What Can ‘We’ Do About The Stigma Attached To Mental Illnesses?

Posted: July 9, 2015

The stigma attached to mental illness in India leads us to push mental illness under the carpet. Here are a few ways we can all help.

When Max Silverman told his mother how fortunate he felt that so many people had come forward to help and support them through her struggle with breast cancer she said, “Where was this when we really needed it? Where was this when your brother was sick?” Max Silverman’s brother Eli suffers from severe Bipolar Disorder, Depression and ADHD.

Do watch his talk here

– Mental Illness by Max Silverman.

Why did the same people not extend love and care for Eli’s invisible illness? Is the lack of empathy a result of or a reason for the stigma? I believe that at the root of the problem is education, information, and knowledge about the very subject of mental illnesses.

What can “we” as a society, do something about this unfortunate stigma?

How cinema can help

Let’s start with the USD 15 billion-entertainment industry of India that influences everything from fashion to language in the country, which could extend a sensible hand. Over the years we have seen several movies dealing with the subject of mental illness or with characters that are mentally ill. These stories and characters often misrepresent these illnesses, which leads to stigmatization, stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards those with mental disorders.

E.g. Barfi! (2012): On an average, the sample recognized 6.9 true symptoms of Autism; whereas4.1 crucial symptoms were missed out and 2.03 symptoms were misrecognized as symptoms of Autism. 93% of the sample knew about autism before watching the movie. 46.67% of the sample believed that the representation might not have been accurate in the movie and recognized an element of creative license. Certain people recognized individual differences such as IQ levels, with responses such as“ not all people with autism have low IQ” –

Effect of Representation of Mental Disorders in Popular Indian Cinema

Alekha Acharya, Sahitya Maiya, Simon Laishram 2014 

It is simple to blame everything the bad guy does to a mental disorder the character has. But is it right? If movies told me everyone suffering from cancer eats bugs, I am likely to believe it. Like we believe all old women with cats are ‘crazy’.

The Indian entertainment industry must realise the power they possess of influencing the country and create responsible cinema that depicts these illnesses in the right light.

Star power matters

This leads us to the torchbearers of this industry. The stars that hold the strings to the hearts of millions. Deepika Padukone is the first Indian celebrity to have admitted to suffering from depression. And the good part is she did not come out as a victim but as someone who realised how misunderstood this illness is and wanting to educate the country. Asking those who suffer and their families to not be ashamed but ask for help.

Hollywood celebrities have been more forthcoming about their struggle with mental illnesses such as Bipolar, Depression, Addiction, Bulimia, OCD etc. for a long time now. They in effect bring attention to the subject of mental illnesses.

Start early

It is time more people in India especially those with the power to influence a crowd accept and talk about their struggles. It could give courage to those who suffer to come out and ask for help.

If we are talking about educating a society about mental illnesses how can we leave out the young ones? Yes, education about mental illnesses must start in schools.

We often talk about how kids sometimes blame themselves for their parents divorce. What about kids that blame themselves for their father drinking and beating up their mothers or their sibling/friend killing themselves? They need to know why these incidents happen and how it has nothing to do with them. Sometimes they even have to be there for a parent who is a victim of a mental illness. Are they equipped?

Programs could be designed for children as well as for teachers and parents. These programs must be designed for different age groups. The schools could conduct workshops where we discuss all kinds of ailments like cardiac, disability, obesity, addictions along with mental health so that at an early age the child starts looking at, and caring for mental illnesses just as they would a heart disease.

The corporate world

Shake up the corporate world. Businesses are all about watching consumer trends. Their focus is on being a part of if not instrumental in the progress of a society. The recent applause that some of the progressive television commercials have received including the recent one from Myntra that discusses lesbian relationships tells us how bold we as a nation have grown to become.

It is impossible that the same corporate world hasn’t witnessed the rise in mental illnesses most of which are caused due to stress in today’s world. Yet it remains a taboo subject. Corporate sponsorships are usually for cancer and aids awareness drives, never for a schizophrenia awareness drive. Absentee emails will always talk of a headache to cover a depression related leave. A co-worker in an irritable mood on a particular day is quickly stamped non-collaborative at the time of a review.

When will a Titan ad talk about the ‘time to come out and get help’ if you are suffering from a mental illness? Or even a television show made about how to be supportive of a family member suffering from depression? When will Madhuri Dixit talk about “Kash hum unhe yeh sikhate ke, that your impulse to beat up your wife could be stemming from some mental illness and that you can get help.”

Support groups

Support groups, as a concept is not prevalent in India. I always thought it was because aunty Rekha would much rather attend a satsang and pour her heart out about her alcoholic son with her satsangis or ask God for help THAN meet other mothers in a similar situation and come up with a solution.

But I was shocked to come across a distressed sibling from Atlanta in a ‘chat room for depression support’. She couldn’t figure how to deal with a sister with Bipolar, who stays out all night, does drugs, spends too much money and gets away with it. She ended up chatting with others who are also like her sister.

I doubt that made her feel any better. She deserves to be trained on ways to deal with situations at home and on ways to help her sister. Will she ever be able to get that support, more importantly without being stamped as troubled herself.

And then in December 2014, the Indian government acceded to a long-standing request of decriminalising attempted suicides in India. Earlier Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, prescribed one-year imprisonment and a fine if a person is found guilty of attempting to commit suicide.

The government has decriminalised suicide, its time we do too. It is time we get rid of the word ‘commit’ that is used along with the word ‘suicide’. It is not a crime, never was. People either ‘attempt’ or ‘die through’ suicide.

And lastly it is repeated time and again that almost all major illnesses including cancer and addictions today are a result of ill mental health (Stress, if we are more comfortable calling it that) and 80% of all mental illnesses are treatable. So stop the stigma to help people around you live a ‘healthy’ life.

Sad woman image via Shutterstock

The power of stories to inspire change made me turn into a storyteller. I write

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