I was in 8th grade when I succumbed to the downward spiral that is non suicidal self injuring habits. Every time something bad happened to me, I would lock myself up in my bathroom, press the blade to my skin and bite down on a towel to avoid screaming as the blood poured down my arm. My parents didn’t find out until much later, when they were informed about the same by a teacher who’d noticed the cuts on my arm. I was angry, I was scared, and I was helpless. But where the rest of the world saw a little girl who needed immediate psychological help, all my parents saw was ‘Log Kya Kahenge?’ (What will people think?).
It took me three years of self control before I was finally clean of all forms of self injury. Deprived of any sort of help from a mental health professional, the journey was cruel and confusing; it could have been worse though – I might have not made it. My classmate Atul was in the 11th grade when he went into depression. His marks in his 10th grade board examinations had been terrible and yet he’d been forced to pursue the sciences. He was flunking out of every course, heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol and suffering from a host of physical and mental health issues. We tried talking to his parents and asking them to get him into therapy, but their solution to Atul’s problem was locking him up in his room and scolding him relentlessly. Before we knew it, he’d become a shadow of his former cheerful self and we couldn’t do anything to stop what eventually happened. Atul killed himself.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues isn’t particularly isolated to India itself. But what is it about our society and upbringing that makes us choose silent suffering over wagging tongues? Why is any sort of an illness only considered real if it’s physical? Why is it so horrible for one to admit that someone might have mental health issues without attaching the tag of complete insanity to it?
Common conditions like depression and anxiety are faced squarely with denial. “Get over it” one is told, “You’re over thinking”. It’s a common case of trivialization where one’s inability to accept the existence of such an issue makes them blind to the situation. After a point, it’s not even about other people anymore; such parents are unable to fathom facts which go beyond their own belief systems and as a consequence, the child suffers. “Everyone has mood swings” said my mum as she accused me of seeking attention via self harm. But I was quick to notice that my mum’s denial of my issues was only built out of her own anxiety at having raised a child who wouldn’t be considered perfect in the eyes of the society.
Which brings me to my second point: whereas physical illness is seen as an issue to be resolved, mental health problems are more often than not seen as an essential flaw in character. We have managed to internalise this statement to an extent where the blame for someone’s mental health issues is placed immediately on his/her upbringing – parents, to be more specific. Is it then a surprise that mothers and fathers hush up their children’s problems to avoid being labelled a familial failure? Any sort of a disorder that doesn’t need immediate attention is quickly cloaked under a refusal to acknowledge reality; and as a result, not only is the child deprived of the help they need, they also grow up to further perpetuate the stigma attached with mental health.
This is perhaps the very reason that the field of counselling psychology has had a hesitant flourishing in India so far. True, critical disorders like schizophrenia and other delusions, or asocial / antisocial behaviour are promptly treated in India, but the amount of degrading rumours and allegations that follow the same are bitingly embarrassing. What this does is create an atmosphere where any sort of a mental issue is exaggerated to great lengths, making it shameful to admit and talk about. Before we know it, such a thought process is ingrained in us, breeding yet another generation of parents who are blind to this one particular need of their children. “Are you calling my kid crazy?” defends the father of a boy who might allegedly have obsessive compulsive disorder according to his teachers; refusing to get him any help. ‘Crazy’ - that single terrible word capable of breaking a parents’ foremost resolve to take care of their child because it is a stain upon their character and looked down upon by the society. The consequence? Yet another child lost to the maladies of their own mind that will never be acknowledged.
So the next time a parent accuses you of labelling their child insane, do it. Tell them that their kid is crazy - ‘absolutely bonkers’ if you will. Tell them that their child needs immediate attention and there is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to seeking professional psychological help. Tell them that they might just lose their child to mental illness - or worse - and tell them that it is their duty to look after ALL spheres of their child’s wellbeing; especially this one. They might just brush it off like most would and subject their children to a hushed up life; but then again, they just might listen.
By Anusha Datta