“My therapist tried to convince me that I was a lesbian,” laughed one Homegrown writer when the theme of seeking help for mental distress came up. Only 16 at the time, it may not have left her scarred for life, but it was telling of the larger malaise that surrounds the topic in a country as resistant towards the idea of therapy as India. It also shaped her views towards mental health professionals for many years to come.
My first tryst with the world of outpatient therapy is just as vivid. I was 18 years old, experiencing bouts of depression on and off but didn’t pay much mind to it at the time. My tipping point came one day when I had a serious anxiety attack on a metro ride to college. I couldn’t breathe and felt disoriented as my heart raced to the point I thought it might burst.
Never once considering the possibility that it was a mental health-related issue, my mother and I spent days in and out of the hospital meeting various heart doctors getting tested. I even got an echocardiogram performed because of our family history of heart disease. After the tests came clear, my uncle, a doctor, suggested I visit a psychologist. Not because he thought it was anxiety, but because he thought ‘it was all in my head’ – that I had a problem because I was ‘making these things up.’ I didn’t know this at the time, my mother let it slip much later. I recall her apprehension, but she took me regardless. She has always been supportive but she requested me not to divulge the information to my father. [Sidenote: once he did know, he’s been great about it too.]
I went with few expectations as an 18-year-old, yet was caught off-guard by the insistence of my doctor suggesting all my problems came down to my “going through heartbreak”. This might have been fine had I actually been in a relationship at all, but it just wasn’t true. The psychologist remained convinced I was lying, thinking I was worried about what my mother would say and how she would respond. She insisted that going through heartbreak-related depression was a normal part of growing up. Right words, wrong time.
Feeling defeated, I walked out of the room, looked at my mother and swore I would never return to therapy. Once the shell-shock of the first meeting wore off however, I decided to give the method another shot. After a week spent researching ‘best psychologist and psychiatrist in Delhi’ on Google, I finally found a doctor for myself. It didn’t hurt that he looked like he might be Boman Irani’s brother - he isn’t, I checked. It was in front of him, ultimately, that I let myself crack. It’s been over five years since, but it continues to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
Unfortunately, I’m one of the very few lucky ones. Between immense societal stigma, a complete lack of understanding towards mental health issues, an apathetic government at best and the possibility of incompetent mental health professionals even after you get past the first few barriers means many Indians forfeit the chance to get treated for serious mental health conditions. Even more remain afraid to even try.
As per a recent survey, 60 million Indians suffer from mental illness. That’s larger than some countries’ entire population. The most disturbing aspect of these statistics perhaps lies in the fact that we have the highest suicide rates in the 15-39 age group as well. Skirting and shushing discussion on mental health issues is clearly not serving anyone, and in today’s digital age, it hasn’t gotten any easier. The constant need to create a certain image on social media platforms can harm us (and others viewing it) more than it does good.
So why is visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist a matter that still needs convincing about? What many seem to forget is that having a mental illness is not a choice someone makes, nor is it always a result of their circumstances. Nobody chooses to have Clinical Depression, Anorexia Nervosa or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and yet, it is made to seem that people might have a certain control over these matters. Be it improper education, misinformation, pop culture representations or just plain ignorance – the consequences of people’s prejudices have such dire effects that often, we only truly understand the gravity of when it is too late.
While discussing the matter in the Homegrown office, most seemed pretty forthcoming and open to the idea but were apprehensive to the kind of therapists there are, in terms of quality and knowledge. Unfortunately, we don’t have the best references when it comes to representation in pop culture, and how I wish all of them looked like Shah Rukh Khan, even if he doesn’t get most of the therapy right. Another pertinent problem that came up was due to the lack of knowledge regarding the difference between a therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist. When someone states they’re going to therapy, the assumption is that they’re seeking a psychiatrist, which is probably the most stigmatised form the lot.
Seemingly small things like this can make a big difference when it comes to how mental health is perceived. This is exactly why we decided to open the conversation up to our readers - in an attempt to understand what holds us back, as individuals, when it comes to seeking therapy? We reached out to young Indians via our social media platforms to try and see why we have such a problem when it comes to seeking help in times of emotional and mental distress. And while we were floored by the overall response, another point of interest came up. Sadly, every single one of our contributors were women. This despite the offering of anonymity for anyone who required it. I say sadly because even in the past when we attempted to start a conversation regarding mental health, it was only women who came forward to share their stories – why is that?
