Away from the maddening crowd of the city, I was sitting by the bank of the Yamuna river in the outskirts of Delhi. She was throwing pebbles in the still water. The quaint surrounding and chirping birds added the much required charm to our away-from-chaos-picnic. That day, 18-year-old Asha shared a story – a story that I remember line by line. It was her first attempt to bring her deepest darkest secret out of the closet.
I had a very happy childhood; my brother would take care of me like one would imagine an ideal elder sibling to do. Our parents were a good mix of being cool and strict. They would let us have all the fun when it’s time to play, but they will not let us take our studies lightly. In hindsight, it was perfect and mostly cheerful. Except for this one day in the summer of 2005, when things started going haywire. I was studying in 5th standard. One day when I came home from school, I saw that Amma had locked herself in a room; initially, I thought she must be sleeping or doing some work. As time passed I grew curious and worried; standing behind the closed door I rested my ears on it. I could hear the wailing and crying, which made me extremely anxious.
Finally she opened the door, she was wearing a parrot green suit, her eyes were red and the sorrow was apparent. I embraced her for a while and asked what had happened but all efforts went in vain. I had never seen Amma cry like that before. I stood beside the bed looking at her helplessly. I didn’t know what to do except wipe her tears. She cleared her throat and said, “You are too young to understand what I’m going through”. For the next few days, she was totally disillusioned; she didn’t talk to any of us, didn’t go for work, and didn’t cook. I was growing more anxious as days passed; one day when Papa returned from work I bombarded him with questions:
What happened to Amma all of a sudden?
What’s making her sad?
When will she get better?
Will you do something before its late?
What can I do?
All kinds of thoughts rambled into my head leaving no space to sleep or do any work. For a few days, she stayed at a relative’s place and I kept waiting eagerly for her to come home. When she finally came, she looked better but something had changed, she was smiling, but there was a distance. She had put on weight and had puffy eyes. Many relatives came to our house; they suggested that she shouldn’t go to a doctor, shouldn’t take the medicines. Do yoga and pray to god and everything will be fine. Some close family members were extremely angry. “There’s no need of seeing a doctor”, they screamed again and again. Everyone told that Amma has depression. I knew that depression has something to do with extreme sorrow.
I could not understand what was happening all of a sudden. I wanted someone to listen to my ordeal; someone to comfort me, to say that everything will be fine. Sitting in the corner of my bed I would make mental notes of the list of things I wanted to say, things that were making me anxious. Then I would calculate the consequence of saying these things. Will they judge me, how much can I share, will it be appropriate to share, and the biggest dilemma, “Who can I call?” Finally, I ended up going to sleep with these thoughts without saying a word to anyone. After all, a 10-year-old would only listen to her family members and relatives, when they asked her not to utter a word about mental illness. She grew up believing that such issues should stay within the closed doors, one should not seek anybody’s help no matter how helpless one feels.
Understanding The Issue, Better
A few years later, I was sitting in a small dimly lit room; Amma’s counselor was sitting on one side of the table. A number of thoughts had captured my mind as I waited for her to start the conversation. That was the day when I was supposed to get answers to many of my questions. The counselor started explaining:
“Your mother was very young when she starting repressing many disturbing emotions. A combination of things happened at school and at home which has disturbed her till date. She did not have space to discuss it with anyone and these thoughts have piled up to trouble her mind. She narrates instances when she was bullied by the other children in school. At home, things were worse; the everyday instances of abuse and violence between her mother and father had disturbed her, she remembers those visuals to date. She has internalized these conflicts and questions herself: “Why it doesn’t bother any of her siblings as much as it disturbs her?”.
Then the counselor said that Amma has clinical depression which is severe and has to be addressed with years of counseling and medicines. “Your mother is a determined patient, she knows she has an issue that needs to be addressed by professional help. The usual cries and reaction of your mother are because of the medicines, they are bringing out the conflicts and repressed emotions, and you needn’t worry about them”.
Before heading out to the counselor I used to spend hours thinking if my mother is doing the right thing by going to a counselor, because everybody said, She’s Not! As I went for more sessions, I could get more rational answers and somewhere I started trusting what my mother was doing. I would still listen to the family members who opposed her but now their opinion did not matter because Amma was getting better. Sometimes I would listen to their comments without saying a word; at times I would reply with a sarcastic comment. Today, Amma is much more cheerful, her illness doesn’t disturb her as much. But one thing hasn’t changed. She is still labeled as mentally ill, her usual anger at any issue is termed as a reaction that’s coming out because of the illness. Her thoughts, emotions, views and her entire existence are seen as if it’s not normal. The stigma and the prejudice attached, prevail even today.
Mental Illness And Social Stigma:
Asha’s story inspired me to think, how stigma towards mental illness gets manifested in society?
As I started reflecting on how my opinion of mental illness was formed, it was through cinema and television. The Indian cinema has created a typical image of the mentally ill. The scenes of asylum, the shock treatments, and patients wearing a uniform, the physical abuse, criminalizing the patient, have created a dreadful image most of which is far from reality. Many films have treated mental health as something to be poked fun at while some have endorsed exorcism to portray mental illness. A few examples of such films are Bhool Bhuliya, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Tere Naam.
It is dreadful for a person and their family to be diagnosed with the illness. The impact of such stigma is twofold; there is public stigma which is the reaction that the general population has towards people with mental illness and self stigma: that people with mental illness turn against themselves. Such stigma comprises of three key components:
The psychologists view stereotypes as ‘social knowledge’ that are collectively agreed notions towards a group. The fact that a person has knowledge of a stereotype doesn’t mean he or she necessarily agree to it. Prejudice, on the other hand, endorses negative stereotypes and generates negative social reaction as a result of that. For example, there is a tendency to believe that all people with mental illness showcases bizarre behavior or they are violent. This manifests a feeling of dreadfulness of the ‘normal public’ towards ‘abnormal and mentally ill’, leading to aversion and discrimination towards them. A prejudice turned inward leads to self- discrimination. Research has suggested that people with mental illness prefer hiding their stigma and staying in the closet. They try to avoid the stigma all together by denying their group status.
Asha sturggled with understanding the nuances of mental illness at a very young age. Before getting a chance to understand anything about her mother’s illness she was already pored with many negative prejudices. As she shared her story I could see how helpless she felt when she couldn’t even share her feelings with anybody. However, she was among the fortunate lot who got a chance to at least understand the issue from the professionals. The stigma and social beliefs close the potential for the patient and the family members to understand the issue; they fail to see mental illness like any other illness, and in turn they don’t go for long-term treatment. I often contemplate:
How we can build an understanding about mental health issues like any other sickness? How can we stop labeling mental health patients and professionals?
I am just really happy that you chose to write about that girl’s story … :-). Because its a story worth sharing, not just in hindsight, but in solidarity.