I am sitting at my workstation reading some random gossip news story about Taylor Swift while simultaneously texting my friend about my boring day, when I receive an email. As I read it, I know what’s about to happen. I act quickly. I get up and stumble to the office bathroom. I lock myself in one of the stalls. I hug my knees and start to hyperventilate. I breathe in for 7 counts, hold my breath for 8 counts and breathe out for 7 counts. I focus my mind on the counting but it’s not working because my heart is pounding. My eyes are watering. My entire body is shaking. I know if I were to stand up, my legs would not support me. Every nasty thought, every bad memory, is rushing through my head. I want to scream but I just hug myself harder as I fight away tears. There’s ringing in my ears. I am sweating buckets. I am imploding and no one knows.
Breathe in for 7 counts, hold your breath for 8 counts and breathe out for 7 counts.
This is a panic attack.
A childhood assault left me battling with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and because I have wonderful parents who recognized I needed help, I was treated immediately with therapy and medication. It saved my life. And while I no longer have PTSD, I still grapple with high functioning anxiety that rears its ugly head if and when triggered.
But you wouldn’t know any of this if you met me. I am hyper, talkative, extroverted and am constantly surrounded by people. I have a loving family. I am well-liked at my work-place. I spout random facts about Pandas and sometimes I suddenly start humming bad music from the 90’s (Britney Spears is an underrated rock goddess) much to the annoyance of my friends. My natural disposition is one of cheerful happiness. And yet that still doesn’t stop me from occasionally having anxiety attacks that feel like my chest is being compressed by a small tractor. Two and half months ago, upon realising that I didn’t have a control on things, I went back to therapy to equip myself with new tools to improve the quality of my own life. Fortunately for me, my anxiety is mild and I rarely ever have to deal with it on a regular basis.
Now imagine how debilitating and alienating it must be for someone with a severe form of mental illness that’s been left untreated.
In 2011, the World Health Organization reported that India was the most depressed nation in the world, with 36% of the population having suffered from at least one major depressive episode. And yet, there is a veil of silence that prevents us from openly discussing these issues because they are not physical ailments. I have seen it in my own life with loved ones urging me not to discuss my mental health publicly because they were afraid that the society would think of me as damaged. Friends who have privately opened up about their clinical depression, OCD and bipolar disorders (amongst others) wouldn’t dare talk about these things openly because they are afraid of being labelled “mental”.
And their fears are justified. Indian households work hard to create the illusion of the “perfect happy family” and that gets shattered if someone in that family struggles with mental illness. Ignorance is another reason why mental illness gets brushed aside as nothing more than a weakness in the person who deals with it. People struggling get told to simply change their perspective in life. They are told to get some exercise. They are told to be grateful. And sometimes they are even rather hilariously told to get some fresh air (fresh air doesn’t cure diabetes, it probably is not enough to cure schizophrenia). But they are almost never told to seek therapy to get the help they so desperately need. It’s almost as if people believe that such biological disorders are a choice that can be turned off by some magical button inside one’s head.
And that’s why it’s so important for us to talk about mental illnesses in India.
But it’s still surprising that the industry that jump-started the national conversation about mental health, is Bollywood — an aspirational world generally associated with glamour and success. Depression found its way into mainstream vernacular when Deepika Padukone, opened up about her own depression. She painstakingly provided details on her crying jags; her lack of interest in everyday life and the suicide of a friend that acted as a catalyst in her decision to speak publicly about her illness. She spoke about how she sought help with a mental health professional and how she took medication (a massive taboo).
And then slowly, other high profile celebrities started talking about their own mental illnesses. Anushka Sharma in an interview admitted to being on medication to help manage her anxiety. Karan Johar spoke about having had to deal with multiple anxiety attacks; one so bad that he thought he was having a cardiac arrest. And Ileana D’Cruz highlighted her struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Yo Yo Honey Singh admitted to getting treatment for bipolar disorder.
These stories were (and continue to be) nothing short of revelations to the average Indian, who expects these wildly successful and desirable people to be happy. And yet, here they are, admitting to anything but perfect lives. And because of that, they hopefully start to normalise the way we perceive these disorders and also start corroding away the layers of stigma attached.
But we have only scratched the surface.
The onus of spreading awareness on such serious issues cannot and must not lie on the shoulders of the rich and the famous who have no responsibility to the public other than perhaps entertainment. While it is admirable that Deepika Padukone has started the Live Love Laugh Foundation to help those with depression, there needs to be more concerted efforts from the government and from our educational system to provide every person in our society access to the tools and the resources required to ensure their own mental well-being. Outreach must percolate through every strata of the society to make sure everybody gets the help they need. And most importantly, we need to start having honest conversations right in our own homes. If we just looked at mental disorders as illnesses that have to be treated, we wouldn’t be so ashamed of them. Support systems are vital and necessary and no one should have to suffer in isolation. Nobody deserves to be left behind.
And finally, this is for anyone who is currently fighting their own invisible demons – You are not alone. You are not weak. There is no shame in seeking help. There is light at the end of this tunnel.
You are going to be ok.