By Varun Gwalani:
For most of my life, I have been mentally ill.
That simple statement evokes such a wide range of reactions – from camaraderie to laughing at me to utter disgust – that it is quite frankly shocking. It’s as if I told them I support Donald Trump or something. Now that the requisite Donald Trump joke is over, let me tell you an even funnier and somehow more tragic joke: The state of mental healthcare in India.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, we have only about 3,500 registered psychiatrists operating. To really grasp the enormity of that number, consider that incidents of rape, whose survivors often need continued psychiatric care because of the severity and brutality of the crime, were close to 2000 in 2014 in Delhi alone.
The reason for this abysmal state of mental healthcare is pretty obvious to anyone who has lived in India: we simply don’t take mental illness seriously. The reaction to it is either scorn or fear, culminating with jokes about how the person with the disorder needs to “toughen up” and “just forget about it” or threats from parents about how they’ll “put us in a mental hospital” (which is actually really hard to do, considering we have less than fifty of them!).
It would be easy to be cynical about this, or say that it’s none of your concern. But there’s a high likelihood that it will affect you or someone you know and love at some point in your life. When that happens, you might not know what to do about it, for the very same reason that there is so much stigma attached to mental health: No one talks about it.
I’d like to believe that people are more misguided or ill-informed by the systems they grew up with, and as a result have so much disdain only because they haven’t had a chance to know anything else. So, we have to tell them. We need to inform, educate, to tell them that mental disorders aren’t some scary, unknowable entity that makes people violent, but rather a disease like any other physical disease, with identifiable causes, treatments, and ways with which to deal and live with them.
But, till that happens, and it will take some time, I think we should tell our stories to support those who are still suffering in silence, and to remind them that they are not alone.
My story is that I was suffering from OCD for most of my life, a disease which most people associate with quirky and annoying traits like hand-washing or excessive cleaning. In my case, it was more visions of violence and death, depression, anxiety attacks, unrelenting obsessions and a complete sense of isolation and distance from the world around me. I was unable to connect with anyone, unable to function at a very basic level most of the time because of the fact that my own brain was lying to me, my own brain told me that I had to be terrified of everyone and everything, that I could never be safe.
I talk about this in more detail in my TED talk, and also the fact that medication and therapy do help. But right now I would like to share something very personal and important to me. While I was in my last, horrific year of OCD, a year that I honestly did not think I would live through, I wrote a book which I called ‘The First Storyteller’.
I did not write it with any expectation or particular audience in mind, simply because I did not expect to be there to see anyone see it. It was all I had, an honest expression of my truth, my struggle through the pain in my head that I went through every day. It’s a story of turmoil, of struggle and hope; but ultimately, it was a story of resilience. About the ability to move forward and keep moving forward. The fact that I am here alive writing about that is a testament to the ability of the human spirit to move forward. I hope that whoever is out there struggling with this disorder remembers that and keeps fighting, because one day there will be a day that you too will get through.