I am at a hospital in a foreign country as I write this. Somewhere in my mind, I am conscious of how lucky I am to be at an institution for mental health that gives its residents stacks of UNO cards and WiFi access so that they can get better. This is courtesy the Bollywood portrayals of the infamous pagal khaana where patients are subjected to shock therapy.
The way we respond to mental health speaks volumes about a society, particularly since it has become such a poignant reality of modern living. When I Google “mental health awareness in India” the results throw up a Buzzfeed article that paints a rather dreary picture of mental health in the country and a link to the page of the Minds Foundation India, which I cannot access. There is a clear dearth of large-scale reporting on the subjects although there are many scholarly commentaries on the subject. This suggests that there needs to be a more open dialogue on the subject of what is commonly called ‘pagalpan‘.
The WHO India estimates that 2,443 DALYs per 100,000 in the population suffer from some type of mental illness. For those who do not know, DALY stands for Disability-Adjusted Life Year. Furthermore, mental health professionals in the country comprise 0.56 per 100,000 people suggesting that the demand for such services is very inadequately met.
Mental health is a very complex phenomenon, comprised of several aspects that only a trained (and ethical) psychiatrist could properly outline. So for the purpose of this essay, I will share my experiences of mental health problems, what they taught me, and how I am gradually overcoming them.
For example, I suffered from depression for two years in college that was not diagnosed. This put me at a disadvantage because I did not understand what was happening to me and therefore believed that the situation wasn’t serious enough to reach out for professional help.
The first, very sharp, lesson that my struggles with mental health taught me was that it is important to vocalize your concerns as they develop and seek help from the right people as soon as you can. I understand that this is difficult because not everyone understands a mental health problem in the same way they do a physical health problem (a la “Dear Zindagi”) and therefore are less likely to be able to provide help. This further underlines my previous point about changing the conversation about mental health in the country.
I would, however, still urge people not to shut out their friends and family, as I did, because it only makes the battle you are fighting more isolating. It is better to have one or two trusted confidants in a highly precarious situation.
The final, and most important, thing that my time in hospital taught me is that I was not alone. Many people on my hospital floor were diagnosed with illnesses like and unlike mine and the fact that we were able to talk about it, at least to each other, made it that much easier to cope. Having a mental illness also made me less judgmental about others and made me seriously reexamine my notions of what constituted success in life.
I’d like to conclude by arguing that its time for us, as a society, to break down internal and external barriers to talking about mental health. And if you suffer from a mental health problem as I do, please remember that you are not alone.