"Just snap out of it, cheer up'. Do these words ring a bell?
In 2018, a study by the World Health Organisation and NCMH (National Care Of Medical Health) suggested that at least 6.5% of Indians suffer from serious mental disorders. That makes India the most depressed country in the world. Every sixth person in India requires therapy. Yet, ironically, mental health and mental disorders continue to remain taboo in the country.
On Sunday, when news broke of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput's alleged suicide, Indians were left at a loss of words. Some took to social media to offer their two cents about mental health and what they believe people suffering from depression should do. Others opined that the late actor should have just "called a friend" instead of taking such a drastic step.
Rajput's alleged suicide has triggered a conversation on mental health on social media. But for how long? In the past, several Bollywood actors have opened up about their struggles with depression. But that has not really changed the way people view mental health.
The flurry of messages and posts after the news of the actor's death shows that we need to address the way mental health is talked about in India. Posts like "Why don't you just call a friend?" or "There's always another way" is proof that a majority of Indians are clueless when it comes to depression or depressed people and how to talk to them.
Meanwhile, Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bacchan wrote a blog, remembering Rajput. "Why ... Why ... Why ... Why ... Sushant Singh Rajput ... why do you end your life.. your brilliant talent ... your brilliant mind ... laid to rest, without asking, seeking ... why," Bacchan wrote. "His work was sheer brilliance ... and his mind even more ... many a time did he express himself in the depth of philosophical verb ... they that looked passed it were either in wonder or oblivious of its strength of meaning ... some wondered, some quibbled .. to some it was a subdued mirth ... subdued because , for it to be given lethargic ignorance, would have opened the caves of their own ... his speak was measured ... as was his screen presence," he added.
We decided to list some of the bizarre "tips" people offer to people diagnosed with depression and why it's never as easy as it seems.
"Why don't you just call a friend?"
Almost immediately after news of Rajput's death broke, several people began tweeting and posting messages meant to instil hope in someone who may be depressed as well. Most conversations around depression revolve around calling a friend, talking to loved ones and not isolating oneself from the rest of the world.
With suicide of #SushantSinghRajput, Twitter is filled with posts like "I don't understand why he would do this!" and "if you're feeling sad, please just call a friend!!" Shows the absolute lack of understanding around mental health and suicide. We need better conversations. RIP.
— Radhika Radhakrishnan 🏳️🌈✊🏾 (@so_radhikal) June 14, 2020
It's not that easy. To pick the phone and call. To open mouth and let words flow out, even to someone sitting in front. However much they care for us. It's really difficult for some of us to talk.... https://t.co/y7z0NdFO1G — Samarpita Mukherjee Sharma 🇮🇳 (@BookLuster) June 14, 2020
Yes, talking does help. A meaningful tête-à-tête may indeed help someone suffering from depression. If you Google it, you'll find several well-written blogs on how one can help a depressed friend or family member.
As a matter of fact, many celebrities have come out in the past to share their tales of battling depression hoping to inspire those around them. Deepika Padukone had once said in an interview that the reason she wanted to come out with her battle with mental health is that she knew it would help others going through the same.
While some may find solace in sharing their stories, others may not. For some, they might not even know how to put their stories in words.
"Lack of understanding of the subject also prevents someone from reaching out. Insensitive judgement and unwarranted suggestions demotivate people to speak up. There are families who discourage sharing, and we as a society promote secrecy when it comes to this topic," Gargi Vishnoi, a counselling psychologist at Fortis Escorts Hospital.
Vishnoi further explained that a person who is depressed may not want to burden others with what's on their mind. "When people do try to reach out, they are often met with non-empathetic statements like, 'why are you so negative', 'why do we always have to talk about sad things in your life', 'why do you always call to rant don’t you have anything happy to discuss'?" explained Vishnoi.
"Get a Job!"
There have been countless studies which show the impact of depression on productivity in the workplace. One study says that in the US, employers lose millions of employees each year due to mental health disorders. Those who do not quit their jobs might find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on their work.
"There’s a great deal of lack of motivation, irritability, fatigue, lack of concentration, loss of interest in pleasurable activities and this has a direct impact on your productivity, social and personal relationships," said Vishnoi.
