With increasing cases of people being diagnosed with mental issues have created a stir in the society and pushed more people to talk about it, seek help and reach out to their loved ones. In these crucial times several stigmas related to mental health issues have plagued our society, and mental health awareness has become the need of the hour.
Meet Sonaksha Iyengar: someone who’s been doing incredible work in campaigning for mental health awareness and reaching out to people through her art. Residing in Bengaluru, she freelances as a writer and an illustrator. Having battled a mental illness herself, she realises how mental health illnesses don’t come with a clock and how important it is for people to feel comfortable and live in a judgement-free space.
Her campaign talks about the ‘A to Z of mental health’. It’s part of the 36 day challenge on Instagram which calls upon illustrators to express their views on letters and numbers of the alphabet. What started as drawing in the margins of college notebooks, eventually took the form of illustrations in everything: from covers for projects to posters for fests, drawing on post-it notes, water colour paintings to digital illustrations that she posts on Instagram, and she hasn’t stopped ever since.
I caught up with Sonaksha to talk about her incredible campaign in bringing awareness about the mental health scenario in the country and, how she uses art as a catalyst to facilitate this difficult conversation.
Simran Pavecha: You did quite the unthinkable coming up with the idea of doing this with the alphabets! You, quite literally, educated the masses about mental health – only through illustrations; new means, same end. Where did the idea come from? Was it inspired from your personal life and/or struggles with mental health?
Sonaksha Iyengar: Yes, definitely it was inspired from my personal life and also, generally, from conversations with people about mental health. I’ve had experiences while talking to people about mental health and I realized that people aren’t really aware about it. On a whole, as a society we lack awareness about mental health because the subject is so hush-hush and speaking about it is still such a taboo. Since mental illnesses and disorders can often be invisible, they are not even acknowledged and sometimes even ridiculed. There’s just so much stigma associated with it. I wanted to create something tangible to start this conversation and I’ve wanted to talk about mental health for a long time and I didn’t know how to start a conversation about it. So, I thought why not go back to the basics and start from there. That’s how the idea came about. The hope is that people take a few moments to think about mental health and engage in conversations while also listening to other people who are living with these illnesses. That will help us break the stigma that exists, about mental health.
SP: How did you manage through the rough patches in your mental health journey? What was your support system like?
SI: I don’t think my journey is over; it is ongoing. I think I’ve been really privileged and super grateful throughout because I’ve had my mother and brother with me through the journey; they have been there throughout, from before I even had any idea as to what is happening. Having that kind of a support system was really helpful. And, also, having art has always been super helpful because it really helps me let go of things.
SP: It’s really commendable how your posts are exposing people to a wide ambit of mental health issues, beyond just anxiety and depression.
SI: Yeah, that was one of the reasons why I did this series. When I was having conversations with relatives, or with people I was meeting, I realized that majority of us just assume that one is talking about anxiety or depression; there’s, primarily, a general lack of awareness about illnesses beyond that. Hence, it is essential to take steps to build that awareness. And, the way I felt I could begin to do that and contribute is through art. And, that’s my hope with these posts – to constantly and consistently build resources to do that.
SP: Do these posts and illustrations act as a means of catharsis for you?
SI: Definitely. In fact, I started making a lot of reminders for self care posts especially, as a means to remind myself as well. These posts are definitely a form of catharsis for me and they have definitely been a huge part of my coping strategy in my mental health journey as well.
SP: You’ve chosen art to spread awareness about mental health issues and self-care. Was choosing art a conscious decision?
SI: Umm, yeah, it was a conscious decision in a way but, it was also an unconscious decision. It was a medium that I was the most comfortable with and it was also the medium that I felt I wanted to speak to people with. It’s important to be comfortable with the medium yourself, in order to convey something that’s really important and something that you are trying to spread awareness about. When you are trying to convey something that the other person doesn’t know, it’s important that you yourself come from a place of knowledge, learning, research or interest; and, art is something I am familiar with, and that is why I chose that as a medium to work with. Of course, as I mentioned before, I believe that art has been monumental in my own mental health journey and I hope we can begin to look at it as an important tool that can be used in therapy too.
SP: We currently live in times where we have begun romanticizing darkness and death to a certain extent. The usage of the words ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘bipolar’ are used very casually. Could you share your thoughts on the same?
