Thursday, November 28, 2019

No, mental health is neither a joke, nor an excuse.

It is a relief that ‘mental illness’ is no longer a taboo, and in the past couple of years, words like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘eating disorders’ and ‘stress’ have been used with more confidence and conviction to express inability to deal with…well, say life. 

Let us start with understanding mental health. Mental health is the psychological well-being defined by appropriate balance in love, work and everything else about life. So, when we say that one is mentally ill, we want to imply that the person is dealing with any of these mental health conditions – depression, anxiety, stress, bi-polar disorder etc. 

Interestingly, my memories of growing up also have some words which I would have heard being hurled at people who were not very bright or accomplished, slovenly or undeserving. ‘Mental’, ‘retard’, ‘dimwit’, and ‘psycho’ are some of those words. Years later, when I started coming across people who struggled with mental issues, I realized how ill-informed we were. I felt sorry.

While celeb revelations (Deepika, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson) about their issues and their journey towards recovery have given not just hope to those in the same boat, but also the strength to accept, disclose and seek help, depiction of people with mental issues in mainstream cinema (Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi) has played a crucial role in informing and educating the community to identify those suffering and empathise with them. I know people – friends and family – who are open about their mental condition and have not hesitated to seek medical help. Many of them have been able to cope up very well and shown positive results.

But hey, has that changed everything? Is mental health now a very mature subject and are people educated and informed enough to identify issues and handle them. Sadly, the answer is no. 

I have heard, ‘I think I am suffering from depression. I do not feel like dressing up for parties.’ ‘It must be work stress, otherwise I will never miss my game’. Mental health is not sadness, it is not failure, it is definitely not the lack of interest to engage in leisure. While disorders like depression and anxiety are becoming more easily understood, schizophrenia, personality disorders and psychosis are still poorly understood. Thankfully, the treatment is now more accepted and less marginalised. 

While I have seen bold survivors of this deep, dark condition, I have seen many people who hide behind the possibility of having a mental condition when faced with failures and disappointment of any kind. I have heard about people with low ambition, people who have made mistakes and failed, people who are in terrible social situations often hiding behind stress and depression. I have also read about people faking medical illness to escape circumstances arising out of their misdeeds, or merely exaggerating symptoms for attention sake.

Even on Twitter, you see people announcing their mental illnesses; some to seek support, but many to seek attention. It is very difficult tell them apart, and therefore, it is very important that we reserve our opinion, judgement and definitely our reactions. It is also important for us to know that sadness, physical exhaustion, failure and similar negative experiences cannot be loosely termed as ‘mental illness’ unless examined and verified by qualified professionals. So instead of being carelessly prescriptive, and confidently judgemental, we need to be simply empathetic.

And just like my previous blog, I will leave this with a list of don’t-say things:
  •         You don’t have to be depressed
  •         You seem to have OCD
  •         That person is a real psycho

Friday, November 22, 2019

How we Indians mess up at 'Empathising'?

I spent the evening today, trying to find out why most of us suck at empathising. I read many articles, most of which were about the need for empathetic approach at workplace ad why should leaders learn the skill. I could not, however, find anything that talks about empathy towards someone suffering physical and mental illness. 

I decided to analyse the most common empathetic reactions of people around me, and I realized that we just do not know how to empathise. We are well-meaning and therefore try to overcompensate for our lack of understanding. In the process, we end up scrubbing few wounds rather than even healing one.

As the sufferer starts responding to, ‘I heard you are not feeling well today’, he notices that the person who posed the question is busy messaging on the phone, while trying to fake interest in the response. He stops and the conversation abruptly ends. DO NOT ASK IF YOU DO NOT MEAN TO ASK.

People think humour is a great way to pull someone out of miseries. ‘Is the shit hitting the fan today also’? ‘Are you going to be sulking the whole day today’? ‘You seem to be failing all the doctors’. DO NOT CRACK JOKES. THEY PINCH LIKE NEEDLES.

Often, we are so cautious in the presence of the sufferer, that we avoid any conversation. Not knowing what to say can also be a reason for our silence. Trust me, even holding hands, giving a hug, rubbing the shoulders can do magic. Silence hurts, but a physical touch can do wonders. DO NOT BE A MUTE SPECTATOR. 

We Indians are very obsessed with physical appearance. ‘Oh, you look awful’. ‘Look at you, what have you done to yourself’. By saying all of this, you give another worry to the sufferer and leave him sulking. Even a compliment does not work here. 'You look fab’ or ‘wow, you look so better’ will not work. Untrue statements will create mistrust. DO NOT MAKE IT ABOUT PHYSICAL APPEARANCE. 

Many many times, I have seen people trying really hard to get into your skin. In the process, they make it more about their sufferings, and end up adding more load on the sufferer. ‘Yeah, when I was in this condition, I could not sleep through the night’. ‘Oh, Chintu almost died of this condition.’ EXPERIENCE SHARING IS NOT REQUIRED. 

In my pursuit, I also read about some elements required for empathetic behaviour, and I realised what is most important is emotional intelligence (EI). EI lets you get into the skin of the sufferer to understand his or her mental conditioning and react with utmost care. 

I thought long and hard and was trying to imagine what is it that someone who is mentally or physically hurt, would like to hear. Here’s what I could come up with:

‘I can see you are in pain, but you are strong’.
‘You are holding up very well. You are amazing’.
‘I feel your pain, and I know this will not last long’.
‘Once this is over, we will spend a day in the salon’.
‘I may not be in your situation, but I am with you in coming out of it’

I think we really need to calm down when we are with friends and family who need our support, and try to weigh in on everything we do and say. Nothing can go wrong when we are with our best intention.