Why Awareness of Mental Illness is the Need of the Hour?
I had my first episode of depression, in the summer of 2017.
I remember feeling distraught, like I was losing control of my life. I’d curl up in a ball and weep for hours, to the point of exhaustion. I thought I was worthless and living was meaningless. I spoke to very few people about what I was going through. I felt ashamed, like this was something I could not talk to people about. And I felt hesitant, because I did not know if I could rely on people to understand what I was going through.
I am a mental health professional, a psychologist, and I felt ashamed and alone in my mental illness.
Such is the potency of the taboo and stigma associated with mental illness.
July, 2018, it hit me again.
This time, I was armed and ready. I was not going to hide it. I spoke to my friends about what I was going through, most of them trained psychologists, and I was taken care of.
My friends kept regular tabs on me. Not once was I told to get over it. Not once were my feelings invalidated or brushed aside. I was just loved and protected. And I started my difficult, but less threatening journey, to recovery.
I realize I am privileged. I had access to treatment options and to people who understood what I was going through. And I understand that not everyone does. Most people don’t. There is so much ignorance rampant in our country about what constitutes mental illness, that it almost brews fear and avoidance of the topic (We mental health professionals are also quite responsible for the laxity in spreading awareness).
Everyone deserves the kind of help and support that I got. Imagine a world, where everyone is aware, where no one feels alone or miserable or stigmatized, where people accept each other and even your mother get’s you, for a change.
A world, where people, also understand depression, and autism, and anxiety, and schizophrenia.
A world, where we all are each other’s heroes, donning our capes, and fighting against stigma and ignorance and breeding awareness.
Because we need to know to help. We need to know what a panic attack is, to be able to help someone in the middle of one. We need to understand psychosis to know that the man ‘talking to himself’ on the road is not a ‘lunatic’, he has a mental disorder, and he probably lacks appropriate help. He is standing by himself, ‘talking to himself’, while we stare at him, and push him away from our sights and our minds.
We contribute to his isolation. We contribute to the problem.
Go back to the time when you felt alone and ostracized from the world. When you felt uncomfortable in your own skin, when friends provided words, but the words provided no comfort.
And the number of times you unwittingly brushed away or invalidated what people thought or felt. Held a grudge against a friend who did not text back, who kept cancelling on you, who was probably feeling too low to function. Or laughed at the expense of someone for something they had no control over; a friend who couldn’t read well, a cousin who stammered or that aunt who always had a drink too many?
If mental illness is such a huge part of humans as is physical illness and food and cars and memes, why can’t we acknowledge it too? Why does it not deserve our attention? What will it take for us to stop and take notice of it? It is there, it is present; it is an unwelcome guest but it is here to stay. We need to head to it and acknowledge it, even if does not bring us sweets and video games.
Stigma has long served as a barrier to people seeking mental health care. Let us not be the factors contributing to this problem.
You have the power to be there for a person, to identify when they need help and, help.
Here are some of the things you can do:
1. Read! Read about mental disorders, inform yourself. And then inform those around you. Look, depression and anxiety are pretty common. I go through it. So do four of the closest people in my life. So do a lot of people around you and maybe you too. Start there and work your way up to other disorders and difficulties.
2. Talk! Don’t suppress what you are going through; talk it out with someone you trust or a mental health professional. Don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed about your feelings.
3. Listen! Oh, please do! Listen and do it actively and be nonjudgmental while you are at it. I have a friend who gets so stuck in the ‘whys’ of events, she forgets to ask me how I am doing. Don’t be that friend. Most of my friends are brilliant listeners; they don’t judge, there are no unsolicited advices, they just listen. And that is the best form of love I receive from them. Be that friend. Don’t make anyone feel unheard or isolated. Don’t do it at the cost of your own personal mental health, but if you have the mental resources to be there for someone, be there for someone.
4. Be Mindful: Be mindful of people around you. And be mindful of words that pop out of your mouth and theirs. You cannot take care of everyone. But checking up on your friends, just simply asking what is up can make all the difference. I had no idea one of my close friends was going through something terrible because I had not checked up on him for a while. Don’t be me. Drop that text, make that call.
5. Take Action: Do something if you know something is up. And doing something need not be something massive. It can be a lot of different things depending on what the person needs. It can mean having a conversation with them, or giving them a hug, or providing meaningful distractions, giving them alone time or suggesting that it is time they visit a therapist (We are generally very nice people. Please visit us.
6. Empathize: Different from sympathizing, it means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand what they might be thinking or feeling, from their perspective. Empathy does not just benefit the other person in making them feel understood, but also you, in that it might prevent extreme negative reactions in you. By empathising, you are taking care of your mental health too. Again, understanding does not mean justifying. If something is (fairly) against your personal beliefs or crosses your boundaries, prioritize yourself. Self-care is mental health care too.
7. Avoid Derogatory Language: This is important. Be vigilant of the words you use. Steer clear of offensive words that can make fun of or derogate someone’s mental illness, even if you did not intend to. Don’t be the reason mental illness is associated with stigma. And argue with reason against people who use such words.
This isn’t an all comprehensive list, but it’s a start.
Mental illness is not your enemy. It’s your next door neighbour, who cannot get out of the bed. It’s your friend, who can never spell right. The colleague, who throws up after every meal. Your sister, who self-harms. According to a study conducted by National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), about 13.7% of India’s population could be suffering from some or the other form of mental illness. And this was back in 2015-2016. Surely this is no longer a problem that can be ignored or brushed away?
Let us all be heroes and join the fight against ignorance. Walk the talk. No human should have to experience shame for something they cannot control.
It’s time for action.
Stop the Stigma. Start the Change.
Ready? Set. Cape!
- Written by
Isha Haria (Clinical Psychologist at TRIJOG)