As a doctor because of it, I understood and looked upon mental health issues purely from a clinically detached fashion. I understood the basic facts, that India had one of the largest number of people suffering from depression and is in fact according to India today, the most depressed country in the world today according to a recent India Today report[i], the fact that the country faced an acute shortage of mental health peofessionals. For instance I knew that approximately 150 million people in India need therapy for their mental health disorders, even as I write this and yet less than 30 million people are able to seek help, simply we do not have enough trained professionals or even para professionals and those who do exist are to be found in the cities. Further , I also knew about stigma and discrimination, even among so called “enlightened families” and beyond the shortages of personnel, people avoided visiting a therapist’s chamber simply because of shame. A cancer survivor might get a well deserved pat on the back, a mentally ill person surviving possibly a lifelong battle, might earn an equally undeserved scorn.
Side Effects of Living – an anthology of various reflections dealing with mental illness from various walks of life and ably edited by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait opens a gateaway to many of those lonely and cloistered journeys where even friends and families walk away after some time , not because they don’t care anymore, but because care giving for a person with severely ill person is arduous and draining. Although there are some contributions by men, a bulk of
them are by women who add an added layer to the already difficult challenge by talking of abuse, neglect and abandonment – emotional at the very least, sometimes physical too. Through beautifully crafted poetry, short but poignant essays, illustrations and paintings, these brave women and men have come out of the closet and shared their struggles – with family , about living life as those all around live it, about psychiatric medication and how it can be liberative but also
not and the mental health survivor movement in the opening piece written by an activist.
As you read these deeply moving, sometimes disturbing stories, you realize that it took a lot of courage to come out and write. Many or most of them would not call themselves “cured”. Some are in between medications, between one cocktail and another, or a combination of counselling , therapy, alternative medicine or even an enlightened seer, hoping that some one , some where will have the magic pill but none has found it yet. And they have written their pieces in a lucid
moment, that their unfinished stories might inspire others not to give up but carry on the good fight.
Beyond the stories, are the larger lessons that stare at us. When confronted with a mental illness in the family, a paralysis sets in. It is not the same as going for treating diabetes or enlarged tonsils or an infected foot. Psychiatric treatment can take years, the results are not predictable, compliance to drug regimes creaky and cases of self medication high. The line between authentic therapy and untested new age treatments is wafer thin and people cross walk between the psychiatrist on Monday, the therapist on Tuesday and the New Age healer on Wednesday.
Meanwhile we must call out the 37 brave souls who took time out to write about a difficult slice of their life , so that we may be exposed to that dark tunnel we too may one day pass through.
Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.