My father was diagnosed with acute depression — chronic or clinical depression in medical terms — in February. It turned out that he had been suffering from the condition for at least a year before that. He never felt it. And there were no visible signs either. But it was lying in the subterranean, slowly yet surely eating into his life.
Thus began Sohini Mitter’s blog post about her father’s depression and how she and her family dealt with it. While it got widely read, Sohini laid stress on the need to break the stigma around mental illness. She continues to do it. Excerpts from an e-mail interview ChaiBiscuit had with her.
What is the stupidest remedy that was suggested by doctors for your father?
When a close family member had developed signs of depression, it went unidentified for over a year because most doctors we consulted prescribed tests for physical ailments (many symptoms did have effects on the body). Almost all medical tests known to mankind had been conducted. They didn’t yield anything. One doctor asked him to go on a trip somewhere. Another told him to watch movies. All of it without any proper diagnosis. These might serve as distractions for some patients, but they certainly don’t help cure severe, sustained depression. Funnily, not one doctor sensed that it could be a mental health issue. And we were going to premier hospitals in Mumbai
What is the stupidest thing people have told you about depression?
People told me that one could “snap out of it” if one “wanted” to. It was all about will power they said. Any distraction like a holiday or a movie or a book could help cure depression. They asked me to look for ways to break the monotony in the person’s life, make him do things that he liked doing, take him out and so on. Most people failed to understand the HUGE difference between a bad mood / sadness and depression. They refused to acknowledge it. And that made it worse.
What about family?
I’m glad we didn’t have much family around during that phase. They reside in another city. But whatever communication we had, some people suggested going to the hometown or visiting a temple to ‘refresh’ the mind or ‘calm’ the self or some such shit. Of course, we did nothing of that sort. And got down to what was required. Track the illness down and get it treated. It is was simple as that.
What were the reactions to your blog post about the same?
I blogged about the entire ordeal of no-diagnosis to eventual diagnosis and then treatment and caregiving. I wrote it to unburden myself more than anything else. It was posted on my personal blog that had less than 30 followers then. I didn’t intend anyone to read it actually. However, the blog went viral on Medium and invited tons of reactions on Twitter. A lot of people from the UK, US, South Africa, and of course, our own country wrote to me saying that they knew friends or family who were facing similar things. Some even said that they could identify with the symptoms themselves. Some said they didn’t know where to go, how to approach doctors or start treatment. Most of them said that they weren’t taken seriously whenever they tried talking about their issues. That’s something I faced too. So, I know what effect that can have.
There were a few therapists and psychologists who read the blog, shared it, and even thanked me for writing it. One voice of support was filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor who shared the blog and urged people to read. As far as hurtful remarks go, a friend told me that I was washing my dirty linen in public. This was just one of the negative reactions. I have actually forgotten the others because the warmth and positivity far outnumbered the negatives. It’s been two years. I’m still getting shares and comments on that blog. I was quite overwhelmed by the reception. And mostly very relieved to know that I was not alone in the battle. That gave me the confidence to fight it, and reduced the feeling of alienation that had started to creep in.
Were you isolated?
I must admit that during this incredibly tough phase, I realised who my real ‘friends’ were, who the sensitive, caring, understanding souls in the world were. I got ample support from them. I would have long conversations with them on the phone to unburden myself. Sometimes I’d cry. But that made me feel lighter. That’s critical for a caregiver. If you’re attending to a patient of mental health, you start feeling exhausted after a while. It drains you. Hence, it’s important for you to feel alright. While many people made me feel isolated with their callous, insensitive remarks, many more stood by me. A lot of strangers reached out, gave me hope. Of course, there were times I felt helpless, but I could overcome that by and by.
What do you do when you listen to crap being said about depression or mental illness?
I lose my mind. And the alarming regularity with which crap gets spoken about mental health, I lose my mind pretty often. It upsets me, annoys me. I’ve fought with people (some friends even) over this. Some I’ve tried to explain. And then given up. Now, I don’t engage in conversation with people I sense are incapable of understanding the nuances of mental health. Some are intentionally closed to accepting that mental illness is for real and is not a figment of imagination, that it is a troubling physiological condition that can hamper your daily life. And some others are plain dumb to not understand it. Sorry, I’ve no kind words for people who don’t ‘get’ mental health.
How do you think people will be able to realize that depression and mental illnesses are real?
Those who have to realize, will do. Either by observing it in someone they know or feeling it themselves or by listening / reading / interacting with those who suffer. Reading helps. A lot of reading material is available on the web. Depression is a modern epidemic. 350 million people in the world are afflicted by it, according to WHO. A lot of work is being done in the field. We know nothing of it yet. We can only know if we “want” to know. That’s where will power comes into play. If there’s anything you can “snap out of” it is your closed mindset and your unwillingness to learn/accept.