SI: I think that’s really dangerous. It’s hazardous and it takes the focus away from the people who really are struggling with mental illnesses. When you portray mental illnesses as “cool” to have or that is a “trend”, people don’t think that they need to give help to it. They view it as a trend rather than something that they need to pay attention to, which is problematic because, already, there are so many stigmas associated with it. It does more damage than anything else. It is also really hurtful to people who are going through it- especially, people who use mental illnesses as adjectives – like, people saying “I am really depressed” when they are not really depressed.
And, it obstructs expression for people who are really going through it because if people are using it casually, then the person going through it feels a larger lack of space, and also immense fear to express their feelings. It’s dangerous on many levels and in many layers.
SP: Do you believe there’s a ‘right’ platform or stage where we need to begin mental health education? Where does it start?
SI: I don’t believe there is a right platform or stage; we should start now. We should have started ages ago. I believe it’s important to start early; in school perhaps. We might have our first experiences with mental health as early as when we are in school as little children. We often don’t know what we are going through at that point of time. It’s important to know that it’s not something to be afraid of. Awareness is definitely a step in the right direction and mental health education is essential.
SP: How important do you feel are support groups for students in campuses, given that cases of depression, anxiety and suicides at are on an all time high, especially within the student community?
SI: It’s definitely important to have support groups for students in campuses because students go through so many issues – academic pressure, peer pressure, financial struggles, among many others. And, it’s also so competitive these days. It’s really important to have a space where they can discuss their feelings and express themselves without the fear of judgment. Support groups are really essential. And, it’s important to have not only psychologists and counsellors but, peer- led student groups and support groups as that adds a layer which many students might feel useful. It is also important to have support for people who are marginalised by gender, sex, religion, abilities and caste, among other things. It’s difficult for so many people to access therapy, anyway, because it’s so expensive and largely inaccessible. So, yes, it is really important to have a space in colleges where there is community support without the worry of costs and finances.
SP: People downplay depression. There are times when because of lack of understanding and awareness, friends and peers call out a depressive state as throwing tantrums and “overdoing it”. In your opinion, how should a person deal with this lack of space to be themselves, how can one cultivate a personal space that’s devoid of conditions and judgement?
SI: This is really difficult to answer because of the variables in the situation. But I think for me, it was first important to just understand the things I needed. It not only gave me an understanding of what I needed to chart a path to getting better but also figure out what resources I had access too. Art was crucial for me to be able to create that personal space because it was my means to express myself without judgment. Because, most of the times when you are going through these illnesses, it can be really arduous to get even mundane things done; to get out of bed is really difficult; to leave the house is really difficult. So, it’s important to create a space where you give yourself and time and space to grow and to just be. For me, it has been really important to not set a time limit for recovery. And I think for each person that will vary.
SP: In one of your illustrations, you have said something very spot on – “grief doesn’t come with a time-stamp.” Do you think we place the idea of happiness on a pedestal?
SI: Perhaps. Perhaps we place the idea of “constantly” being happy on a pedestal. I think there is this idea that we constantly have to feel alright, which can be really pressurizing and stressful. I don’t think anyone can feel constantly happy. And yes, speaking about the not so happy parts or the days that aren’t great is a way to normalise it, in a sea of seemingly happy moments.
SP: How do we be a friend to someone who is depressed? What are the do’s and don’ts?
SI: So, first of all, there is no one-size fit or universal rulebook. I think that is really important to understand because most of us think that there is. But I think it is really important to create a a safe space for them to share, to be and to create a support system for them to be able to cope. It’s also important to remember to not give them advice. What a lot of people do is that when someone is struggling with a mental illness, they shower them with unsolicited advice like, “you should lose weight”, “you should change your diet”, and you should do this and that. That can be really frustrating. So, just don’t give them advice.
Let them know that you may not completely understand what they are going though, but, you have an open mind and you are ready to listen to them and make sure that you actually have an open mind and actually are willing to listen to them. Don’t just say those things, mean them.
And, also, importantly, support the approach that they decide to take – if they are an adult, especially, whether it is medication or talk therapy or any alternative therapy; whatever method they choose to approach or deal their mental health with, support them. Give them space to recharge and feel whatever they are feeling.
Listen to them. Be physically present whenever possible. Don’t constantly compare them to other people. Don’t make them feel that what they are going through is not bad enough. Be patient with them. Don’t tell them that, you know, they don’t have a reason to feel this way.