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We Must Stop Trivialising Mental Illness – Or Treating It As Forbidden

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This story is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s weekly topic #MentalHealthDay. Share your personal stories of coping with a mental illness, trying to access mental healthcare or any experience with mental health here.

How often do we hear people say they are ‘depressed’ because they feel sad over a professional or personal loss, or say they have ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’ because they like cleanliness and like for things to be organised, or call themselves ‘bipolar’ because they have mood-swings? Quite often.

We also see people calling other people who seem to deviate from behaviour that they would personally see as normal, ‘psychopaths’, or claim that someone they know who takes one too many pictures of themselves is a ‘narcissist’. Thoughtless statements like these that are thrown around often, in day-to-day conversations by a very substantial number of people, reminds us how little we really know about mental illness and the profound effects it has on the people that live with it.

Constantly trivializing mental illness and associating it with everyday, fleeting moments that we all experience due to common external factors like stress or loss, distorts the reality of mental disorders for us and negatively impacts our ability to see the intensity of real disorders – to see the experiences of real sufferers and often, their anguish.

Associating moderate stress with panic attacks that make you feel like you’re having a heart attack, sweat profusely, cause severe anxiety, make you think you’re dying; or associating tidiness with obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes sufferers to have negative, recurring thoughts and compels them to engage in compulsive behaviours to ease the severe anxiety the obsessions cause; or associating feeling sad over a personal or professional loss with a disorder like depression that causes sufferers to have low moods over the period of several months or years and several other symptoms that can push sufferers to suicide; deludes us into believing that these disorders are easy to cope with and accommodate in our lives. We seem to conveniently be ignorant of the life-altering affects these disorders can have on people, severely affecting their emotional well-being and perception of themselves.

So the next time you suffer a loss, say you’re sad. If you like cleanliness say you’re a tidy person. If you’re stressed after a very tiring day, say you are tired. Say your neighbour is weird, not a psychopath, and that you’ve been having mood-swings, not turning bipolar.

We need to stop associating common everyday emotions with mental disorders, because when we do that, we are unintentionally trivialising mental illness. We also need to understand how distorting our perception of mental illness with these associations hurts sufferers and their ability to seek help.

We are also very quick as a society to generalise mental illness and to call anyone with any disorder ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. We are completely unconcerned with the fact that mental illnesses come in different forms and types. We also seem to have complete disregard for the fact that calling sufferers of mental illness crazy or insane is very detrimental to them.

Our idea of dealing with mental illness is not therapy or medication, it is isolating ourselves from the ailing person with the naïve assumption that they might be violent, or a threat to us, or might have a bloodthirst.

Even in popular culture, the portrayal of mental illness is beyond dismaying. Mental illness on screen or in books or in most other media is generally limited to the afflicted being portrayed as either cold-blooded killers because they are ‘crazy’, or as someone who never utters a word and is completely withdrawn from everyday life.

Though there are some excellent movies and books with great and real portrayals of mental disorders, most of them just tend to portray mental illness very poorly. Also, movies tend to sell the idea that people with mental illnesses cannot be helped, that they are beyond help, and the only way to prevent the ‘destruction’ they might leave in their wake is to isolate them from society.

Though fiction, these kinds of portrayals can be severely damaging on our quest to better understand mental illness and accept it. People with mental illness are rarely violent – they are more likely to harm themselves than the people around them.

Living with a mental illness severely deteriorates the quality of your life, and that is something most discussions of mental illness in popular culture overlook. They tend to overlook the impact of mental illness on the sufferers and instead grossly exaggerate its effect on others. This embeds in our collective conscience that sufferers may or may not need help, but we need to be protected from them. This is not only a very misplaced and baseless idea to have, it’s also incredibly detrimental to sufferers.

Apart from the damaging portrayal of mental illness, there is the stigma involving it. The issue of mental illness is so stigmatised that it deters sufferers from seeking professional help. Families try to keep the mental health issues of another family member under wraps, with the fear of being labelled as the ‘crazy person’s family’. Individuals tend not to seek help, lest someone see them as insane or unfit. Universities are more likely to reject a applicant with a previous history of mental illness, lest the illness resurface and affect their performance. Biased and insensitive actions like these always act as a deterrent for those trying to seek help.

The discussion of mental health problems is always brushed under the carpet. Open and healthy discussions are considered awkward or unnecessary. We seem to think that we have all the necessary awareness about mental illness from the movies we watch, or the books we read, which have more often than not proven to be terrible examples of the portrayal of real mental illness.

Interestingly, ‘insanity’ is not even a medical term, it has no meaning or definition within the medical circle. It’s a legal term. Though you can be deemed insane legally if you’ve committed a crime when afflicted by a mental illness that can contribute to acting unreasonably, you cannot be considered insane medically. You could have one of many mental disorders, but insanity isn’t one of them.

Dealing with a mental illness can be excruciatingly hard, but the path to getting better doesn’t have to be a lonely one like it is now. Eliminating negative stereotypes about mental illnesses and having healthy discussions about them – and not being ignorant of them – will help sufferers. Also, if mental illnesses are no longer considered a stigma, and there is awareness about them, more people are likely to get professional help and detail their ordeals.

Mental illness can be crippling, but we can slightly minimise its effect on sufferers by normalising mental illness, understanding their challenges, and encouraging them to get professional help. Though it will only make it slightly better for individual sufferers, our efforts as a society will still count.

Turning mental illness from a forbidden, dark subject to a unfrightening set of conditions that can affect anyone, and need care and treatment, will better the lives of those who are suffering.

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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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