Were you ashamed to take help – doctors, medicines, therapy?
Not at all. I mean when there’s a crisis at hand, the last thing on your mind is log kya kahenge. Also, I was too aware about mental health (even before I saw it up, close and personal) to know that it had to be addressed like any other illness. I was constantly reading about symptoms and ways to handle them. If you’re not ashamed to visit a doctor for typhoid or jaundice, why should there be shame for depression? It’s the same thing. It makes you sick, weak, and doesn’t let you get out of the house.
Did you try convincing people that depression is a reality. How did it go?
I tried occasionally but it was a tiring exercise. Most people wouldn’t understand. A friend of mine once told me that someone she knew was “kinda depressed”… so, she took jazz classes and was fine now. I thought it was better to exit that conversation. There were such mind-numbing statements from people. I’m glad that now celebrated people from across the world are coming out, talking about mental health and sharing their own struggles. That should help normalize things a bit. And I’m hoping everyone will understand it some day.
How do you think the societal stigma around mental illness can change?
We need to have more meaningful conversations around it. Those need to go beyond ‘stay strong’ and ‘sab thik ho jayega‘ [everything will be all right]. There needs to be an understanding that sirf kehne se kuch thik nahi hoga [It’s not going to be all right just by saying so.] And to ensure that everything gets alright, we need to be more sensitive to sufferers. We need to sit down and listen to what they have to say. We cannot cut them short and say ‘chal chai peete hain…better लगेगा. [let’s have tea. You’ll feel better]‘ The moment you do that, the person sharing his/her issues feels that you’re not interested in it. If this situation repeats with 3-4 others, that is the birth of stigma in the sufferer. Some people will say.. ‘oh why does he/she need to talk about it.. Everyone has problems’. That attitude is sickening. And it often comes from ‘educated’ city-bred people. That deepens the stigma. One is constantly made to feel ‘different’. One can never express the pain and it keeps worsening the condition. We have to start treating mental illness as physical illness. Nothing should stop you from talking about it or getting cure for it.
What kind of support would you have wanted from your surroundings at the time?
Recommendations on doctors and clinics would have helped. Also, we had no knowledge about alternate therapies like Reiki or Ayurveda that could cure depression. We didn’t know whom to consult for even suggestions. Very few people are knowledgeable or aware about things related to mental health. Some don’t even think it necessary to seek treatment or therapy. Some don’t even know that it exists. So, I really don’t know how we could have got help from surroundings.
Were there times when you wanted to leave it all and go? Even though you loved the person you were taking care of?
Yes. There were many instances. And there’s no shame in admitting it. I would weep in the bathroom to avoid attention. Caregiving for any patient can be a draining exercise… more so for patients of mental illness. It’s almost as if you start inhabiting a different world with them. You get anxious with their anxiety, you might panic when they panic, you despair over their darkness. But you’ve to rise above all of that and assure the sufferer that all will be well. You’ve to constantly put things in context for them.
Were your family members okay that you were so vocal and putting things in the public domain?
My family drew from my strength throughout the whole episode. I made them realise that there was nothing otherworldly about depression. Of course, I’m blessed to have a family that is way more evolved and accepting than many others. The person suffering obviously had qualms about talking about it or facing the public. He didn’t know what he would say if people asked him about his illness. For a while, he felt that he would be laughed at if he said depression. But that vulnerability comes with the illness. With time, it got better. My family has now helped identify depression in some older people we know. I see a lot more comfort today in the way we approach and talk about this topic.
Why can’t we talk about depression and mental illness the same way we talk about other illnesses?
Because we are conditioned that way. There’s no place for mental illness in our upbringing. Just like there’s no place for mature sex talk in our society. It’s taboo still. Likewise, mental illness is a taboo subject in India. 9 out of 10 families see it as pagalpan [insanity]. They are blissfully unaware about the various illnesses that come under mental health. Years and years of Bollywood tripe has made us see mentally ill people as ‘pagal’ [insane]. Why would anyone want to self-declared that they are pagal? That is why we can’t talk about it freely. If we could, there would be lesser fatalities. And India would perhaps cease to be the suicide capital of the world. A majority of the suicides in the country are depression-related.
It seems that cure to depression is available only to the privileged. What about those who can’t afford a diagnosis or don’t even know they’re depressed when they’re depressed? How do you think help can reach them?
Yes, psychiatry and therapy are expensive propositions. And if you’re dealing with a severe condition, it could take several years to heal. Not many good facilities are available, yes. Only major hospitals would have a department of psychology or psychiatry. We have many mentally ill people whose condition goes undiagnosed for years. So, that needs to change first and foremost. There are a few mental health foundations backed by celebrities that are now working towards making treatment and cure more accessible. We still have a long way to go. But, I’m hoping we have finally found the path.