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What It's Like Living With a Mental Illness in India

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When it comes to mental illness, our Indian society likes to keep its eyes shut tight. And even if they finally have to see it, they decide on ignorance. Because it’s easier to be oblivious to something you can’t see with naked eyes than to accept its existence. Even though depression and other mental illnesses take more lives every year.

What shame has befallen on our family? What sins have we committed to deserve this?  What will people say? Only Baba so-so can help us now.

These are some of the things I had to hear over the years, struggling with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and PTSD. People don’t consider mental illness to be a real. And even if they do, it’s hard for them to accept that one of their own is “cursed” by this “evil entity.” 

Your family members think it’s a passing phase, that you’re being moody or lazy. That you can get back to all the things you love, and your illness will magically disappear. Relatives advocate this belief further by imparting unwanted wisdom about something they will never understand. They will all look at you with pity. And no matter how much you’re struggling, you’ll choose silence over seeing a psychiatrist.

It is perceived that anyone who has some kind of mental illness has made it up in their minds, that they’re really just sad and lonely. It’s a stunt to get attention, a personal pity party. If the person is privileged or famous, it’s a lifestyle choice. If it’s us, well, we’re faking it to shirk responsibilities. 

“We never heard of this kind of things growing up. You are pampered and lazy. Go do some work. Take up a hobby. You’ll be fine once you get busy.” But they never understand people struggling from any kind of mental illness cannot just take up a hobby, or go for work. It takes a immense amount of strength to even get out of bed. Nothing you used to love feels the same anymore. And you feel humiliated and guilty for having an illness that’s slowly eroding your very existence.

People don’t look like they have mental illness because it’s not a facial expression. But just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. You don’t see the cuts on their body, you don’t see the anger they have inside because they don’t know why they are wrong, you don’t see the pain they feel because they have been made this way, and you never, ever, hear their internal scream — this is not who I am.

Roughly one out of 10 people who live with a mental illness go untreated in India. 15 people die by suicide every hour. While some of us are aware and seek help, people in the rural areas depend on home remedies and local exorcisers.

Seeking help from a mental health specialist is another story altogether. Most of the psychiatrists/psychologists/psychotherapists are expensive, and mostly inaccessible in the hour of need. If you decide to see a good psychiatrist, you have to make an appointment days prior, even months. This poses a problem for someone like me, who has bipolar disorder. It is difficult to foresee the unpredictable “ups and downs.”

In spite of these circumstances though, a bunch of people have come together to fight the stigma attached to mental illness. Celebrities are openly talking about their mental health problems. There are several campaigns and awareness programs that vow to help people in need.

But most people still remain blind to the reality of mental illness. Who wants to believe something so gruesome can happen to them? So, every time it comes up, they prefer intolerance over empathy.

And then there are people like me, who are aware of the fact that mental illness is as chronic as any other life threatening physical ailment, and seek help. But this group still falls in the minority. These are people who write, raise their voices and listen. Who accept their own weaknesses and make a statement, all the while raising awareness and helping those in need. 

Let’s hope this group succeeds at establishing the much needed attention towards mental illness, which is the foremost cause of affliction in India, and worldwide.

Originally published: September 29, 2016
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