How living with a mental illness in India is living with way more
Nikitha Warriar writes a lot on healthcare and wellness. She is also one of LifeWordsmith’s...
Click here to know more
Ankita Magdani is a Mental Health Therapist, Career, and Mindset Coach based in Dubai. She...
Click here to know more
Ridicule. Annoyance. Dismissal. Denial. Stigma. If you have ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, you may be familiar with these keywords. Keywords that form the fabric of everyday existence when living with a mental illness.
When it comes to mental illness, stigma looms around us like a shadow, a constant companion that never leaves, making no room for the help we need. Stigma and socio-economic factors are two of the many reasons preventing individuals from seeking support for their mental health issues.
No wonder, in 2018, Deepika Padukone said, “When I was suffering, I wish I had come across someone who said – I think I know what it is.”
What is it really like to live with a mental illness in a country where mental health conversations are not mainstream yet? MyndStories wanted to find out, and we spoke to a few who were willing to share their lived experiences.
To share or not to share
Aarti*, a 28-year-old journalist from Kolkata, harmed herself at 16, and her concerned parents took her to a therapist. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and that marked the beginning of a journey that her young life hadn’t prepared her for.
“The first challenge was at home – the stigma from my own parents, both of whom are medical professionals. Most of what I did or said after my diagnosis was attributed to my illness.”
BPD is marked by ‘impulsivity and instability in interpersonal relationships, moods, and self-image.’ For Aarti, that was difficult enough, but it was even more difficult to obtain understanding and support. “That was the second challenge. I made the mistake of sharing my diagnosis with a friend. It was meant to be a secret, but everyone came to know about it because of her. My classmates distanced themselves from me, and many mocked me openly,” she reveals.
Despite more conversations and awareness, the stigma around mental illness in India remains high. Although widespread research still needs to be done, it’s estimated that the prevalence of mental disorders in the Indian population is 5%. But a vast number of illnesses are actually underreported or go unreported because of, well, stigma.
Sandesh* too understands the pain of this stigma. After weeks of insomnia just before the Covid-19 pandemic, he decided to seek professional help and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. Describing the painstaking journey from experiencing symptoms to seeking help, he says, “When Deepika Padukone and many other celebrities opened up about their mental health disorders, I was convinced I was not alone. Convincing my family that I needed help was my biggest challenge.”
While their family may not have been as supportive as they wanted, Aarti and Sandesh found support elsewhere. Aarti found understanding school teachers, and Sandesh had emotionally supportive friends to rely on.
Support was something that Sushil* too found lacking. The 30-year-old was diagnosed with depression 5 years ago. “Talking about depression back then was like talking about something illegal. Especially for someone like me who has been brought up in a small town where there is not much access to open forums or platforms where you can learn about any mental health illness. So the biggest challenge was to reach out to the right people.”
Until he found professional help, he survived by relying on his friends. “Though my friends were my unpaid therapists, and I’m grateful for them, it never works frankly because their opinions and suggestions will always be biased,” Sushil admits.
But what can be done to eliminate or reduce this stigma around mental illness in India?
This 2021 study by Live Laugh Foundation has a hopeful answer. The number of people ready to offer support to someone seeking treatment for mental illness increased from 54% in 2018 to 92% in 2021.
A glimpse of a world without mental health stigma
When a 24-year-old Vrushali* found herself struggling mentally, she didn’t find it difficult to seek professional help. She says, “If you ask me, honestly, there were no challenges. My mother was the one who didn’t just encourage me to seek therapy but actually took me for it my first time.”
Just like Aabha’s* father, who offered her support throughout her psychiatrist sessions and medication. “He didn’t understand mental health that well, but he knew I needed help. He made an effort to learn about psych meds and realize they were not scary or addictive but necessary for my well-being”, says the 24-year-old who was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD around 5 years ago, when she was 19.
When panic attacks became a norm for 20-year-old Anusha in 2019, her best friend had her back. Remembering those days, she says, “My best friend was my biggest champion. Not once did he make me feel that something was wrong with me, which honestly was the biggest support.”
Do you see a pattern here? These are responses from people diagnosed with conditions that are difficult to verbalize. They are aware of this; all they need is empathy to lead to acceptance. Most days, they just need someone to say – we are here for you, and mean it too.
They say we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go before the world completely accepts those with mental illnesses. Someday, people living with mental illness will also be treated with the same kindness as everyone else. But we have to create that future ourselves.
So how do you do it?
Ways to move closer to support and farther from stigma
- Be willing to learn about the illnesses: The number of people who are aware of at least one mental illness has increased, but there are still only a few who are aware of Schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among others. So, make an effort for your loved ones. Go for couple therapy. Read books like Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, Sepia Leaves by Amandeep Sandhu, and A Book Of Light by Jerry Pinto, among Indian authors.
- Never break trust: If someone shares something in confidence, respect their confidence unless you feel they are at risk of harming themselves or others.
- Be a friend and not a therapist: We can offer comfort to those with mental illness, but with the caveat that professional help will help our friends more.
- Be mindful of your language: There’s an endless list of derogatory terms for people with mental illnesses – ‘People like them,’ ‘paagal,’ ‘attention seekers,’ and so on. Read up on how to talk about mental health with compassion.
*Names are changed to maintain confidentiality.
1. Choudhary, S., & Gupta, R. (2020). Culture and Borderline Personality Disorder in India. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 714. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00714
2. Venkatesh, B. T., Andrews, T., Mayya, S. S., Singh, M. M., & Parsekar, S. S. (2015). Perception of stigma toward mental illness in South India. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 4(3), 449–453. https://doi.org/10.4103/2249-4863.161352