By Aatish Shinde and Gayatri Kotbagi
Just when I thought I had seen it all this year, I see Kangana Ranaut declaring that there is no valid medical proof of mental illness and asking whether ‘MRI scans show bipolar and other psychological illnesses’.
Absolutely baffling to see all this in 2020. About 500 years ago if you had an epileptic seizure, it was clear where it was coming from — demonic possession. These days that notion is ridiculous because somewhere around 1900, we learned a new concept: it’s not him, it’s his disease. Why are we good at doing something like that with epilepsy but extremely lousy at doing it in other areas, especially when it comes to mental illnesses?
As a student of psychology for five years, I may have a little bit of insight into how the brain works. But I am hit with roadblocks when popular celebrities like Ms Ranaut are out there serving this dangerously misguided opinion on mental illnesses. There are hundreds and thousands of students like me in India who are trying to systematically understand how mental illnesses happen. Such statements from a public figure like her only push those vulnerable individuals towards further isolation.
It is a well-known fact that one of the barriers to seeking and providing social support is stigma. The language we use around mental health largely contributes to our understanding of mental health issues. It crystallizes our biases into stereotypes (formed out of lack of knowledge – “all Muslims are terrorists”), prejudices (formed out of negative attitudes – “gays are disgusting”), and discrimination (formed out of inappropriate behaviour – “pay gap”).
Stigma significantly affects treatment outcomes (it’s exhausting to keep fighting all these labels when you are ill,), healthy recovery (recovery is not linear – and stigma slows down our speed of recovery), and finally, stigma makes us not like ourselves and people around us.
We certainly know that the way a society is structured, significantly affects an individual’s mental health, and also determines their access to mental health services. Self-care works, medication is necessary, therapy does wonders indeed. But the access to these is restricted to certain sections of the society.
We all have biases-implicit and explicit. But these stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory acts when practised institutionally over a period of time, create division in society. Hatred, bigotry, and oppression are normalized. And that is a barrier to any kind of recovery.
You cannot understand and fix mental health issues without digging deeper through the different layers of causation in our society. It can only and only be done with the spade of social justice. Kangana’s ideas go against this very idea of social justice. I am all for her or others to dig deeper in order to help us all understand things better, but not without that spade of social justice. Any other path to understanding mental health, suicides, public health is only going to help you scratch the surface of the issue. Use the right tools if you want to get to the root of the problem.
Finally, it’s important for all of us to call out these statements if we claim to be an ally.
But what is an ally? Ally noun, verb: a person who fights for the equality of a marginalized group that they are not a part of. We usually wear it as an identity. But being an ally requires proactiveness. It involves constant learning and unlearning. You have to actively work at it.
Be aware of our implicit biases – our racism, ableism, transphobia, etc will be called out by the oppressed individual at some point or the other. It’s a good thing. Also, it’s not enough to just listen and parrot the thoughts of marginalized persons who are speaking up. It is important that we do not co-opt the cause and erase their voices. Being able to let go of your ego is an incredibly important skill to develop. Try using phrases like, “I am sorry you have had to go through all this” and “Thanks for letting me know” to put yourself in a better frame of mind. Never forget that marginalized persons are allowed to be upset about being systematically oppressed, so don’t try to gaslight them.