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The Stigma Of Mental Illness: “What Do You Have To Be Depressed About?” Asked My Father…

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By Anonymous

Note: Originally published on Empathize This and republished here with their permission.

I was 19, and just an average student doing an average degree, working part-time and living the lifestyle many people my age did.

Depression altered everything.

It all seems like a horrible dream now but there are still things I remember distinctly. I remember feeling some sort of terrible sadness that wanted nothing, but took everything, and nothing would quell it. I became very isolated and alone, and my attempts to seek out chances to socialize only made it worse.

I remember realizing it wasn’t just a temporary “down in the dumps” feeling when I started waking up several times a night. I’d wake, and feel normal for about a second or two before “it” – the heaviness, the nothingness, the sadness – all came flooding back, like a wave. In the pitch dark this was terrifying.

I finally went to a walk-in medical center, purely out of desperation. I had hit a point where I just wanted a definitive answer about how I was feeling and, moreover, I relished an opportunity to distract myself by something I “had to” do, even if I felt incredibly anxious and uncomfortable doing it. Going and sitting in a walk-in centre with an actual purpose and end goal was far better than sitting in my room agonisingly waiting for the day to end. The doctor asked me to describe how I was feeling and I broke down in the middle of the office. The doctor herself was understanding and patient, but I could tell there was little she could do directly. She asked me lots of questions and many of them seemed to hit home. She asked me things like if I thought about taking my own life. I struggled to answer, as I couldn’t truthfully say no.

She told me I was depressed, and prescribed me antidepressants to help. I think having a diagnosis of a real mental health disorder was both good and bad. It made me feel like maybe it wasn’t my fault and was something I couldn’t control. But at the same time I didn’t want to tell people – not because I thought they wouldn’t be understanding, but because I felt like I would be undermining my legitimacy as a rational human being. Maybe if people knew I had depression, they would see me as irrational, a burden, or just different. Kind of like the very old relative that people still love but don’t stay around for too long.

After the doctor’s appointment, when I went to pick up the antidepressants, I noticed the awkward smile I received from the girl at the pharmacy. That was too much – I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge into the official realm of “depression“. I didn’t want to be labelled. I didn’t want anyone to look at me like that again; I wasn’t used to pity and I couldn’t bear the thought at being kept at arms length by everyone.

Needless to say, the stigma of mental illness was a powerful spectre in my mind.

About two weeks later, I told my parents, and at first they were really supportive. But they were only so accommodating for so long. I’ll never forget the day my dad told me that I wasn’t poor, wasn’t unemployed and wasn’t being physically abused so “what [did I have] to be depressed about?” (Word for word, he actually used that old chestnut).

I wish depression was as simple as that. I wish that employment and safety automatically added up to a “cure“. But mental illness doesn’t work like that. It takes indiscriminately and without reason.

My father’s reaction paired with the stigma of the “depression” label told me everything I needed to know about how the world feels about mental illness. You’re either a sub-human object of pity, or, in short, a whiner.

In many ways I am lucky: I came out of my depression without drugs (although for those who find them helpful, there is nothing wrong with them), and in fact gained a newfound sense of how complex and important every person in this world is. However, because of that I have a hard time seeing all the hurt in the world and not speaking my mind. I want to help; I want every person to be treated as just that – a person.

I know there is stigma, and misunderstanding about depression everywhere. And I want everyone to know this: there is nothing wrong with you. And no one – no one! – has any right to say otherwise.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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