way to live a full life.
This is true of everyone facing this experience: if you have no hope right now, that is just a trick of the light. If anyone has told you you will never have a fulfilling life, because you have this or that mental illness, whether they are close family, your psychiatrists, or ‘experts’, quietly tell them to kindly, please, f**k off: we are all here to say that there is life beyond these boxes and diagnoses, and with a little time and patience, you, too, will get there. No matter how bleak things look, and no matter how uncertain you feel right now, a future where you are feeling better exists.
The Many Faces of Depression
The most striking of the moves to include in a wide range of experiences is the devotion of an entire section to motherhood and depression. I hope more and more people come to acknowledge that, apart from having its own rewards, motherhood can be both stressful and overwhelming, and mothers deserve support from their partners, employers and families.
Along with post-partum depression, the mental health implications of adoption in India are also covered. That something as beautiful and human as adoption is used to stigmatise adoptive parents is one of the more shameful and self-defeating features of Indian society. I am glad this book sought to articulate it.
We also have Anant Zanane bringing to us an account of the mental health challenges induced by being queer in a homophobic society, while being a broadcast journalist no less, and an entire section on caregivers, another vital area of mental illness that needs attention.
The book also introduces us to high-functioning depression with the only anonymous account in the book. I have often been, in the past, a vocal proponent of speaking up about one’s own mental health challenges, because I have first-hand experience in the toll silence has taken on myself and many others. And having been vocal about my own mental health journey has shown me that there is no one who has not had to pay attention to mental health, whether their own or that of someone close to them.
However, I have recently learnt from the editors of Facing the Mirror, the anthology of lesbian writing, that there is no need to valorise ‘coming out’, as gay or as someone who has had a set of experiences that society understands under the broad umbrella of mental health. In this spirit, and given the still-stifling lack of stories about mental illness in India, I’d like to thank the anonymous writer for their contribution, and encourage more to speak up using the cover of anonymity if need be.
It is one thing to experience depression, but quite another to have to stay shut about it. Telling our own story, turning it over in our own heads, owning every part of it, and having it be read and embraced by others is one of the most organic and fundamental ways human psyches have of healing. It is the real secret ingredient in every form of therapy. I hope everyone facing this experience can find their own safe space to do just this.
A group I want to particularly say this to is my group of fellow straight men. There is something telling about the gender break-up of accounts in this book: leaving aside the one anonymous account, eight are accounts by women, and there is no straight man who has contributed.
Having been vocal about my experiences with mental illness, I have had straight men speak to me about their struggles, and the burden of stigma for them is significantly higher. There are many complex reasons for this, but the most significant one among them is vulnerability is seen by masculine norms as a liability, when in fact the façade of invulnerability is what is weak and fragile. I see you: I hope you will find the words and the space to unburden.
Narrating the self, and being narrated by experts
A book like this one faces a quandary. Every person’s journey with mental health includes false or partial epiphanies that can be harmful to others dealing with depression. Since these epiphanies are important to those who have them, they will find their way into their accounts. For example, one of the accounts speaks of ‘fake it till you make it’ really working, and sees forced smiles as therapeutic.
While I do not want to dismiss this experience, I see that advice as dangerously close to simplistic ideas of pushing away mental illness that do more harm than good. There are some other ideas in the book that I am not entirely comfortable with.
Of course, this is part of the whole experience of talking about something that has gone unsaid — we will struggle to find the right words, and the right emphasis. I have myself had false epiphanies that I have forcefully thrust upon others, like an obdurate salesman. But the way this book has dealt with the possibility of tricky messages in first-person accounts is by having the psychologist Arpita Anand offer her commentary on each narrative.
The commentary itself is gentle and helpful in many ways, but perhaps my sense of betrayal comes from what I expected the book to include, which was a wealth of first-person accounts. I had imagined a book where people with depression were exchanging war stories. Instead, the format of the book means that there are more pages of experts speaking of us than there are of us speaking of ourselves.
In a way, the format of the book also imposes priorities on each account, with every contributor being asked to answer a set of four questions. Once again, the questions are helpful in its own way — none of this means you should not read the book — but it repeats a problem that I hope will be solved one day.
People with mental illness have had centuries of ‘experts’ speaking for them and about them. When they have tried to find their own narrative, what they have to say is strikingly different from what many experts expect or encourage. To see an example of what expertise on mental illness by someone who has faced it looks like, please watch a hero of mine, Eleanor Longden, speak about schizophrenia in a TED talk.
A better solution, and one that I hope the editors and publishers will take into account, is to encourage people with mental illness to speak in a voice that eschews excessive certainty, and to preface every suggestion of what might work with the caveat that this is just something to try. Readers must feel free to discard anything that does not help. I hope that one of the books in this series will use this caveat to just be people talking to people, without having the need to draw lessons or guidelines.
Other than that, I’d have had no problem if this book had been pitched as a book by experts, with first-person accounts included as examples to learn from and analyze. It remains a valuable contribution, and I hope all who have a need to understand mental health will read it, or at least use their knowledge of it to access The Health Collective, which has a lot of the information included in the book.
Summaries of Studies, and the Power of Illustrations
Towards the end of the book is a long collection of resources. This is a valuable part of the book, with summaries of twenty-eight recent research studies on mental health in India included. Scientific studies themselves can have significant flaws, with psychological studies particularly prone to methodological shortcomings, but if we take them as a new perspective rather than as the gospel truth, there is something we can learn from them. Any responsible attempt to make science more accessible is, however, welcome. We need as much information, and from as many perspectives, as we can.
Another way of approaching mental illness is by using something other than words to describe it. To this end, the illustrations included in the book by Pia Alizé and Kishore Mohan, particularly the delicate, non-narrative ones of trees and feathers, resonated deeply with me. It also showed how much people with depression have to contribute, and how different and beautiful our art is.
A world where people who have experienced what the world calls mental illness can speak freely about their experience through stories and music and art will be a much richer world. Dante’s Inferno, whose beginning I have always read as speaking of mental illness, says (in its Longfellow translation):
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
There is much to learn from the experience of depression, if only we are allowed to explore it instead of having to hide it or fear it. Just as Dante’s voice found much ‘good to treat’ in his dark experience, so too is there much ‘good to treat’ in ours. It is my hope that this book, among many others, serves as a gentle spirit-guide on your journey.
See you on the other side.
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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2019 10:08:41 IST