By Tejaswi Subramanian
Mental health is our society’s blind spot. It is invisible, intangible, and whenever it rears it’s seemingly-ugly head, it is often met with trite responses like, ‘get some exercise’, or ‘go out and get some fresh air’ or ‘have you reached out to your friends lately?’. I call them trite because many a time mental health makes you a prisoner of circumstances. No, you haven’t gotten exercise because you messed up your knees as a teenager and are putting in 65 exhausting hours a week at your dead-end job. Also, where is it that you go out and get fresh air when the parks shut down after 5 pm, which is when you reach home after work, and the rest of the neighbourhood is a gridlock of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Reach out to your friends? Yes, of course, everyone is obviously waiting with bated breath at when their helpline will ring with your name on the caller ID. Sometimes it’s the truth of the situation; other times it is what your mind tricks you into believing. Either way, it can be a debilitating state of affairs for a person to be dealing with, and that’s why mental health awareness is so important.
On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, I sat down to chat with two professionals working in this field. They have been using new media to come up with innovative ways to engage diverse audiences, including students, working professionals, artists, and mental health experts, to express themselves and embrace their mental health.
On making awareness and prevention information accessible
The first is Suyash Kumar, a marketing executive at YourDOST, an online platform for counselling and emotional wellness. Suyash himself struggles with what has been diagnosed as a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and through his work, he hopes to be a ‘mental health warrior’.
Exactly a month ago, to mark the start of Suicide Prevention Week, he sat down with a panel made up of a psychiatrist, who works to train gatekeepers for suicide prevention; an LGBT activist, who is a suicide survivor himself; and a young professional, who has lost a loved one to suicide. The discussion was streamed and made available as the first episode of Safe Cast, YourDOST’s official videocast. As part of Safe Cast, a bevy of topics that contribute to the complex tapestry of mental health like gender sensitivity, exam-related stress among young people, surviving life-threatening illnesses, and dealing with stigma related to mental illness diagnosis will be discussed in the coming months.
The episode dives into what leads to suicide among people, and tries to undo the stigma of it being the choice of the weak-willed. In fact, it is everyday people like you and me, who are pushed to the edge by factors like alcohol and drugs, stress, depression, and familial problems, who attempt suicide. With these factors becoming commonplace in our daily routines, suicide awareness and prevention assumes renewed importance. Without the proper tools and a robust support system, which could comprise of trained professionals, go-to resources or helplines, self-help kits and understanding loved ones, the risk of people resorting to such dire acts is endemic.
Based on this conversation, the team then put together an infographic as a quick reference for suicide awareness and prevention. It draws to a close by clearly telling you what to watch out for to recognise suicidal tendencies, and how you can respond to it.
Besides these, YourDOST is also making efforts to compile many other forms of resources for mental health, on a singular platform. For instance, their psychology team is working towards putting together various self-tests, such as their emotional wellness test for students. These have been designed scientifically by experts, but the insight it gives is accessible and comprehensible to everybody. It helps people put themselves on the mental health map, instead of viewing it as an disconnected observer.
A unique spin on Inktober
The second is Nelson Moses, an award-winning independent journalist who founded the Suicide Prevention India Foundation to honour the memory of his best friend who died by suicide. Capitalising on the global Inktober movement on social media, Nelson decided to introduce a twist to inspire artists to create works that made them reflect on mental health-related topics instead. Some of the prompts included body image, bullying, sex, drugs and alcohol, and so on. Nelson shared the list and encouraged folks to share their works with the hashtag #inktobermentalhealth, while collating them on this facebook page.
Here are some pieces that caught my eye–
Aarti Karwayun is an art therapist who responded to the prompt on body image with water colours and accompanied it with a short written piece that spoke her truth. “As a child, when near and dear ones are critical about your body, you don’t know how to protect yourself from such harshness, and you end up internalising it. However, as an adult, I realise I am more than my body, and I separate it from my sense of self-worth,” she said.
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This ink piece by Mangalore-based artist Kiran Joan is based on the prompt for Day 7: parents. Many among us can relate to this interpretation as we seek to grow out of our parents’ shadows and come into our own. “I enjoyed creating these pieces mainly because they are all personal. People connect and resonate with them, especially the one on ‘body image’, and that’s great!”
How governments have responded
Mental health and suicide are increasingly becoming part of the global political agenda. In fact, British Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a suicide prevention minister who will focus on tackling the stigma surrounding suicide. This appointment also coincided with World Mental Health Day.
The Indian government too has also been making policy decisions focused on addressing the stigma surrounding mental health and the accessibility of assistance for those in need. “A major step by the government in support of mental health was the passing of the mental healthcare bill. As part of this bill, suicide was decriminalised, which was something that used to stifle people’s cry for help. This has paved the way for survivors to seek assistance without fear of legal repercussions. Consequently, the IRDAI has also issued a directive to insurance companies mandating coverage of mental illness under their schemes.” said Suyash, commenting on the government’s moves to mobilise discussion and provision for mental healthcare. “Moreover, the UGC has also mandated the setting up of counselling cells in all Indian universities.”
Another announcement that coincided with World Mental Health Day was Instagram’s algorithm to detect bullying language in photographs and captions uploaded onto the platform. The photo and video-sharing platform is also collaborating with Maddie Ziegler, who gained fame through her performance on the video for Sia’s single, Chandelier. The result of this is a ‘kindness camera effect’, a new filter for users.
With this sudden surge of conversation about mental health, one wonders if this is part of a larger politico-commercial agenda to commodify mental health. Is everyone just jumping onto the bandwagon with limited understanding of the problem? Suyash disagrees: “The discussion is finally becoming more mainstream, leading to increased visibility of services available. It is the beginning of growing awareness.”
At the end of the day, such professionals are mobilising myriad resources through their work. It is collectively nudging a broader conversation that is based on the personal truths of people’s own mental health. The time has come for us to be honest with ourselves, and authentic with the world. Here’s to a mentally healthy generation.
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior sub editor at Qrius.