“So, what got you interested in mental health?” Dr. Bhargavi Davar asked me, as I was leaving her office in Pune after a long interview for TNM Delve Series on mental health in India.
“It was my own experience with depression, and the realization that if I, with all my privileges, could have had a tough time, then I cannot possibly understand or imagine the pain and suffering of others,” I told her.
“You know what is the biggest privilege you have?” she asked.
As I was trying to make my up mind between my caste and gender, and going to say it was both, she said, “Your freedom to choose. You had a say in the kind of treatment you got, you decided for yourself.”
The first thing I learned from my experience was that mental illnesses were everywhere. Among friends, family and coworkers, depression was common. People didn’t speak about it, and if they did it was often with the wrong understanding. After a while, every encouraging ‘come on, buck up’ comment was a wake-up call, and every ignorant advice a gentle reminder, that people know next to nothing about mental health and how to deal with it.
I naturally turned to writing and journalism, when I asked myself ‘What can I do about it?’ And this has been the case with much of the journalism and activism in mental health I have come across since then – it’s people with these experiences who have turned their lives around to help others, if not through action then words.
As I met more people, read more and delved deeper into the issues, there was the simple realization that it wasn’t just medication or happiness mantras which could get people out of depression or anxiety – they faced real-world problems, from poverty and caste-discrimination to domestic violence and social stigma. You cannot hope for better mental health in an unjust society with no empathy. But there is that one thing which drives most of the flaws in our society, and also in the way we deal with mental illnesses – it’s our basic disrespect for an individual’s rights, her wishes and dreams, her freedom to do what she wants, whenever she wants and the way she wants, without hurting anyone else. We see everything from the lens of a group or community, of a discipline or an ideology. The individual is lost to the pressures of family, the demands of the workplace, the injustice of the society and the cynicism of our politics.
A healthy mind needs a healthy sense of ego and self-love. We are happier taking care of others when we are happier ourselves, and to be happy, we need our freedom. Which is why, our individual freedom is our biggest privilege, if we have it.
So, the first two stories you must read are to do with how our present-day model of psychiatry strips away individuals’ rights. In a two-part series, I first deal with India’s mental health burden and how overmedication could be destroying the minds of the mentally ill.
The second part is about the often purposefully-ignored idea of informed consent among the mentally ill, and how alternative therapies are helping them.
That our politics, within homes and at hospitals, should focus on individual empowerment does not mean injustices based on social or gender identities do not exist, or that we must do nothing to correct them from that perspective.
Read Prateek Sharma’s solid primer on how patriarchy and gender roles add to the mental health woes of Indian women, which comes along with a video on testimonies and perspectives.
We delve deeper into gender-based discrimination with this piece on the mental health challenges faced by the transgender community, particularly in how often doctors turn gatekeepers in the process of gender-affirmation of transgender people.
Research and experience has shown that if mental illnesses are caught early on, usually during the adolescence period of a child, the treatment could show very good results. Yet, adolescence is the period where our children face the most trauma, and the experiences of the child during this period worsens their illnesses.
Biases born out of class and caste run as an undercurrent through all the stories, and while we have touched upon them, the scope of our future work lies in exploring them further and in more detail.
Through our first set of stories, we have been able to demonstrate the need for individual empowerment, and nuanced, evidence-based medical and social policy for better mental health, exactly what we lack at the moment.
Other stories and writings on mental health on TNM: