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Political Depression: How Bad is India's Politics For Our Mental Health?

A woman protestor shouts as police stop many others during their march against the amended Citizenship Act, NRC and NPR, near Jamia Nagar in New Delhi,2020. (Image: PTI)

A woman protestor shouts as police stop many others during their march against the amended Citizenship Act, NRC and NPR, near Jamia Nagar in New Delhi,2020. (Image: PTI)

‘Political Depression’ is a term being increasingly used to define the phenomena of uncharted and intense feelings of helplessness, grief and anxiety which occurs due to distressing social and political events. What is political depression for Indians and especially millennials?

"The Personal is Political".

This phrase, coined by Feminist scholar Carol Hanisch, has been used as a rallying slogan of students movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It aimed to talk about the underscoring connections between personal experiences and a larger socio-political structure. Even though this slogan has been used predominantly to emphasize upon the lived experiences of women under patriarchal power structures, it has now been increasingly used to denote the interrelation between an individual and the socio-political structures which exist around them.

Politics plays a large part in a rapidly growing society and nation like India. Similarly, the political structure of a society can play a dominant role in the basic socialisation, ideology and lived experiences of an individual. However, what we tend to gloss over is the mental and physical impact of politics on the masses, especially those who involve themselves extensively into the political happenings in their nations and across the world.

‘Political Depression’ is a term being increasingly used to define the phenomena of the uncharted and intense feelings of helplessness, grief and anxiety in people which occurs due to distressing social and political events around them. Political Depression has mostly been observed amongst Millenials who are in the process of forming their own political understandings and in some cases, loyalties.

This phenomena contributed to a significant rise in anxiety, fatigue, loss of sleep and even hypertension amongst young adults. There are many reasons for individuals to be anxious about politics in modern-day India. It shapes the course of one’s life, career and social positioning, due to which this particular mental state transcends beyond ideology and the ability to empathise. Khwaish Sharma, a psychologist with Children First who works with young adults between the ages of 18-25 says, "Politics is involved in shaping our identities, understanding its involvement takes away self-blame and helps one focus on the influence of broader cultural stories while reflecting in therapy. As a therapist, it is crucial to remember that "the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the problem is social". It is essential to explore how the problem is affected by gender, race, culture, sexuality, class, relations of power among others and how they may influence the construction of the problem”.

In April 2020, the Journal of Experimental Psychology in the United States conducted a research on ‘Political Depression?: A Big-Data, Multimethod Investigation of Americans' Emotional Response to the Trump Presidency’. The study delved into how the 2016 presidential elections gave rise to pathological levels of election-related distress in liberal Americans. The study also addressed the likelihood of how public and professional discourses have increasingly overgeneralized concepts of trauma and psychopathology. The complex interconnections between the personal and political spheres bring us an unprecedented view of the psychological consequences of political events on human minds. However, this concept has not been studied in India, even though India is one of the youngest nations in the world which has the cheapest access to 4G internet services and a constant exposure towards politically distressing themes at home and across the world.

Since late 2019, India has witnessed and lived through immense political and social unrest. The anti-CAA-NRC protests rocked the country, the National Capital bore the brunt of violence in universities like Jamia and JNU which was soon followed by the riots in North East Delhi’s Jaffrabad locality. New governments were formed in four states and an elected government was overthrown through a strategic coup. While all of this was brewing, the global Coronavirus pandemic hit the nation with an obstacle it had never encountered before.

This has had an enormous impact on the vulnerabilities of citizens and their mental health, all while living under strict nation-wide lockdown. Mental health battles have accelerated, people struggle with increased levels of anxiety and restlessness. Amidst all of this, many continue to pass their time by watching television news or scrolling through social media. These platforms constantly report on politically sensitive matters, which then triggers an emotional response amongst those who consume content.

Moreover, another key aspect with developing a sense of political depression or anxiety are our interactions on social media, wherein we often encounter friends and colleagues indulging in socio-political narratives which may seem unjust from our viewpoint. It’s a widely accepted notion that political opinions are a subjective discourse due to which people are entitled to stand on their own. What irks people is their objective morality over what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. Young Indians today have grown to educate themselves on social, political and economic matters which are independent of what their families have taught them over the years. This difference of opinion can often cause altercation between them and their loved ones, which eventually then leads to underlying bitterness or silent acceptance. This becomes a vicious cycle. For these young Indians, having their relatives constantly arguing over political happenings across the world creates the cause, and the anxiety which ensues soon after is the effect. "We tend to feel exhausted and defeated. Which further goes on to evidently make us feel disappointed, overwhelmed, helpless and isolated. This can interfere with focus and concentration, create chaos in these relationships and even leave the individual feeling ostracised in their own homes," Ruchita Chandrashekar, a behavioral health researcher and trauma therapist told us.

Is there an ideal way to deal with these crucial political differences amongst family members? "Just like any other concern, there is no stipulated way of dealing with difference in opinions. Having said that there are certain things that can be kept in mind to reduce anxiousness and helplessness. It's important to understand that political exposure and news can be overwhelming and draining for some," said Dakshita Sabharwal, Counseling Psychologist at LimeLighting Life.

Her colleague Radhika Goel is of the opinion that it's essential to be conscious that the other person might not want to be in a conversation, not due to difference of opinion, rather due to their efforts to reduce their exposure to political news. "In addition, often when political views may be dissenting, effort can be made to engage in healthy discussion that involves understanding the opinions and thoughts of others rather than simply clamping them down,"  she added.

No matter what your political beliefs or affiliations, it’s safe to say that the world is now living through a particularly difficult and unique time. The entire world is reeling under frustration towards all that has been constantly happening. Be it the Black Lives Matter movement or the Australian bushfires or the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone in the world has been facing unique challenges. In India alone, people have been constantly exposed to the news of custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu, the battle between China and India at the borders, the ban of Chinese apps, the death of our favourite Bollywood stars, and the daily disappointing news of the pandemic.

The political-diplomatic climate has been on an all-time high after a scuffle between Indian and Chinese forces at the LAC which led to casualties on both sides of the border. As an ordinary citizen of the country, young adults across the caster-class-gender spectrum have been dealing with a crippling sense of helplessness. "It is perhaps time to acknowledge the fact that the impact of politics is rather far-reaching. Despite the fact that depression does not see any demographic variables during its onset, the nature of this form of depression is likely to be more prevalent in more politically marginalised sections across age groups, genders, occupation, religion, race, and caste," the team at LimeLighting Life said.

The demographic facing this depression expands beyond what meets the eye of middle class, urban milieu. Khwaish Sharma said, "Individuals belonging to marginalised communities, like religious minorities, people belonging to lower castes, the LGBTQIA+ community amongst others often battle mental illnesses along with having to deal with lesser representation and not enough acceptance. They lack access and trust in the therapeutic space and it is our job as therapists to acknowledge these power dynamics. A therapist should not leave their biases outside the therapy room, they should in fact be confronted within the therapy room, as therapy is political and the power dynamics between the client and the therapist need to be addressed and not shunned."

But is there a way out? Many would suggest that disengagement would be a good way to combat this, but is disengagement possible in such chaotic times? Ruchita Chandrashekar said, "I think we need to start recognising that we aren’t an infinite resource and exhaustion is a natural consequence, given the circumstances. Disengagement is not only imperative for overall well-being but for sustainable resistance. Adequacy is relative, but having spaces to process one’s feelings, developing boundaries with the news cycle and even from damaging relationships that could have opposing political views, coupled with taking time off to replenish can be useful caretaking strategies in trying political times."

first published:July 10, 2020, 10:51 IST