Could it be tied to notions of secrecy and maintaining a ‘macho’ masculine front? Does stoicism get so deeply ingrained into young boys as they grow up among a myriad of societal pressures and expectations when it comes to ‘being a man’ in Indian society? This is something we need to address. I cannot claim to have the knowledge or know-how as to why this happens, but today, try to make a space for discussion – one we desperately need – albeit on a limited online platform. Hopefully, each such measure is one towards the right direction, a catalyst for more to be taken across others so we can truly address society’s apprehensions towards mental illnesses and struggles. Ailments that cannot always be explained, nor seen, but very much exist in crippling realities for a growing number of people in our country.
Below are the personal experiences and insights from seven young Indian women who were forthcoming enough to share their thoughts on the topic with Homegrown.
I. Tasneem Bhavnagarwala |34 |Mumbai|Writer & Social Media Manager
“For me, the answer is clear – why not? Having been through therapy myself for six months, I can’t begin to explain how important it is to give yourself the chance to heal and make a new beginning. It is one of the bravest decisions anyone can make. To take that first step towards understanding that they need help and that’s where half the battle is won. After that, it is always a road to recovery even if it is a slow journey.
Whatever the problem is, don’t tell yourself to ‘get over it’ or listen to anyone who advises you to do that. It’s your life and no one can decide for you how you should move on. If moving on means taking help from a mental health professional then please don’t hesitate.
Don’t give yourself a chance to think ‘what if I had taken help, would my life be any better?’ Take the help and then find your journey to peace. Have the courage to follow your heart.”
II. Asmita Singh |26 |Delhi |Chef & Content Writer
“What is it about mental health that affects our egos so much? Why do we choose to be so goddamn ignorant about something as real as mental illness? We DO choose, this one’s a ‘choice’, having a mental illness isn’t. We make the choice to be ignorant. We choose to hush away the topic, it’s too awkward to talk about. Human beings have an inherent tendency to believe that they are invincible, that could be the reason. Words like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ just don’t seem to roll off people’s tongues. Expressing a cry for help is a sign of weakness.
I’ve struggled with going and then not going to therapy for so long now and it’s a vicious cycle. I was ignorant about it for a long time but then I realised that treating my mental health is as, if not more important, than my physical health. Would I ignore a recurring fever? Cold? I wouldn’t. If recovering and finding a positive path is a possibility, then I will at least take that chance. How can I not? That’s the point of therapy. There is a way out, but the stigma stops us from taking the step towards it. I hope and wait for a day when the stigma around mental health doesn’t exist. The absolute worst kind of suffering is the needless kind.”
III. Payal Aggarwal |22 |Delhi |Architecture Student
“After listening to the similar and one-dimensional replies from everyone around me, ‘deal with it, it’s nothing’ or ‘you’re just overthinking’, I finally decided to do something about it. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide whether or not you should go and see a mental health professional/therapist since you are unsure of the symptoms.
To everyone that is considering mental help and is unsure, don’t let the uncertainty be a reason to stop you.
It’s nobody’s fault if they don’t understand what you’re going through. At the end of the day, it’s your fight and seeking help from a professional is nothing but a smart choice. A choice that might add another dimension to the earlier vague questions and answers you had.”
IV. Tarini Sethi*
“Would I go for therapy? Yes. Having a mental illness is just as bad, if not worse than having a physical ailment and we don’t realize how delicately our brains have been wired. How a mental illness can lead to a total dysfunction of even the physical functioning of the body. I’ve experienced diarrhoea, vomiting, loss of appetite a couple of times in the past due to symptoms of anxiety attacks and no kind of medications work – only an improvement in the general mental health makes the person feel better physically.
Would I go for therapy? No. I don’t have the heart to tell my parents that I’m going through a hard time and I need counselling. They would totally flip out. I’d be bombarded with a truckload of questions and I’ve always come across to them as such a strong, levelheaded person who overcomes problems so easily. Also, having to explain to them that it’s an LGBT issue that I’m dealing with is out of the question. A recent breakup with another person of the same sex can’t be that big a deal, right? I mean people have bigger problems in life, I can’t be cribbing about a damn breakup. and who’s to say that I’m in depression or going through some mental turmoil? There’s no proof. I’d rather not self-diagnose myself with depression. That’s like another pity party of some sort. So no, I’m good with the way I am and someday ‘I’ll get over it’.
These are two sides of a coin that I keep flipping from time to time. My Google search history is filled with how to deal with mental problems, how to be happier, how to deal with depression, how to get over a breakup, and so on. I even have some websites bookmarked that offer help while concealing your identity. I have the helpline number saved on my phone. Help is just a click/touch away. But even after days of having to deal with this, I haven’t been able to bring myself to seek help. Hopefully, someday I will.”
