By Boshika Gupta
When I was in my teens, a sudden bout of depression hit me like a big bag of bricks. It took a lot of effort to go to classes, look happy like everything was normal and get through another day. The days felt too long and the nights were rather short. My parents sensed something wasn’t right and offered much-needed support, encouraging me to talk about my feelings instead of hiding behind a mask. I realized I got lucky and had strong, robust arms to raise me up as I struggled in the throes of despair.
Mental health remains stigmatized in different parts of the world today. It’s a taboo to mention you suffer from an anxiety disorder or have been depressed for years.
It’s true that there has been progress and the public has access to counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists much more than they used to. Popular culture has been doing its bit too. Bollywood film Dear Zindagi (2016), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and many more films managed to spark conversations around the topic, forcing people to think about mental health in different scenarios. However, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and the stigma remains firmly attached in public.
For example, in India, you may come across a victim of schizophrenia on the streets – someone who’s wandered away from home and doesn’t remember how to go back. I spoke to volunteers and patients from Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation on several occasions in 2014 while profiling their work for a story. It was emotionally draining to hear about their pain and incredibly difficult to fathom how much hard work goes into rescuing a mentally-ill destitute from the streets, tracking down their families and spreading the right kind of awareness about mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
According to a WHO fact sheet, more than 300 million people across the world are battling depression. Schizophrenia affects 21 million lives, 60 million people suffer from bipolar disorder and there are as many as 47.5 million people with dementia. The numbers are grim, and the report highlights the fact that social support and access to healthcare are crucial in helping treat mental illnesses. It points out that in low and middle-income countries, a huge number of people (76% – 85%) don’t even manage to secure treatment. High-income countries are slightly better off (35% – 50%).
Not just health care, our reactions, attitudes and perception go a long way in treating mental disorders. Mocking or ridiculing a patient should never happen. Even casually throwing around words (mad, insane, crazy, depressed) has a negative effect. People don’t treat the problem with the same amount of seriousness as they treat a physiological disorder like pneumonia or dengue fever. Additionally, they sit around a dinner table and talk at length about their lives, mentioning the number of times they’ve been sick over the last year but never talking about how crippled they felt at some point while learning to live with an anxiety problem.
Author John Green’s books tackle depression in surprising ways. While his book, The Fault Known In Our Stars (2012) may be the most well-known, he offered a thought-provoking glimpse into the turmoil that surrounds a depressed adolescent’s world in his first book, Looking For Alaska (2005). His latest, Turtles All The Way Down (2017) is very personal and focuses on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Green himself has been fighting the illness since he was six years old, and has often felt crippled by it. “I spent a lot of my childhood consumed with obsessive worry and dread,” he told The New York Times, and he hopes that his book will “help people who struggle with that terror to feel less alone.”
Green makes a really good point. Most people fighting mental illnesses are braving through lonely, unstable fights. It’s an internal battle that’s unpredictable and capable of making a person feel absolutely lost in the woods with no help in sight. Normalizing discussions on mental disorders (of every kind) and working to support organizations like Shraddha (India), Silver Ribbon (Singapore) and BasicNeeds (Africa, Asia) will go a long way.
Living with a mental disorder is no joke. It’s like wishing for a resolution in a grimy, dark tunnel that makes you feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare with no way out. It’s terrifying. People suffering from mental disorders deserve love in big doses, unconditional support and a chance to live their lives with dignity. It’s about time.