It has been five days since actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, but India is still reeling from his death. It seems each individual is at a different stage of grief.
Some are still in denial while thousands are in the stage of anger — signing petitions against filmmakers and boycotting the ‘privilege club of Bollywood’ for allegedly alienating Rajput from the industry. Few are processing it by sharing their own stories of mental health struggles and reaching out to friends and family. But, for a small group, this incident has served as a trigger that has aggravated or pushed them towards depression.
The news of Rajput’s death had been especially hard for his young fans who looked up to the actor as a role model. Since his death, three young adults from different parts of India, have ended their lives by suicide, citing Rajput’s death as a trigger.
A 17-year-old girl from Patna, and another minor girl from Port Blair took their lives after hearing the news of the actor’s death. A 15-year-old Mumbai boy also killed himself, because he could not take the incessant teasing and bullying that he was subjected to because of his ‘feminine mannerisms’. His younger brother told the media, that a day before his death, he had said that if Rajput can take his own life, so can he.
However, despite several cases of suicides among young adults after the actor’s death, most of the discussions on mental health currently happening among adults exclude kids and young adults from the narrative, which is strange, given that it is a scientifically proven fact that children as young as three-years-old are prone to depression and anxiety.
In fact, for children, it is often harder to deal with such issues, because they do not know how to communicate the feelings of grief, depression or anxiety to their parents, and therefore, their mental health problems can go undetected, worsening over a period of many years.
Understandably, death, grief, anxiety, and depression can be difficult topics for parents to explain to their children, but these conversations must not be put off simply because they are difficult. In fact, as we mourn the death of one of the young and bright Bollywood stars, it is a good time to broach these difficult subjects with the teens and kids in your homes.
There are many wonderful books that can be used as tools for such conversations with children, and although they are mostly for a younger audience, I believe they can be helpful to many adults as well. Here are a few books that can serve as a conversation starter at your home:
1. Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile (age 3-6): This gem is the story of Chiru, a little girl who loves to play with her Bhaiya (brother). However, at one point she realizes that her brother doesn’t want to play anymore and notices that he is getting sadder day by day. When she asks him why he doesn’t want to play, he tells her that it is because of a monster, who refuses to leave him. Chiru names the monster Dukduk. Dukduk, the monster is basically depression, which makes her Bhaiya really angry on some days, and makes it impossible for him to get out of bed on other days. How Chiru’s Bhaiya deals with Dukduk is for you to read and know. With vibrant illustration by Sunaina Coelho, this book is perfect for young kids to understand depression. Written by Sanjana Kapur, and published by Pratham Books, it is currently available on storyweaver.com for everyone to read for free.
2. The Dog Who Knew Sadness (age 3-6): This is another Indian children’s book on depression written by Nisarg Prakash, and illustrated by Siddhartha Tripathi and available on storyweaver.com for free. It is about the friendship of a young boy Feroz and his pet, Noah, a dog whom he adopted from a shelter. While Feroz is battling depression, Noah is his constant companion, elevating his moods on not-so-bad days, and sitting quietly by his side when things get dark. The book outlines the need for companionship and the relief of being understood when one is going through depression. The author writes, "No matter how sad he felt, Noah could always make him smile. Maybe that was because Noah understood sadness. Before Noah became a part of Feroz’s family, he had been sad too.”
3. A Terrible Thing Happened (age 5-9): It is a tender and touching story written by Margaret M Holmes and illustrated by Cary Pillo that can help kids understand post-traumatic stress. In the book, we meet a raccoon, Sherman Smith, who saw ‘the most terrible thing’ which made him ‘very upset’. The book explains how those who struggle with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder suffer from constant fear and often shuts out the memory of the ‘violent episode’ they witnessed or endured as a coping mechanism. It depicts how shunning bad memories, however, doesn’t really help as we see Sherman go through appetite loss, suffer from terrible physical pains, and feel profound sadness. Sherman acts out in mean ways when he is unable to deal with his inner guilt and fear. However, Ms. Maple helps him figure out his feelings, and get rid of his guilt. The book doesn’t specify ‘the most terrible’ thing, so it can be anything that can lead to post-traumatic stress in children.