Moreover, during the coronavirus pandemic, reports suggest that thousands of people have lost their jobs and their only sources of income. One study talks about this being a vicious cycle and how depression is often a cause and effect of job loss.
For example, if someone who had already been battling depression loses his or her job during the ongoing pandemic, that can act as a trigger and may push the said individual into a downward spiral.
Thus, asking someone to "just get a job" because that might "cheer them up" is possibly the worst thing you can tell them. It indicates that depression is a choice and that one is at fault for not choosing to look on the brighter side, or for not "snapping out of it." It shifts the blame to the patients themselves, and might further add to their feelings of worthlessness and despair, a common symptom of depression.
"Take a long, hot bath. Go out, have some fun."
Here's the thing, people tend to confuse sadness with depression. Sadness is just one of the symptoms of depression. These strategies may work for someone who is upset about a particular incident, not for someone with chronic depression.
"For someone suffering from depression, the tendency to isolate themselves is very real. The patient might wake up in the morning and the first thought that'll come to mind is that the day ahead is already ruined. There is a depression triad in psychology - self (how you see yourself), world (how you think the world sees you) and future (thoughts about what's lying ahead. Plus, depression is caused by an imbalance of seratonin in the brain. That makes the person incapable of cheering up or having fun or having positive thoughts. The person is clinically depressed, the last thing he or she wants to do is go out and socialise," explained Shinjini Deb, a clinical psychology trainee.
According to Vishnoi, these suggestions would only come from someone who has never faced mental health disorders themselves. No one chooses to feel this way, people with depression do not get to control how they feel.
"We have to understand that taking a hot bath or just go have fun sound very harmless and easy but are unimaginably difficult for someone dealing with clinical depression. If someone is suffering from fever, you don't ask them to try 'feeling cool. It's the same for depression," said Vishnoi.
"Have you tried yoga or exercise?"
Yes, yoga does help the body's stress response. There are studies which suggest that yoga and meditation can help the body self-soothe and calms down the nervous system. This may benefit those with anxiety and depression. But yoga cannot be the standalone remedy for depression.
"Seratonin imbalance in the body leads to several behavioural changes. The brain stops functioning the way it is supposed to. So when you say things like 'why don't you try yoga' or 'why don't you step out?'you're making the person feel worse. He or she may really be trying, but is unable to function in the manner that is considered normal. The patient may not even be eating or sleeping properly. They may not have it in them physically to actually go ahead and do yoga," said Deb.
"Sadness is just a symptom of depression and other symptoms include hopelessness, lack of energy, fatigue etc. So when we say go get some exercise, we don’t understand that it is incredibly difficult for the person to get into the mind frame of working out and stay motivated. Yes, of course, exercising releases endorphins which give you a ‘Happy High’ but that can help combat temporary sadness and not chronic depression," explained Vishnoi.
Sushant Singh Rajput's tragic demise, shocking as it is, has once again sparked conversations about mental health. But more importantly, it has exposed the lack of knowledge and awareness about depression.
Soon after the news broke, people were Googling symptoms of depression. It could be out of curiosity, or it could be to help out loved ones. Here's what you could actually do to help a depressed person, instead of asking them to just cheer up - you could guide them and convince them to seek professional help. Quite often, feelings of hopelessness can be so overbearing that a depressed person might think they are beyond help. Counselling and psychotherapy coupled with medicines could actually make a world of difference.
So, the next time someone reaches out to you and tells you that they are not okay, believe them. Listen to them. Do not dismiss them and ask them to be "positive." Depression is not a choice, it is a disease, much like other chronic ailments. And your advice, which may be well-intentioned, might actually make matters worse.
Note: This news piece may be triggering. If you or someone you know needs help, call any of these helplines: Aasra (Mumbai) 022-27546669, Sneha (Chennai) 044-24640050, Sumaitri (Delhi) 011-23389090, Cooj (Goa) 0832- 2252525, Jeevan (Jamshedpur) 065-76453841, Pratheeksha (Kochi) 048-42448830, Maithri (Kochi) 0484-2540530, Roshni (Hyderabad) 040-66202000, Lifeline 033-64643267 (Kolkata).