You'd never say, It's just cancer, get over it

You’d never say, “It’s just cancer, get over it.”

But replace the term “cancer” with “depression”, “anxiety” or any other mental health condition, and a response along those lines is heard far more often.

There is an overwhelming propensity to recommend visiting a doctor the moment there is a sneeze or a headache in the vicinity. But the issue of mental well being is dealt with the same way we in India deal with things we are not comfortable with: we refuse to acknowledge its existence and simply don’t talk about it.

World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10 every year, and is an opportunity to highlight the wide range of mental health issues that affect so many people in India.

Mental illnesses cover a gamut of disorders, ranging from depression, anxiety, and phobias to schizophrenia, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), India accounts for 25% of the world’s total suicides. Reports say 90% of these stem from depression, the most common mental health disorder. India has only 0.4 mental health workers for every 100,000 people, and 43 mental hospitals, says the WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2014. In short, we are massively underequipped to deal with what clearly is a mental health crisis.

Given the marked absence of conversation on mental well being beyond the circle of experts and healthcare workers, we asked some people from outside the field what they thought about mental health.

“There is a serious stigma attached to acknowledging that you suffer from a mental health disorder, and seeking help for it,” says Meera, a Mumbai-based photographer. “You might be burdened with everyday stress, and just want to visit a counsellor to figure out how to deal with it, but you would still be seen as weak. And so, you’d have to be very hush-hush about it.”

There is also a tendency to ignore or suppress the effect of everyday stress factors that subconsciously affect your mental health – such as long commutes in crowded trains, the continuous honking of horns, exams, Meera adds. But this will just manifest in other ways, like depression or anxiety.

“Basically, if you admit that you suffer from mental health issues, in society’s eyes, there is something wrong with you,” says Sandeep, a postdoctoral student. “Which is why so many people end up neglecting that area of personal wellbeing.”

And if it cannot be ignored, then the most common response is to trivialise it. Phrases such as ‘you’re imagining it’, ‘you’re just having a bad day’, ‘it’s just in your head’, ‘it’s not as bad as it seems’, and ‘it’s just a phase’ – frequently bandied about in an attempt to be sympathetic – are counterproductive.

“To be depressed about one’s own depression and be anxious about one’s own anxiety is a vicious circle,” says Dinesh, a Dubai-based management consultant.

So, how can we try to tackle the issue?

“I think it is very important to address depression, anxiety and other illnesses related to one’s mind,” says Vikas, a journalist. “Whatever happens physically is visible to address, but only the sufferer knows how much suffering mental illnesses can cause. So we need to remove the stigma attached to the issue. We need to accept it, and address it. We need to talk much more about it.”

“Thanks to the internet, to technology, apps, we can reach out to people across the world,” says Dinesh. “It provides a common platform to engage with people and spread awareness.”

So, despite the stigma against mental health disorders, would they seek help if they were stressed or felt that something was amiss?

“Yes. Because society doesn’t know what you’re going through, and getting dissuaded from seeking help because there’s a stigma isn’t going to help you,” says Vikas. “So get help. Get well. Live your life better.”

This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day is “Dignity in Mental Health”. The WHO aims to raise awareness “to ensure that people with mental health conditions can continue to live with dignity, through human rights oriented policy and law, training of health professionals, respect for informed consent to treatment, inclusion in decision-making processes, and public information campaigns”.

The journey to achieve dignity in mental health for everyone is clearly paved with difficult challenges, such as ending discrimination and promoting inclusion, both easier said than done. But one could say that the first step towards ensuring dignity in mental health is acknowledging that mental illness is not a matter of shame.

Some names have been changed to protect the respondents’ identities.

*The author, Samyukta Maindarkar, is Editor & Content Manager for Adveka Foundation.   

Some data and info references:
WHO Mental Health Atlas 2014
WHO Mental Health Atlas 2014 India country profile

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