Well, the girl who couldn’t sing before everyone – that’s me.
Have you heard of the term, social anxiety disorder?
Have you felt butterflies in your stomach when you are about to give a presentation?
Imagine that feeling increase ten times. And that every time you start a conversation with a stranger, your head feels like it’s on fire. Your body sweats and trembles, as you can hear your heart beating in your head.
Imagine this leading to the fear of social situations – that’s social phobia.
A quick Google search brought me to the following definition: “Social anxiety, also called as social phobia, is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. Anxiety and self-consciousness are from a fear of being closely watched, judged and criticised by others.” I am one of the X% of Indians who suffer from social anxiety, ‘X’ signifying the dearth of official data on social anxiety.
I have a fear of people. I fear eating, applying my lip balm, sitting and moving in my chair comfortably, in public. I can’t meet the eyes of strangers, especially those in places of authority. I avoid small talk fearing embarrassment and judgement, and I fear being the centre of attention.
It took me 18 years to realise that I am not “normal”. According to psychiatrist Harish Shetty, one in four Indians in urban centres, suffer from anxiety disorders. Anxiety of any type can cause depression and if untreated, can eventually cause suicidal thoughts. When I discussed my problem with my parents, initially they refused to acknowledge my issue, thinking that I was assuming things. Unfortunately, we do not have a pan-India government suicide helpline available in all official languages, to address this.
In terms of legislation, we have a Mental Health Bill, 2013 replacing the Mental Health Act of 1987, but still pending in the Lok Sabha. The Bill passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha in 2016 isn’t as progressive as it is made out to be and has its own loopholes.
In 2014, India — for the first time ever — adopted a mental health policy. However, a noteworthy loophole of the policy, to my view, is that it focusses less on awareness. The only awareness programme I chanced on is the District Mental Health Programme under the National Mental Health Programme devised in 1982.
My Google search for ‘countries having effective programmes on anxiety disorders’ took me to an interesting project called ‘Friendship Benches’ in Zimbabwe. Practitioners called “community grandmothers” are trained to listen to patients on benches installed in the premises of hospitals. The programme depends on problem-solving therapy rather than standard health care.
Closer home, I believe that spreading awareness in schools by collaborating with NGOs, including common mental illnesses in the curriculum, and identifying children who remain aloof and giving guidance to their parents, are a few awareness measures I could think of.
I’d like to end by saying this: out of the fear of being judged, it is hard for socially anxious people to come out and share with others. However, all my fellow strugglers, understand that you are not alone!
Sahithi Andoju is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the February-March 2017 batch.