*Name has been changes as per contributors request to not reveal their identity
V. Rihaa Kaur |27 |Leicester, England/New Delhi |Blogger & Artist
“Lonely night. Lonely days. Restless days in and restless days out. Weird voices in the mind twirling around. Zero appetite. Thoughts of being abandoned. Being lost in the crowd. That ever growing fear
of making eye contact with strangers. Freaking out at the noise of even horns blowing or someone talking on a high pitch. Losing the sense of being and feeling lost. Not able to get out of the house in the fear of getting lost in the city or losing myself to the crowd.
That is what my anxiety looked like and it looked straight in my face for months and months and I’d spend hours and hours crying, and talking to myself, trying to harm myself. Flashbacks from the past hit me like a boomerang! And I’d just curl up in my bed and CRY endlessly until I’d gain little strength to call a friend to be around.
I did consult a therapist too, but not sure, it made it worse for me in some way. The flashbacks got even crazier. And I couldn’t get a grip on myself and my endless emotions and fear that came along with it! My confidence, self esteem, my whole existence, all went for a toss.
That was the time, it didn’t even matter if I was even happy or not, what became a priority was, if I could breathe and still be alive. Whether I could be a little sane, and not lose my sanity forever or my memory for that matter, or if I could go alone to buy bread and butter.
One day, looking in the mirror I got a strange feeling about myself, about my appearance, my presence. It was as if I had forgotten the person I am. As if I know not myself anymore. It was a strange feeling I never would like to encounter ever again.
Those were some crazy days I ever lived – most fearful and heart wrecking. I suffer from anxiety, even today. It’s not gone forever. I’m back with family, for some time, living with them. That’s what my teacher suggested, that’s also what my therapist suggested. Being back with family for some time might heal things. I still get light headed, and also get flashbacks. But no longer have the urge to harm myself. I guess I’ve learnt to live with that feeling and made peace with it for now.”
VI. Radhika Saini |20|Indore |Assistant Producer
“I am a 20-year-old girl. I have had depression and anxiety since the age of 16. When my mother first learnt of my mental illness, she told me to keep it to myself and not let anyone else in the family or outside know about it. Despite being diagnosed with depression herself earlier, she wasn’t able to see the negative effect it had on my life and health. I had bouts of depression, everyone does once in a while, but mine is a recurring one. I kept it a hush-hush affair till the age of 19. Then one day, after I had moved to Bombay, I started crying and told my roommates everything about it. They were very supportive and encouraged me to seek professional help. They even accompanied me to every session that I had with the psychologist and the psychiatrist.
I am still under therapy and take medications regularly. But now, I am more open towards the idea of talking about mental illness with others and seeking professional help if one feels so. Unlike earlier, now I feel that no matter how big or small one’s mental illness and its effects are, everyone deserves empathy and understanding. At the same time, treating a mental illness with professional help from a counsellor, psychologist or a psychiatrist is equally important.”
VII. Pooja Sawant |25|Mumbai|Industrial Psychologist
“To begin with, I am a student of masters in psychology, and I am seeking help from a mental health professional (not from any faculty member but a counselling psychologist).
I am seeking help because it is much more acceptable for a parent to hear that your daughter is alive and struggling with herself than hearing your daughter committed suicide because she was mentally not strong. It took me 2 months to convince myself and drag myself to the door of that doctor – the one who helped me out of all of this slowly, steadily and eventually. The stigma around mental health is because of a complete lack of knowledge regarding mental health problems that restricts a person from getting a help.
More than making someone else understand, it was getting really important for me to understand myself that I am stressed because of my overthinking, which has then dragged me into a depression where I can’t think of anything at all. The room of constant thoughts and overthinking were replaced by a dark nothing. The constant screaming of my mind for ‘I need help. Please help me. Please take me out of this’ was restricted just to my mind. These words never made it to my mouth.
After countless months, maybe years even of dealing with depression, it was only until last month that I felt something – when my mother stroked my hair, assuming I was asleep. I felt tears rushing down my face and onto her lap. It is then that I broke it down to her. About the invisible illness that was gripping me and got stronger every day. It was then that I expressed exactly how I felt for the very first time after years of silence.
It was the constant and absolute calmness of my therapist throughout the sessions and her constant efforts that made me feel. Be it anger, sadness, happiness – I just wished to feel something to let that constant presence of nothing to just get out of me. You will never know when mental illness will grip you and drag you to suicide. Just like a fever, anyone can be mentally affected and just like fever anyone and everyone can be treated too. You just have to look for the signs.
I would like to conclude with a small and thoughtful gesture shared by Dr Harish Shetty, a well-known name in the psychiatric department. He tends to conclude every conversation, every speech he gives with ‘stay alive’, instead of saying ‘take care’. It may be insignificant for many people, but these two words are of great significance for someone that needs it.”
Featured image illustrated by Karan Kumar