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Have We Moved On From Shunning Mental Illness Only To Romanticise It?

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By Devika:

The recent video on depression, ‘DobaraPoocho‘, by The Live Love Laugh Foundation has garnered a lot of attention from media and viewers. It is a tremendous effort in the direction of raising awareness about depression. But while this video had a positive and straightforward viewpoint towards mental illness, popular youth and media today is increasingly leaning towards romanticising the very idea of mental illness.

We seem to have moved on from “You aren’t depressed, snap out of it!” to “You are depressed? Oh, me too!” and “Oh you are suicidal? Yeah, it feels like I want this dark abyss to swallow me too.”

Art and poetry work by popular content producing websites like Terribly Tiny Tales, Berlin Art Parasites and Tumblr look at people having mental illness as these poetic and inspiring humans who should be put up on a pedestal and admired.

An article on Youth Ki Awaaz raises these questions. “It can be argued that when so much beauty is associated with a disease, it becomes romanticised. Instead of realising the harshness of the suffering, the pain becomes desirable, and when something is so desirable, why would you try to get rid of it?” This paradox of a ‘desirable suffering’ embodies the romantic notion of a mental illness.

I’m not saying that people suffering from mental illness shouldn’t be admired, thought of as beautiful or shouldn’t be appreciated for their struggle. What I am saying is that people who are suffering from a mental illness should not be admired or called beautiful because of their illness. It gives one the feeling that it is ‘cool’ or ‘beautiful’ to have a mental illness.

The support should be in the form of supporting or admiring someone despite their condition. Romanticising the condition sends out the message that the person is admired or appreciated because of the disease. It links the concept of ‘fitting in’ to being mentally unstable and perpetuates the idea of mental illness being a medium through which one will be adored or accepted, which is not true.

Those actually suffering from mental diseases have something very different to say in response to the heroic celebrations of mental illness on social media posts. Here’s one account by Bri Ray on elitedaily.com

“I began taking 60 mg of Prozac a day and I started along my road to recovery…
…Trust me, they’re not, and they’re not romantic either. It’s not glamorous to think of ending your own life, and it’s not romantic to harm your body or starve yourself…My anxiety causes me actual pain; it leads me to pick the skin around my fingernails…
…My roommates caught me trying to purge once and threatened to call my parents in order to have me admitted to a psychiatric ward because I just couldn’t stop…
…Do you think it’s romantic to be used to significant others regularly leaving your life? You can’t blame them either; it’s hard to always be on an emotional roller coaster…”

Not that poetic and beautiful now, is it?

While one has to appreciate and admire her courage and strength for confessing and trying to overcome the illness, one needs to remember that she should not be admired for being diagnosed with mental illness.

Besides perpetuating wrong notions about mental disorders, it also trivialises them. Trivialising mental illness, in my opinion, seems to be as much of a 21st-century phenomenon as romanticising them. My psychology teacher and friends studying psychology often chide people who say “I feel depressed today.” And they have a very valid and logical argument to the said phrase—“You don’t say you feel diabetic or cancerous today do you?” Their point here is simple and logical, mental illness is as much of an illness as a physical one, if not more. Sometime you can mend your broken arm or recover from the flu, but there is no guarantee if you will ever fully recover from depression.

Coming back to the original argument, using words like ‘depressed’ in one’s daily vocabulary as adjectives for one’s mood is definitely very problematic. It not only trivialises the burden and struggle that a single word carries, but is also an insult to those going through that struggle.

Besides trivialisation,  romanticising something like suicide sends out a wrong message to someone on the verge of committing it. As Marcella Rick writes on thetab.com

“Picture this: you’re young, deeply depressed and lonely; you log onto social media looking for some help, someone to talk to, and you’re greeted with a post like this one. Posts that make suicide look like some kind of beautiful and tragic art form, and it makes you feel like maybe this is a valid possibility, a solution to your problems.”

Media is  waking up to the reality of mental illness but it is also necessary that we wake up to it in an alert, aware and correct manner. Instead of raising mental illness on a pedestal and romanticising it into something meant for poetry, art and movies because of our misplaced understanding of ‘beauty’, as it is not the right way to go. It’s essential that we as a society bring it down from the pedestal and look at it in the eye. Maybe it’s time we love and admire people despite having mental illness and not because of it.

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Image Source: Youtube

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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