4. Can I Catch It Like a Cold? Coping With a Parent’s Depression (age 5-9): According to a research, an estimated 15 million children (about one in five) in the US have a parent who is severely depressed, and although similar studies are not available in the Indian context, it won’t be an extrapolation to say that the numbers could be staggering in India too. However, for children to understand why their parent(s) are unable to do things or are always sad, and distant, and behave like they don’t care is hard. This book, by Centre For Addiction And Mental Health, and illustrated by Joe Weissmann, is a kind and gentle attempt to understand parental depression through the eyes of a child.
5. Am I a Bully? (6-9): All parents hope that their kids are not bullied, but it is also equally important to not raise a bully. There are all kinds of bullying, and the subtler ones are harder for kids to identify as bullying. This book helps in making that distinction. It shows when a simple, and funny joke can veer into the territory of torment for another. Written by Hope Gilchrist, and illustrated by Zoe Jordan, this book is also a great conversation starter for parents and school teachers about bullying. Closer to home, it would perhaps make a great gift for the big bullies of Bollywood too.
6. How Big Are Your Worries Little Bear? (age 6 - 10): This one is perfect for parents who want to address the anxiety and worries of their children. Written by Jayneen Sanders, and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, it is the story of a little bear, who has many big worries. He is a chronic worrier, but his mama bear helps him out of the situation, by discussing his worries with him. The more he shares with mama bear, the more his worries subside, showing that if one has a patient and kind listener, who can gently nudge a kid to rationalize and share his worries, then they would be able to manage their worries better. The book also comes with discussion questions for parents and is very engaging.
7. OCDaniel (age 12+): This book, written by Wesley King, is part coming-of-age and part mystery story. It is about an eighth-grader, Daniel Leigh, who like every other person of his age, is struggling to fit in. However, through Daniel, we also get a glimpse into the head of a person dealing with OCD. It shows how someone who is gripped with obsessive, and compulsive behavior. Certain rituals may feel innocuous and harmless, at best idiosyncratic, but once they start disrupting schedules and one’s ability to live normally, then they transcended into the realm of OCD and it becomes imperative for the person to not only seek help but also to accept his disorder. In this book, we witness Daniel's journey of seeking help and finally accepting his condition. We also see him helping one of his classmates to solve the case of her father’s disappearance.
8. Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Young adults and adults): This is indeed an atlas, as writer Andrew Solomon, who is also a professor of psychology at Columbia University, and president of PEN American Center, maps insights on depression from the spheres of science, politics, and culture as well as history. He seamlessly weaves personal stories of not just his own struggles with depression but also of philosophers, policymakers, doctors, scientists, and drug designers. This book brings out the agony of living with depression, but in doing so, it never fails to be hopeful.
9. The Disappearing Girl: Learning the Language of Teenage Depression (teens and adults): This book gives insight into one of the most vulnerable yet, often ignored group that is susceptible to depression – teenage girls. There is a tendency to ignore the problematic behavior of young girls, and labeling them as ‘teenage angst’, but this book helps parents make the distinction between the two. It is mostly for parents but can be a beneficial read for teenagers too if they are trying to understand their mental health issues better. It is crucial to address depression in teenage girls, because if they are not given the right kind of help on time, then they will continue to take this baggage into adulthood. In most cases, it will turn them into individuals who are fraught with self-doubt and anxiety. Written by Lisa Machoian, this book helps young girls navigate the currents of teen years, empower them to make healthy choices, and cope with their mental health issues.
10. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (teens and adults): Depression feels and impacts each person differently, therefore, there cannot ever be a comprehensive account of what it is like to be depressed because it is a deeply personal experience. However, this book packs many voices and perspectives on this disease which currently threatens to push our world towards a mental health pandemic. Authors like Larry McMurtry, Donald Hall, Meri Danquah, Ann Beattie, and several others portray their own battles with the ‘unholy ghost’ and open up about how depression affected their lives and relationships in this book. There are also some touching personal accounts of those who have seen their loved ones deal with depression and had been their companions in the difficult times. The editor of the book, Nell Casey, also recounts her own experience of seeing her sister deal with this disease.