What it takes to cure an unsound mind is an open one

Just be happy is bad advice for depression there is no shame in seeking medical help
Features Mental Health Tuesday, November 03, 2015 - 18:05

“Recently my psychologist put me on an anti-depressant which made me gain weight. So I saw a nutritionist and asked her to suggest what changes I must make in my food habits since I can’t get off the drug. She told me "You just need to be happy, you don’t need a psychologist!’” says Aditi Surendra, seething with anger and exasperation.

Aditi has had recurring depression since she was 13 years of age. What makes her angry is that people still think that seeking medical help for mental illnesses like depression is not required, and somehow just being ‘happy’ is a solution.

Unfortunately, this kind of ignorance is rampant in India, where even people from the field of medicine are not properly educated about mental health. No wonder then, that people from the country turn to temples and magic before approaching a licensed professional.

With lack of awareness comes distressing stigma and strange looks from society. Aditi, who is now in her late twenties, is still asked unwanted questions at the pharmacy while buying her medicines. She is among the brave few who have risen out of the mentality to avoid medical help and did what had to be done. Many people continue to suffer silently because they are too hesitant to open up. They often have the notion that if they sought help, it would mean that they are insane and the word would spread. Such stigma attached to mental health in society is extremely unhealthy but very rampant.

“People often are afraid of how they’d feel if others saw them this way—namely worthless, flawed, or unlovable” writes Noah Rubinstien, Founder and CEO of goodtherapy.com. Mamta Rajesh, a psychologist specialising in Child and Adolescent Counselling agrees and explains why, “If we have a tooth ache, we go to a dentist. If our stomach hurts, we go to a physician but when it comes to the mind, it is not the same. This is because people relate mental health directly with their sense of identity. They think that if something is wrong with their mind, there is something wrong with the person they are.” 

It is not only those with the illness who need to grow out of this notion. Aditi’s nutritionist, her pharmacist and her friends, who think she doesn’t need a psychologist because they know her best, also need to understand that it is okay, even necessary, to ask for help when in need.

Psychcentral.com reports that an Indian mother told Gayathri Ramprasad, Founder and President of ASHA International, “I wish my son had cancer instead of depression. If he had cancer, all my friends and family would sympathize with us. How can I tell them about depression?”

This kind of social stigma delays treatment even among educated urban middle class. Mental illness is popularly misconceived as having high levels of stress and justified as a universal phenomenon.

Social stigma and inaccessibility seem to be closely related to each other. According to National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the average national deficit of psychiatrists in India is at 77%. In a place like Lakshadweep, there is a 100% deficit of psychiatrists. That means about 60,000 people living on an island 300-400 km away from the west coast of India have not one psychiatrist among them. These statistics are based on the census of 2001.

NGOs are increasingly trying to bridge the gap and spread awareness about the necessity of good mental health care in India. Many organisations like AASHA, Centre for Community Dialogue and Change, The Banyan and the MINDS foundation are taking steps by means of theatrical plays, workshops and school or college seminars.

However, the greatest help that a person in distress could get begins at home, say experts. When someone is depressed or going through any other kind of mental or emotional difficulty, it not only affects their life but also the lives of loved ones.  The mood swings may set off conflicts between family members and relationships may get disturbed.

When a household is experiencing such turbulence, it is most important for them to speedily recognise the problem and fully care for and support the person in discomfort. Sometimes, the person going through the problem may be the last person to notice it. "To treat any depression accurately, you have to know whether it is unipolar or bipolar—in other words, whether the person has been manic in the past," explains Nassir Ghaemi, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University, to PsychologyToday. "Our research shows that 50% of patients are not even aware they are manic when experiencing mania. Family members recognize manic symptoms twice as often," says Ghaemi.

When in need, one must put aside prejudices against the problem and understand that it is just like any other ailment that we make hurried trips to the doctor for. Just venting out the difficulty to someone who is willing to lend an ear can, by itself, be very powerful. That person is trained to not judge anyone and understands that no mind is perfect. “Nobody has an absolutely sound mental health. Just like we take care of our physical health, we need to take care of this too,” says Mamta Rajesh

Although it is still a long way before mental health is discussed in casual conversations without awkward silences, the silver lining created by helpful organisations and other social workers hopes to shine brighter each day. What it takes to cure an unsound mind is an open one.


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