This Silent Epidemic Is Affecting 56 Million Indians, But We Just Don’t Talk About It

Posted by Lipi Mehta in #LetsTalk, Society
March 10, 2017

I grew up in listening to the word ‘depression’ being thrown around quite often. From “She’s entered depression since two days”, “He has been like this only… seems depressed”, to “If you don’t eat well, then you’ll put on weight and be depressed”. Like me, others too in my family probably didn’t understand the import of what we were all saying. I never made the effort as well, to find out what depression really means and neither was there any talk of seeking help for anyone who “seemed depressed”. It was assumed: “It will be fine in just a few days, yaar.”

Years later, these conversations sprang up again in my head when I worked on a show called ‘Satyamev Jayate‘, which, through one of its episodes, addressed the topic of mental health on national TV. In the months running up to this, as I sat through many video testimonies and took copious notes, I realised there was one glaring similarity throughout: the difficulty in opening up about issues such as depression. I remember being so moved by one woman’s story of dealing with utter loneliness and struggling to find purpose in life after her children left home, that for the first times in months, I called up my mom to simply ask, “How are you?”

I realise this is something that we just don’t do enough. Ask each other how we’re doing with the purpose of asking only that, and nothing more. A total of 322 million people in the world are living with depression. Yet, lakhs of us don’t even know depression is a serious problem, because for something to be taken seriously, it has to first be talked about, right?

Shrouded under intense stigma and labels like ‘mad’, ‘very moody’ and ‘attention seeking’, we’re refusing to confront a monster that affects 1 in 20 Indians, as per the National Mental Health Survey (2015-16). That makes it over 56 million Indians whose problems we’re sweeping under the rug probably because they aren’t ‘visible’, like a boil or rash. And just imagine the state of panic we as a country would have jumped into if 56 million Indians were at once affected with something more ‘visible’, like malaria. But the shame and taboo around the issue is so much that visiting a therapist in India makes you ‘mad’, and hundreds of families gasp at the utter ludicrousness of such a ‘need’.

We’re content talking about student achievements, but to talk about pressures our marks-obsessed system puts students through, is something that makes us shift uncomfortably in our seats. This, despite the fact that 1% of our population reports high suicidal risk, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds globally, with thousands of cases being linked to depression and stress.

“It’s a slow and silent epidemic,” says a leading psychiatrist, Dr Harish Shetty, about depression. “It’s an epidemic policy makers haven’t awakened to. And the movement to fight it must be people-driven and not dependent on doctors alone. The more we talk about it, the more we can fight it. Mental illness is not rocket science,” he says. Dr Shetty also speaks about the need to create ‘mental health soldiers’ across the country, to break the taboo around mental illnesses and spread more awareness, a ‘soldier’ that I realise even you and I can be if we want to.

WHO suggests that by 2020, depression will be the leading cause of world disability, and by 2030, it’ll be the largest contributor to disease burden globally. In such a situation, can we afford to keep this a dark secret that millions of us are too scared to disclose because of shame? It’s time to disclose this secret and open up, because depression is everywhere – in our classrooms, trains and metros, marketplaces, and in our homes – and our acceptance, understanding and our voice is the only thing that can drown it. #LetsTalk, and then let’s talk some more. Start today, start small. Start by even asking, “How are you?” Trust me, it’ll help.