Mental health, as a subject of discussion, has often been kept under covers and stigmatised in India. Its existence has been weeded out from under the umbrella of overall health care, and to consider it a real, growing issue that has victimised over 150 million people across the nation has never been deemed crucial. Largely responsible for these actions is the dismissive and ignorance ridden attitude that people have towards mental health issues, and those affected by them. According to a 2018 report by The Live Love Laugh Foundation, 26% of those surveyed felt fearful of people who were perceived to have mental health issues, 56% listed “talking to themselves” as a characteristic symptom of mental illnesses, and 68% believed that people with mental illnesses should not be given any responsibilities. If individuals continue to view mental illness with apprehension and resistance, it will remain difficult for people with mental health concerns to seek the support they require due to the fear of being labelled or judged.
The discriminatory behavior towards those battling mental health issues often leads them into the bleak pit of isolation, or forces them to camouflage themselves behind fake assurances of normalcy, in order to avoid getting labelled. This repression of emotion as well as the silent suffering they undergo is damaging in more ways than one, and subjugates them to a whole other internal turmoil.
‘Behind the Smiles’, a photo-series project, aims to counter just that. It seeks to tear down the double lives that people affected by mental health issues have to keep up with, and delve into the stories behind the forged smiles that they constantly have to put on. Here are 5 individuals who talk about their battles with mental health, and how they tackle them:
“I realised that this is something I need to learn to live with.”
Umang is a 23 year old aspiring film student. Brought up in Baroda, she excelled at school - top of the class, school president. 11th and 12th grade were a seemingly stressful time for her, and regular trips were made to the doctor due to her consistently falling ill. What was then simply written off as stress later grew to be an extensive health concern, and when she moved to Mumbai to pursue her work, a grave medical situation set her back. After countless visits to the hospital, a complicated surgery, a liver transplant, a near induced coma and a lifetime’s dosage of medication, Umang was determined to return to her routine in Mumbai. But the incident had impacted her deeply, and she had begun to develop extreme PTSD following her numerous taxing visits to the hospital, which left her looking, and therefore feeling differently each time.
Owing to her role as a theater actress, Umang had trouble coping with this constant transfiguration of her face and body. This, with a mix of severe anxiety and the fear of missing out on her life, drove her to the absolute edge, and led her to question her will to live. “It’s very heartbreaking to tell your parents that (you don’t wish to live)” Umang said, “… they’ve already almost lost you once”. She decided that it was time to address the issue, and after consulting and convincing her parents, she began taking therapy. Due to a simultaneous break-up that she was going through, she opted to put therapy on hold and gave herself time to re-evaluate her emotions. This, she says, allowed her time to gain a new perspective and discern a lot of things about herself.
“I realised that this is something I need to learn to live with, I have to learn to take it as a part of life.” A woman with big dreams, Umang understands that she needs to work hard and fast in order to get to them. Any instance of her being unable to do so makes her anxious and often this tendency of hers is condemned by her parents, who believe that it is her habit of overworking that stresses her out. Like most people, discussing mental health with parents has always been a little bit of a task as they tend to be logical about situations that cannot be controlled by oneself. Their approach is based on elimination, where they suggest deciphering the root cause of the issue, and eradicating it.
“Ye problem cause kar raha hai, iske baare mein mat soch. (This is the cause of your problem, so don’t think about that particular thing) But they (parents) don’t understand the fact that my thoughts are not in my control, which is the problem”, Umang stated. It is not often that people know how to respond to mental health victims, and talking to friends isn’t always the best option as it may be hard for them to comprehend the underlying emotions of someone who often struggles with anxiety. Talking about the ways in which she copes with her mental health issues, Umang attributed her success majorly to writing; it provides a medium to structure her thoughts. She aims to always circle back her writing to positiveness regardless of the nature of the day she’s had. Despite the life-altering situations that she went through, Umang is determined to learn from her experiences and is persistently pushing through to attain results for her future.
“...you are the one that needs to bring the change.”
Meghna, a bakery chef, began struggling with depression at the age of 23. Even though mental health issues cannot always be attributed to a single cause, Meghna suggests that her slightly rough childhood; staying away from parents and growing loneliness could be contributing factors to her anxiety. In the beginning, her panic attacks weren’t understood and for a long time, she didn’t register them as symptoms. “... It (panic attacks) felt like I’d accidentally skipped a step on a stair ... the feeling stays on for hours, and I have no reason for it’’, Meghna explained, talking about the prolonged aftermath of her attacks.
In order to handle the situation better she often chooses to sit down when possible and tries to feel the ground. Taking account of the sounds around her calms her senses and allows her to gain control of them. Confiding in close friends in hours of need is also extremely helpful. “It’s all about people who tell you ‘it’s okay, it’s a phase, I know what you’re going through and it will pass’.” As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety herself, Meghna believes that the first step in dealing with mental health issues is opening up and talking to people about it. Hesitation is not worthwhile and the sooner one begins addressing their issues, the easier it will be for them to accept help.
