India has slowly begun normalising mental illnesses, but is yet to treat it as one would treat a physical illness, said Anisha Padukone, director of The Live Love Laugh Foundation, a non-profit organisation working towards mental health awareness.
Speaking at the Bengaluru meetup of MAKERSIndia, held at Yahoo office in EGL park on October 31, Thursday, Anisha advocated that one should not hesitate to take a day off work if there is a concern regarding mental health.
Deliberating on how mental health is perceived in India, the meetup delved into the casual usage of terms like ‘retarded’ and ‘stupid’ which often impact one’s mental well-being negatively. Anisha pointed out that it is the lack of awareness that ignites such references. She suggests that the term ‘commit suicide’ has a negative connotation, as ‘commit’ is usually said for crimes, and should be replaced with ‘die by suicide’.
Depression does not differentiate
Anisha started off by revealing statistics establishing that 20 percent of Indians (one in five Indians) suffer from depression in their lifetime. This would include, Anisha added, many among the audience and her sister -actor Deepika Padukone – who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in 2014.
Deepika opening up about her struggles with mental health was an act of great courage, as she was at the peak of her career in 2014. Anisha recollected how her family went through the process of understanding and helping Deepika in her process of recovery. “Deepika would break down in the car before heading out for events, for no particular reason at all, and had become very different from her normal self,” she recounted. It was their mother, Ujjala Padukone, who figured that Deepika might be mentally unwell, and decided to seek help.
Anisha added that Deepika’s example can be taken to explain that one’s socio-economic background or success cannot make any impact on mental health/illnesses.
Depression: The ‘not me’ attitude and stigma
Deepika spoke about mental health when there was a lot of stigma attached to it; but it went a long way in changing the way a lot of Indians approached the topic. What could have been the end of her very promising career turned out to be nothing short of an inspirational move. Anisha recollects that although her family was sceptical about Deepika publicly speaking about her illness, it was the actor’s conviction that made her go ahead.
“It is fortunate that things turned out the way it is today. It really could have gone either way and we could not have predicted it,” Anisha added. She credits all the positivity today to Deepika’s very conviction of wanting to help out, make a difference and save lives.
Anisha looked back at instances of ingrained stigma when dealing with depression from when Deepika was coping and being treated. According to her, Deepika was initially doubtful of taking up medication, and wanted to pursue only counselling. But she was told that just like any other illnesses, there are physical factors associated with mental health, that can be healed only with medication. With medication and counselling together, Deepika was able to get better.
These are important so that depression (or other mental illnesses) would not escalate. When left untreated, mental illnesses can even lead to suicide, Anisha said.
Being an ally
To help Deepika in her recovery, psychiatrists had advised the family as well, regarding how to be of help to her. The role of an ally is significant in mental illnesses, as the struggle can be exhausting for the sufferer in the long term.
A lot of Anisha’s work at TLLLF deals with educating the caregivers on the best ways to be there for mental health patients. She observed that many friends and families who want to help the patient often feel guilty and helpless, as they are unsure and doubts themselves being either too intrusive or too distant. On the other hand, advises such as ‘snap out of it’, and ‘it will be fine’ are definitely not helping, she added.
Reiterating that awareness is at the root of all matters relating to mental well-being, be it for the sufferer or for an ally, Anisha highlighted that TLLLF drives awareness workshops and online campaigns to normalise mental healthcare and do away with the many stigma surrounding it. Recently, the Foundation started a lecture series, focusing on mental health landscape in India and what is lacking.
Anisha emphasised that organisations can be an ally in a big way. As employers, organisations can create safe spaces, and have the system function in an understanding and emphatic way. Anisha said they should also ensure availability of counsellors and psychiatrists.
When asked what could be a better way to approach than the good old fashioned ‘Are you okay?’ and ‘How are you?’, Anisha recalled the #DoobaraPoocho campaign in 2016. The first-ever national level public awareness campaign for mental health, it encouraged people to speak up about their mental health issues.
Anisha added things move better in the order of awareness, acceptance, and seeking professional help. If one suggests going to a doctor right in the beginning, the sufferers tend to get defensive most of the time. She concluded that going to a therapist should be a norm, even if you are not particularly ill, as talking about your daily life to a non-judgemental, trained professional always helps understand yourselves better.