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The One Thing That Helped Me Battle Depression And Survive IIT

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By: Aditya Mani Jha 

Growing up, I was a fairly stocky kid, peaking at a level that can be called “fat but short of obese”. By the time I reached college, my growth spurt meant that some of the puppy fat had melted away. It was a shock, nevertheless, for my friends to see me wither away to an alarming 48 kilograms (I’m 1.73 m tall and now weigh 80 kilos; back then, I would normally weigh about 70) during my fourth year in college. I was 21 years old, clinically depressed and in the middle of a full-blown meltdown.

It did not happen in a vacuum. For the two years prior to this, I had been feeling the pressure that came with studying at an elite, high-octane institute (IIT Kharagpur). It’s the sort of seemingly laid-back place that masks its intensity exceedingly well. There are kids running all over the place, rehearsing for plays, dancing to cheesy songs, smashing beer bottles against hostel walls or making insufferable little candidacy speeches for posts with negligible power outside their CVs. And yet, anybody who has spent a meaningful amount of time there knows that the place is as competitive as it gets — and not in a nice way. Paycheques are phallic stand-ins even as the students prepare for the biggest pissing contest in the country: Campus placements.

Now, it is no longer enough to get by with average marks and a positive attitude. To gain an edge, people put themselves through the grind every single day, clearing CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams, preparing for MBA entrance tests, using the most blatant exaggerations and falsehoods to snag prestigious internships. By the time I completed my first year at college, I grew so disgusted with this grotesque vaudeville show that I decided to remove myself from the milieu entirely.

By the end of my third year, I vowed not to sit for campus placements. I had no interest in being an investment banker or a business consultant (which is what most engineering students want to be). In my naiveté, I saw all of this a game — an elaborate, cut-throat one —but still a game nonetheless. If I didn’t play, I couldn’t lose.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. It never is.

I saw, soon enough, that the people in my batch soon sifted themselves into two groups: the haves and the have-nots. The haves were the ones with opportunities, prospects, achievements, jobs, smiles and café lattes to wake them up after a night of celebratory spirits. The have-nots hovered around the campus like Death Eaters, dark, hooded, with wrinkly hands, spreading a cold, miserable vibe in their wake, bringing up their current unemployment and future penury in the most unsubtle of ways. Of course, the ‘penury’, like much else at IIT, was subject to relative grading. What the Death Eaters feared was normalcy — making do with Rs 7-8 lakhs per annum, an unexceptional starting salary by IIT standards (circa 2006-7).

I hated both groups with equal passion. But people like me, people who belonged to neither group, were white tigers: rare, under the weather and liable to be hunted down by this bullet or that one. Already, my hitherto supportive parents had started making noises about ‘future plans’. By the time my fourth year in college began, their polite questions gave way to full-blown panic and aggressive interrogation. Some of my friends were worse, offering me catalogues and websites and ‘cheat sheets’ for internship entrance tests. Take it, just swallow the Kool-Aid, they’d urge me. You can read as many books and watch as many films you want when you are “settled” (read: filthy rich; anything short of it would be ‘wasting’ my talents, wasting a seat at this precious institute).

Eventually, I stopped leaving my room, stopped going to classes altogether for about a month or so. After I was informed that I could be forced to repeat the semester, I would wake up in the morning, attend classes with a blank expression, go home and stare at my ceiling fan, Jerry Garcia keeping me company at forbidding volumes.

I would not eat for days on end, and then binge-eat comfort food over a long weekend spent watching the Lord of the Rings films back-to-back (not even the most ardent of Tolkien fans can convince me that this was healthy behaviour). I would smoke and smoke and smoke until I was living in a perpetual mushroom cloud of misery and despair. I alienated a fair few of my friends during this phase and the ones I didn’t, started to avoid me because my sunken eyes, matted hair and general zombie-like tendencies made them afraid that I would crack their skulls open and nibble at their brains.

It would be fair to say that my only true friends during these terrible three months or so were the cleaning and kitchen staff at my hostel. These kind souls would often surprise me with a knock on the door and plates heaped with food. They had noticed my absence in the mess and were anxious about the boy who would imitate actors and pull off a Bhojpuri accent for their pleasure. Even when the food went untouched, they never stopped coming, never stopped asking me if I needed anything.

And then, during one particularly terrible week, I found myself paralysed with fear and anxiety thrice: all three occasions during classroom lectures. I would show symptoms consistent with both asthma and claustrophobia. I could only calm down if I was immediately taken to a sunny place with trees around me. After the third incident, the doctor said I ought to see a psychiatrist or a therapist: preferably both.

Luckily, despite the Stone Age attitudes towards mental illness, the campus had a Counselling Centre, with both psychiatrists and therapists on their payroll. I was lucky enough to be assigned a doctor who was both — and treated both aspects of her job with equal respect. Soon, I was speaking to her thrice a week, doing the writing exercises she assigned me. Importantly, she put me on a course of mild anti-depressants for two months. The meds and her therapy sessions probably saved my life.

Best of all, she encourage me to write about my experiences, pointing out that she had only ever seen me sitting comfortably and naturally when I had a pen and a notebook in my hand (only two other people have made this observation, before or since: one is the woman I live with now and the other is an old and preternaturally observant friend). Before I knew it, I had written a play about failed suicides: dark, but funny, willing to laugh at things others would shudder at. It is the only thing I wrote back then that survives to this day. I showed it to some of my friends from the college theatre troupe, which I was a part of, too. They were excited about it and began rehearsals in real earnest, giving me the dramatic monologue that ended the play.

I was aware of how this looked like, of course, my coming out of hibernation armed with a play about suicide. But my renewed mental health — and this newfound confidence in my writing — had assured me that it was going to be all right. Not only was I healthy, I had realised that it was, in fact, okay to talk about my illness. A week before the play was performed, my doctor informed me that she had stopped my meds and that I did not need therapy anymore.

The play went like a dream. Later that year, I began writing book reviews for a Delhi-based newspaper. By the time placement season came around, I asked the editor if I could, perhaps, join the paper once I was done with college. He said yes and that’s exactly what I did. The money was a fraction of the average IIT graduate’s salary, but I was happier than ever before. I threw myself into the arena of journalism.

This was 5 years ago. Today, I am in the middle of writing my first book (for Oxford University Press India), an academic-cum-journalistic tour through the world of Indian comics and graphic novels. I write a weekly TV column for The Hindu, and handle the Arts/Culture pages over at BLink, a weekend supplement for The Hindu Business Line. My writings on culture, literature, art — and, on occasion, mental health — are read and appreciated by a wide range of people.

To people who are reading this and are going through difficulties of their own, I would say only this: I know it is the toughest thing in the world to talk about it. I know the doubt and the self-loathing and the inertia. But in the final equation, talking about to it to a friend, a loved one or a professional, help more than you would believe. It’s frequently humiliating and it hurts like crazy, but it’s worth it.

It’s okay to talk.


Aditya is a 28-year-old journalist/writer living in New Delhi. He works at The Hindu Business Line and writes “Universal Remote”, a television column for The Hindu. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about Indian comics. This article was originally published here

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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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