Working out is another suggestion that she put forward and anything from a 20-minute walk to hitting the gym can be beneficial beyond measure. In the case of mental health issues, breaking the monotony is extremely important. For every low moment that she faces, Meghna actively determines to take a positive step forward be it in the manner of socialising, sharing stories of her life, or even online dating; any approach that discourages the cycle of tedium and the mundane is embraced. She also encourages the idea of maintaining a daily journal.
On some days, something as simple as getting out of bed can prove to be a task and penning it down can provide for a sense of accomplishment. Despite the external support and helping hands it all ultimately depends on the battling individual; “people can help you, they can hold your hand ... but you are the one that needs to bring the change.” Recognising situations and choosing to act on them is the only way to touch the surface and there has never been a teacher better than experience; inner strength comes from the moments when life pushes down at you the hardest. At every step of the way, Meghna made the choice to embrace the facets of her life, good or bad and turned them around into opportunities for growth.
“ ‘It’s okay’ are the two most powerful words that I’ve learnt.”
A make-up artist by profession, 38-year old Bhavya is quite used to leading a hectic lifestyle. Between 18-hour workdays and keeping in time with tight schedules, a sleep-deprived routine is inevitable. When Bhavya’s initial encounters with depression and anxiety began, they were often written off as side effects of hormonal imbalance due to her existing condition of PCOD. “You couldn’t fault my life, I had everything going for me ... that’s when I thought that there was something not right.” There was a prolonged period of perpetually feeling low and emotionally burdened that eventually began affecting her marriage and career to a broad extent.
With a heartbreaking divorce underway, a major red flag was raised when she was unable to address an important work call. As someone who is extremely passionate about her profession, Bhavya decided that her mental health issues needed to be addressed as soon as possible, and sought professional help. She was diagnosed with depression and began taking therapy to help her cope better. Besides therapy and medicine, Bhavya stressed on the importance of personal commitment that was required to maintain a healthy mental space.
“‘It’s okay’ are the two most powerful words that I’ve learnt. I’m just unconditionally telling myself that it’s fine and that I love myself.” Taking account of one’s own feelings and understanding that emotional highs and lows are just a part of existing, is one of the most crucial steps towards achieving a flourishing mental state. Of late, Bhavya has been focusing on a ‘gratitude’ list instead of a traditional ‘to-do’ list. It allows her to fully acknowledge and be grateful for the things that we often take for granted - a reliable and supportive family, a bed to sleep on, and the privilege of being able to afford good therapy.
Apart from conscious introspection, Bhavya credits her mental well being to working out and keeping healthy. Keeping her vitals in check has greatly helped her tackle anxiety and depression and despite having an extremely frenzied routine she attentively makes it a point to set aside time for Zumba. Apart from exercising, reading, especially Cleo Wade’s Heart Talk and listening to podcasts has pulled her out of some extremely distressing times. Bhavya’s experiences with addressing anxiety and depression have helped her decipher and perceive her circumstances in a significantly positive manner. It replaced her constant fear of losing the good times of her life with the ability to shift focus onto the moments of happiness during her day. “I realised that I only have me and I cannot give up on myself.”
“The best way to heal yourself is to help others in their process of healing.”
Omkar, who is aspiring to pursue communication studies, began struggling with depression a long while ago. Neglecting his own self, Omkar had the tendency to gravitate towards prioritising others and their happiness which steered him down the rabbit hole of constant questioning and self-observation. Going through a difficult break-up at the time and simultaneously dealing with the devastating loss of a pet had left him deeply impacted and had led him to the point where he even attempted to take his own life.
“I realised I needed to find myself, I needed to ask myself what I wanted to achieve in life”, Omkar said. As a response to his mental health issues, he started recording and listening to motivational speakers on the go and turned his attention to meditation and yoga. He discovered yogi Sadhguru and his teachings and also explored ‘Inner Engineering’, a program aimed at bringing about inner well-being. Spurred by the realisation that he was unhappy with the state that he was in, Omkar consciously began focusing on self-appreciation and self-love. This shift in perception greatly helped him identify and address his situation.
Realising that achieving and maintaining mental prosperity is a journey of constant dedication and purposeful commitment has provided him with the courage to tackle his issues head-on and has strengthened his belief that “one day, everything will make sense”. Taking responsibility of one’s actions is a crucial step forward and being aware of what makes one happy is extremely important. For Omkar, happiness simply means accepting the situation for what it is and having the strength to deal with whatever may come after. Talking to others has also proved to be beneficial for him, and as stated by international speaker Dandapani, he believes that “the best way to heal yourself, is to help others in their process of healing.” Omkar rightly wishes that mental health was discussed more openly in our country, and urges people to question the nature of their choices and their lives—to recognise whether what they do makes them happy or not and to mindfully get involved in things that bring them joy.
“... maybe survival is not what we’re looking for; we want to thrive.”
