Dawn was just breaking when Sanjana Reddy’s* parents received a call from her saying she could not take it anymore. They arrived hours later at the doorstep of their five-month pregnant daughter’s marital home. It had been five years into her marriage and her husband’s occasional outbursts had turned into an ongoing battle with depression that they were rapidly losing. When Sanjana brought their marital unrest to her traditional Telugu joint family’s notice, she was advised to perform rituals in remote temples and seek the counsel of astrologers. She tried being the supportive spouse and relentless motivator but her persistent efforts only seemed to push her partner further away.
Her requests to seek medical intervention was met with denial and indifference from her in-laws and immediate family. Such a response from the family is not uncommon when dealing with mental illnesses and displays an undercurrent of the shame associated with it. May marks Mental Health Awareness Month and according to the World Health Organisation, 20 percent of Indians suffer from a mental illness during their lifetime. While reaching out for help is often considered a stigma, loved ones and the organisations that offer resources and support to the individual in their journey of healing play a pivotal role. The Live Love Laugh Foundation of actor Deepika Padukone, who was diagnosed with depression, offers mental health information, a directory of therapists and a helpline.
According to a 2018 survey conducted among 3,556 participants by the Bengaluru-based foundation, 47 percent indicated high judgement against people perceived as having a mental illness. It also recorded a shocking 62 percent who associated derogatory terms such as retard, mad and irresponsible to describe people with mental illnesses. Dr Sangeetha Sankarnarayanan, a psychiatrist from SIMS, Chennai, says: “It takes a while for the family to realise that someone needs help. Often something drastic has to happen before they seek a psychiatrist.
The family members play a crucial role in bringing the sufferer in to see the psychiatrist, ensuring compliance with medication and watching out for relapse signatures. This process can be hard on the carers as well and they need someone to talk to who won’t judge them.” In Sanjana’s case, the turning point in her journey as a care-giver was her realisation that her husband saw her actions as selfish and lacking acceptance. “It was only when I stepped back to give him space, letting him know that I felt his pain and I was there for him unconditionally that he opened up,” she says. Supporting an individual through a mental illness demands such sensitivity from loved ones and understanding a mental illness is a vital step for everyone involved. Mystic and author of When All Is Not Well Om Swami says there are two dimensions to depression.
“There is an ayurvedic or medical perspective, which is concerned with the body and then there’s the yogic perspective which is concerned with the consciousness. When it concerns the body, if the brain is malfunctioning, it’s natural that they need medication and a boost in neurotransmitters. For such patients, yoga is designed to flush the brain with oxygen. The yogic view on depression believes that if something originated from the consciousness, we need to fix it there. Meditation is a way of healing your consciousness. ” Despite the efforts of loved ones, ultimately the power to heal and take charge of their journey to recovery rests with the individual experiencing the illness.
The White Swan Foundation is yet another non-profit organisation that provides valuable and authentic mental health-related content through their web portal. Maullika Sharma, a counselor with Reach Clinic, Bengaluru and a columnist with The White Swan Foundation, says, “Counseling only works when the person is fully on board. It is very difficult for an individual to say I cannot do this on my own, I need help. The fact that asking for help is not easy shows that it is an act of courage and not a sign of weakness.”
With every emerging non-profit dedicated to uprooting stigmas against mental illnesses, every committed counselor and skilled psychiatrist and the sufferers themselves who take a stand for their own healing, the climate of mental health in India is undeniably changing. Lasting impact, however, will depend on how willing we are as a community to embrace our most vulnerable citizens in their darkest hours. * Name changed upon request