We may talk about how India is on its way to becoming technologically advanced and modern. But have we advanced, really? How far, for instance, have we gone in terms of progress in one of the most essential fields: mental health?
India recorded the highest rate of major depression in the world, at 36%. Yes, 36%, that is, approximately 40 crore people. It pains me even while I write this.
Ignorance is not bliss, and mental health is certainly not something to be blissfully ignorant about. Mental health as a whole is very important and it’s high time Indians started acknowledging it. In an effort to emphasise the significance of mental well-being and also to start a conversation about it, we at Bayside Journal asked people diagnosed with clinical depression to articulate their struggle with depression.
Depression is as much about brain chemistry as it is about your feelings and your responses to the environment around you. This is what 21-year-old Taksh Sharma explains to us, while gearing up to talk about depression. It’s important to remember that his aggressive and self-destructive behaviour landed him in the office of a psychiatrist, who put him on medication to control his behaviour. He was in Grade 8; he couldn’t make sense of what was happening to him.
Psychiatrist Dr. Keerthic Sreevathsow scientifically explains how diseases of the mind work in a manner similar to bodily illnesses, and how the treatment also takes a similar route. With respect to a physical illness, he says, “There is a biochemical cellular change, and I as a doctor would want a cellular response to that. In the same way, depression is a biochemical change in your brain, a cellular change. The medicines that we provide are not sleeping pills. They are working at specific target sites in your brain to produce specific biochemical change to counteract those of depression.”
Twenty-year-old Akshata Narayan starts articulating her struggle with depression by presenting a vivid description of her very first experience with panic attacks. “I was about 14 years old when I experienced a panic attack. I didn’t do anything about it. I thought it was just in my head. I didn’t tell a single person about it, until four years ago,” she says.
Depression is often accompanied by the onset of panic attacks. “My first panic attack started from my throat and it worked its way downwards. I couldn’t bear to stand because my feet hurt. I couldn’t cry because my throat was clogged in. I couldn’t even talk. This lasted for 10 minutes. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. So, I cried it out. I thought it was a general body pain I was feeling,” Akshata says.
Akshata had been diagnosed with ADHD since childhood, so she already had a therapist. Her therapist was the first person she talked to about her depressive feelings. She says, “I told him about the constant fantasies that I’ve been having about killing myself. The bitter part about this was that I took solace in those fantasies.”
There is such a general lack of awareness about depression in particular and, by extension, mental illnesses, that when it is happening to us or to someone we love, we don’t know how to deal with it. “The first time I read up on depression was actually the time I realised that it was possible that I could be suffering from it,” says Akshata.
“For the longest time,” Taksh tells us, “I was on medication without really understanding why I was medication. I did not understand depression as a concept. Then, I started reading and educating myself about it over the Internet.” Soon, Taksh realised how there were more people who understood what was happening to him, and could even relate to it. “After all of the reading, researching and speaking to people who understood and knew about depression better than I did, I was finally able to come to terms with it and talk about it. I was finally able to say that I was unwell, that I needed help,” he says.
In our society, the idea of an average person having to seek medication for depression is alien. Seeking help for mental illness is still, sadly, riddled with shame.
Sometimes, even parents don’t understand. For Akshata, telling her parents about suffering from depression did not go well. “They didn’t have a lot to contribute because they didn’t understand what I meant when I said I needed help. And it hurt. It hurts not having their support when something as treacherous as this takes over my entire being,” she confesses.
Akshata tells us about her own small coping mechanisms that help with the struggle. “I like to talk it out. And it doesn’t even have to be about depression.” Taksh agrees that opening up about depression is the first important step towards a better mental health. He says, “My struggle with depression has been a really long one. But this year, I have finally started talking about it. I realised that when I opened up and reached out, people were ready to help. And I started building a network of people to talk to.”
Taksh points out how symptoms of depression may not be always physical, and therefore, easily noticeable. “Depression has its own language,” he says. “And when a person with depression says, ‘I can’t get up from the bed’, they don’t mean that they are feeling lazy. What they really mean is that for some reason at that even they can’t comprehend, they simply don’t have the strength to get up from the bed and talk to people.”
Taksh also talks about the intolerance people have when it comes to depression by recalling the worst responses he had and still receives when speaking about his own depression. “From listening to things like ‘Oh, your depression isn’t even real!’ to giving senseless cures like ‘Oh, you feel depressed? Go for a run!’ or ‘Oh, you’re depressed? Why don’t you eat food?’”
If a person suffering from depression reaches out to us, what should we do? How could we help? Dr Sreevathsow advises us, “It’s very important that you let them vent. Very often, when people speak, they automatically feel better. Sometimes, all you have to do is offer a listening ear to them. Secondly, don’t belittle anybody’s symptoms. What may be normal for you may be highly difficult for someone else. The essential thing to remember is that you are in no position to make moral judgments.”