I come from a typical Indian family, where in the past, mental health was simply not a topic for discussion. Today, I help connect hundreds of people with therapists and direct them to basic mental health resources. Here’s a slice of my journey:
I’ve lived with mental illness for as long as I can remember. When I was 12 my uncle said, “You know you have a normal laugh and you have an abnormal laugh. Sometimes when you laugh you don’t know how to stop and it’s not funny.” This was jarring, not because it was untrue, but because I had been trying so hard to control my ‘extremes’. Now they were becoming obvious to a third party.
I was 15 by the time I understood something called psychology existed. I had a chapter of abnormal psychology in my textbook. I started flipping through and came across the term bipolar disorder. Something clicked.
I never meant to self-diagnose, but all the symptoms matched what I’d been experiencing for over a decade. I go to my mum and say, “mum - I think I need to see a psychologist. I think I have something called bipolar disorder.”
As much as I love her and she loves me, it was impossible for her to digest the idea of a mental illness. This is not a conversation that was had in any Indian household back then.
As well intentioned as my mum was, she called me a hyper kid, an energetic kid, a creative kid. While this was true, she dismissed the fact I was going through depressive phases, angry phases and weeks of sleeplessness.
That’s how bad stigma is in my country. Full grown adults will refuse to accept the concept of mental health because to them it is a sign of weakness.
I was 20 when I finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 22 when I got diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality.
For the longest time in India, people saw mental illness as a sort of punishment from God. Or as some sort of a demonic or spiritual possession. When people were behaving 'strangely', they were taken to religious institutions. Or to a guru to perform a sort of exorcism to cure them of their demons.
Today, at least in urban India, we are speaking about mental health. This has been born out of a long struggle. We’re only going to begin combating the stigma if we start having an honest conversation about it. A large part of the stigma comes from the vocabulary used. Struggling... suffering... disorder... illness…
Media also plays a serious role, with their sensationalised reporting.
Indian languages hardly even have terms to express mental health. There are not terms to express words like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. My mother tongue is Tamil and I do not know the words that exist to talk about mental illness.
How are you going to explain mental health is not a western concept if you can’t explain to people in their own language?
We need more people talking about their mental health in everyday settings. In offices, in schools, in colleges. If one person can be brave and shameless enough to talk about their mental health, more people will realise this is normal.
In October 2018, I was panelist at the first ever Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit held in London. It was an proud moment, but not devoid of anxiety. I was so inspired by the activists, advocates and the author I had the chance to meet and interact with.
Yet, it wasn’t all rosy. It was interesting to see people who work within the health and mental health space come with their own biases. There is a massive power imbalance between nations and organisations that have the privilege of power and money, and those who do not.
I have started my own mental health project called Okay; Not Okay. I’m doing my bit by making as much noise as I can. I run anti-stigma campaigns and awareness and educational workshops to normalise mental health. I use storytelling, body art, panel discussions and reflective activities to shift attitudes and help people become more informed.
I aim to empower people – through stories, support, awareness and education - to smash stigma and build healthier communities.
We need to start getting real about mental health. If not with others, at least with ourselves.