Mental health is a topic that invites stigma, taboo and social mores in our society. It is looked down upon as ‘abnormal’ to seek help for mental health issues. Normalizing conversations around mental health is a struggle against stereotypes, orthodox practices, and social ostracization.
The battle of normalizing mental health in Indian households is not only a battle against old customs and stigma but it is also a battle of breaking stereotypes, orthodox practices, maladaptive coping mechanisms, denial, and the good old “log kya kahengey?” (what will people think).
Normalizing mental health in my household was a long battle of both winning and losing and even as a student of psychology it took me over two years to talk to my mother about psychology and the importance of therapy.
My mother had normalized not having an appetite, overworking, and being chronically ill for a very long time. Her day looked like eating a single meal and going to bed at 2 AM and never realizing what was fully going on.
This lackadaisical behavior towards her health gave her several lifestyle-oriented disorders and made her chronically ill for the rest of her life. Her idea of love meant sacrificing her mental peace, happiness, and even food which damaged her health. My mother was always anxious about all her work and drained from her bad coping mechanisms. Her cycle of overworking and then always being in bed were plain indications of severe exhaustion from her bad mental health.
My mother’s mindset was a result of a broad chest-thumping patriarchal society that over-glorified overworking and stigmatized getting help. It made surviving the only mode of living. It taught women that it is always better to shut up and shy away from their problems more often than talk to someone about them.
Seeking therapy for women throughout history has been frowned upon. Women already of all castes and classes have struggled to get the mental health help they require but more so for those who come from marginalized backgrounds and underprivileged sections.
Most of us have been termed as ‘crazy ‘maniac’ whenever we have demanded space in mental health conversations.
Teaching my mother a little bit of Psychology every day was the first step I took. Talking to her about topics like stress was easier and also crucial because of how much it changed my mother’s perspective of stress and overworking. Then, I tried to initiate her to the concept of psychosomatic disorders and how they affect her which helped broaden her worldview.
Making my mother aware of genetics and mental health issues was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.
Therapy has been a trial and error for my mother and and this method further worsened her patience and belief in the subject which drained me out more. It was more so because her mental health directly impacted mine. However, gradually, it started to show change.
Therapy now has taught my mother resistance, it now translates to working on herself for her more than anything else.
With her last therapist, she started making progress that led her to have a lot more belief in the system. She felt a little better after a month of therapy and her progress helped her open up her mindset a little more.
She now talks about mental health more explicitly and chooses her health over a lot of things which makes me feel rather proud. She still is learning every day because her values are still internal but she is seeking help more often than before.
The worst part about the entire phenomenon is that she was one of the hundreds. Mental health, physical health have always been overlooked in Indian women who have been always taught to ignore their problems, health, symptoms.
Women through centuries have been told to eat at last and have been taught to eat less to maintain their bodies. Society makes women’s bodies more appearance-based rather than seeing them as functional bodies. It makes us forget that our bodies don’t owe us the liability of being visually appealing.
Beyond the stigma that surrounds mental health in India, the structural imbalances and systemic exploitation of women coupled with a general disdain for older people seeking therapy has led to a closeted epidemic. It sharply affects the lives of women who in playing out their roles as mothers and wives fail to prioritise their own bodies and minds.
Talking about mental health and the socio-cultural relation of women unravels years of teaching our mothers and daughters to not care about themselves and only shrink up to take less space every day. The fight against this culture gets stronger each day with more awareness and can only be broken with our resistance and knowledge.
The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.