A 23-year psychology graduate, Taarini spent her early school years in India quite oblivious of the concept of mental health due to the blatant lack of conversation surrounding it in our country. When she moved to New Zealand to pursue her higher education she experienced being absolutely alone for the first time and without friends, family, and her routine to distract her, she came face-to-face with the realisation that what she was writing off as mild anxiousness was something much bigger than she had anticipated. Her anxiety continually worsened and at one point even rendered her unable to perform seemingly ordinary tasks on a day-to-day basis, like walking into a crowded room.
As a student of human psychology, Taarini had been introduced to discussions on mental issues and was able to effectively comprehend and navigate through her state of mind. During the course of her college, she met and interacted with various people who were going through the same circumstances as she was and this correspondence brought affected individuals together in the form of a semi self-help group. Mental health awareness was a constant subject of dialogue on campus, as a result of which there was always a therapist available that she could visit. The therapy sessions provided a space for her to vent her feelings and helped her develop coping mechanisms to effectively approach her anxiety.
When she returned to India after 3 years, she found it difficult to apply her positive approach to mental health as the people around her, including her friends and family, were not as aware as she was. She found it increasingly difficult to talk to them about her situation and was also unable to find a therapist that she felt was a good fit for her. Taarini began to use writing as an outlet for her anxiety and would often go back and re-read her writings to get an understanding of her growth process. She also started a personal blog where she talked about everyday struggles, which more or less acted as a platform where she could rant bluntly. Apart from this, she also turned to dance, which was another medium of letting out her emotions.
Above everything else, Taarini began to acknowledge her anxiety and that gave her the freedom to put her mental health first. “... I started to look at it as only a part of my brain and not my real thought process. It helped me take better control”, Taarini said, while talking about the transformation she underwent in her understanding of anxiety and depression. Taking a break from work allowed her to understand her issues a lot better and gave her time to get involved in things that made her happy. As someone who had experienced first hand the difference in the way mental health is perceived within India in contrast to countries around the globe, Taarini strongly pressed on the need for education at a rudimentary level.
“The amount of mental health issues we have in the under-poverty strata is tremendous and no one has any idea!” The negligence that victims of mental issues face is outrageous and the underlying reason behind their problems is often left unnoticed and unquestioned. Owing to India’s close association with culture and tradition, many a time the treatment for mental health issues has been left to ritualistic methods, from thrashing someone with a ‘jhaadu’ broom), to having blind faith in the almighty to set things straight. There is a clear lack of empathy among a large section of the population and it often creates an atmosphere that assists the ‘survival of the fittest’. “But maybe survival is not what we’re looking for; we want to thrive.”
“ ‘Love yourself’ is a cliche, but it’s true.”
Swati’s initial encounters with depression began about 6 years ago after she had graduated with a BA in Economics. Her former years in college had been fulfilling and had given her the chance to reinvent herself and start afresh. She took a year-long break post graduation, and it was during these months of her sabbatical that her struggles with depression surfaced, where she often spent hours in her room behind locked doors, curled into a ball. Her mental issues started to take a toll on her work life and after a point dragging herself out of bed to a 10-hour workday was also proving to be a challenge.
Having a healthy office environment is an important factor that affects an individual’s overall well-being but there was an evident lack of communication between Swati and her colleagues which resulted in her spending her hours alone, tapping away at her desk. Her depression gradually led to a period of extremely bleak existence and she even began to encounter suicidal tendencies. “If I had to think back 6 years of my life, I can only remember being sad.” Swati’s confrontation with her mental health issues brought her to the conclusion that dealing with depression required a drastic change in perspective; she had to learn and unlearn a lot about what she thought was conditional thinking.
Consciously dealing with her circumstances began fairly recently when she started to take therapy about a year ago. It gave her the space to find someone she could connect with and motivated her to question the cause of her desolation. She realised that comparing her situation with others was futile and accepting her flaws while actively working around the problem was the only way in which she could achieve mental and emotional stability. “ ‘Love yourself’ is a cliche, but it’s true. It all boils down to that in the end”, Swati said, while placing significance on the need to appreciate and understand one’s inherent self. She embraced the fact that she could not control the people around her or how they affected her but could only take responsibility for herself, as it was the only way forward.
Swati also stressed the positive consequence of communicating and counter-questioning, both of which she had learnt to inculcate and employ overtime. Coming from a generation where everything was up for cross-examination, a conversation about mental health with her parents was a bumpy one. Their reasoning was duly valid as it stemmed from personal experience, but their approach was mostly limited to ‘getting over it’. “We must realise that our parents are also human ... we need to give them space to grow, just as we have ourselves”, Swati defended.
Having a meaningful conversation with our parents should involve taking account of the differences in opinion that have been backed by years of their upbringing and creating an environment that is inclusive of all views. As individuals who have the privilege of information and understanding of mental health, Swati strongly encourages initiating dialogue with those who may not be as acquainted with the concept of mental health, thereby extending the reach of overall awareness.
Featured Photography by Rishi Raj at Homegrown
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