I hadn’t heard of singer Sinead O’Connor until her meltdown video trended on social media recently. Here was another celebrity openly confessing about her volatile state that the world took instant notice of and rushed to offer virtual support in huge volumes, briefly bringing mental health issues back into focus. It reminded me of Deepika Padukone coming clean about a condition from which she was rescued in time by family, friends and her psychologist some time ago. That’s the advantage of being in the public space. More often than not, one gets attention and help when in distress of this kind. Like O’Connor and Padukone.
Several stars who have made it to the other side safely (without succumbing to suicidal tendencies) have spoken candidly about a phase which has passed, thanks to a support system they sought and found. But what of ordinary folks like you and me? Do we speak out? Do we seek help? Do we come out of it? Or do we even acknowledge it, for Goodness sake?
No, let us not look askance at the mention of something as commonplace as mental illness as if it is a thing that can happen only to other people.
By mental illness I don’t mean complete derangement, which is what we traditionally equate this fluid state of mind with. I remember a man in my hometown who was in that remote realm and his name was prefixed with the word ‘mad.’ But I now realize that the mind does not flip in one particular way that makes a person ostensibly crazy. The fissures can be unseen, unnoticed and often, cleverly camouflaged, and the damage it stealthily does, unfathomable.
We don’t know enough mental science to classify or deconstruct the weird ways of the human mind. Call it depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, post trauma problems or just mental infirmity. The nomenclature is not important at this point. What is important is to recognize that we are all equally susceptible to what is now becoming an unspoken malady of humongous proportions.
Despair and melancholy isn’t new to human lives, yet what makes ‘depression’ a generic term in modern times is our inability to understand, accept and cope with it. It is now more prevalent than we would like to concede. It is within striking distance of each of us, yet we behave as if we are forever insulated.
We all have skeletons in our closets and we don’t know when they will tumble out revealing our hidden malaise. We all have our secret woes and worries, yet we want to show off bravado, because to confess is to seem weak. And who in this macho world likes incapable people who can’t handle their own mental faculties in difficult times?
We want to be invincible heroes to other people; so we pose like strong, steely individuals even when the concrete within us is crumbling. Because, to say I am disintegrating, hurts. After all, the world loves happy people. When they ask ‘How are you?’ one must say gleefully, ‘all is well’ even when all is not well. But all cannot be well all the time to all the people, damn it! Only the ones who have been through it will know that. Ask someone who hasn’t slept for months, ask someone who suffers from panic attacks, ask someone whose heart palpitates with inexplicable fears, ask someone who is on the precipice waiting for a helping hand and a willing ear.
For all the networking we have now established for material/functional purposes, most of us are a lonely, isolated lot. We may have friends to party with, relations to picnic with, hordes of people to rally on social media, but how many who will take us in and listen without making judgments, without giving out platitudes on positivity, without sounding condescending, without making us look like wimpy kids? How many who will stay and impart strength when the life force seems to seep and deplete? How many?
Bereavement, broken relationships, failures, fears – there is no telling what can push one to the edge or when. Not all are endowed with the same amount of fortitude to face up to it. Some are better equipped to handle adversity and tragedy than others. It is not about resistance or resilience. It is about fighting and surviving every single day in its shadow. It is not the resolution of a problem that they seek. They just need people who care enough to tell them, let us know how we can help you come out of it.
Not all of us are celebrities. Ordinary people like us who go through the trough don’t speak out aloud. We don’t weep in public. We don’t hire pricey therapists. Those who have hit the nadir call it quits and find quick relief. The rest – the ones who neither live fully nor dare to die – go about their stifled lives, often with plastic smiles and positive postures, lest the world comes to know. Lest it weighs against them. Lest they are labelled.
If depression/mental illness is pushing people over the edge, the blame should fall on us, for we are shirking our collective responsibility as a species. We are partly responsible for the continued misery. We aren’t standing with them in their hour of emotional need. We aren’t talking to them. We aren’t listening to them. Perhaps, we are afraid to engage in their concerns, afraid that their gloom will smear our happiness. Or we have so many casual associations that we don’t know who we genuinely connect with. Or we simply are too consumed with our own things.
We send Whatsapp jokes and forwards, without asking, “Are you well? How is life?” We publish Facebook posts and keep a count of reactions without knowing if someone close is waiting for our call. We walk away either feigning ignorance or not knowing that someone we know needed us. We fail to give people we call our friends and family the love that would give them the confidence and comfort to confide. And occasionally when someone does find the courage to speak, we don’t show enough patience and concern, and dismiss it as a phase that will pass eventually. Or at worst, bully them mercilessly.
And we call ourselves a human fraternity?