In the light of the recent suicide of JNU MPhil scholar Muthukrishnan that the campus community is still reeling under, the question of mental health in the campus space has come to the fore once again. In a space that has thousands of students living and working under relatively similar and mutually familiar conditions of academic and socio-cultural structures, it is appalling to discover just how many people are suffering under some form of mental health problem or the other, and most of the time, completely unbeknownst to most of the people they share their everyday spaces with. There isn’t much happening by way of starting a (much needed) detailed conversation on how to tackle this issue, and this article is my small attempt to kick-start that very conversation.
There is a new, rather heartening trend on Facebook. People post messages on their walls letting the world know that they are aware of mental health issues or suicidal tendencies (depending on the ‘week’ they are looking to commemorate), inviting their friends to come and talk to them in case they are going through an emotional or psychological crisis and need help and support of any kind, starting with a non-judgemental listener.
It is great to see the wave of support promised to you on Facebook. I believe many of them mean it too. But speaking from personal experience, for anyone going through depression or anxiety or any other mental health issue, it is often too much of an effort to just get through the day doing what is required of you. To make up your mind to seek out a compassionate listener, even from a crowd of friends, is a daunting prospect, let alone from objective strangers posing as friends on Facebook. It has to do with a host of insecurities stemming from your present state of mind as well as to the stigma people associate with mental health issues, that makes the fear of being judged, or mocked, or dismissed as an attention seeker a prime deterrent to approaching a purportedly supportive listener for a person suffering from mental health issues.
What is even more heartbreaking for such a person is that once they have found the courage to speak out about their problems to someone, the listener may just end up reacting with silence or by a change of topic. It has led me to realise that it is not so much that the friend in such situations does not care for the person concerned, than it is the fact that people have no idea how to respond to admissions of mental health, or how to talk to or treat a mental health patient in a practical situation. Why this is so, is fairly obvious. In a country where any psychological issue is dumped under the blanket term of craziness and is tabooized to the extent that nobody talks about it at the dinner table, the lack of awareness about these issues extends to a lack of skills one requires to deal with a person suffering from any these conditions, thus condemning that person into an intensified whirlpool of the agony, sense of rejection and desolation that they were originally suffering from, which may finally culminate in self destructive silence, even suicide.
For the patient, extending one’s hand for support may propel them further into their illness if the friend they reach out to misses a beat and responds inappropriately, or worse, is scared away into not responding at all. A momentary sense of discomfort, awkwardness, hesitation or even a well-meaning feeling of being ill equipped to deal with the challenge thrown your way, on the part of the friend being reached out to, may result in an exponentially negative effect on the mental health patient – a person only looking for a little bit of an emotional anchor to lift themselves from the pit of gloom sucking them in. It is also necessary to mention here that the first contact person for the depressive has a crucial role to play: they can offer them love and support, of course, but they also become the person who can gauge whether the problem is mild or needs professional attention, and if the latter, they get to be the person who convince the patient to seek help from the counsellor or psychotherapist. They get to take them for their treatment. They get to save a life that trusts them with their pain and secrets. They get to be a good friend and a good person; one that people can lean on in their time of need.
But this is not so easy. People nowadays tend to focus primarily on themselves and try to steer clear of getting involved in other people’s businesses, which works very well for many people on many occasions, but not all the time. Case in point, when someone needs for you to help them. Many may wonder why they must be the one to help this person. Why not anybody else in the world at all? This kind of apathy contributes directly to exacerbating this, and many others, problems that we face in our nuclear lives today. Won’t we all be in some kind of trouble sometime or other? Won’t we need the love and support of the people around us at that time? So why desist from extending your hand to someone who needs it too, even when they are not explicitly asking for it in so many words?
You may wonder that despite having the best of intentions, the problem still persists: you don’t actually know what to do when you discover – or suspect – that somebody you know may be going through depression. (I have been writing more specifically about depression than any other condition in this article as that is the one I have extensive first-hand knowledge about.) Well, I can offer you some pointers to begin with.
Firstly, try to re-imagine your surroundings as part of a community that you belong to. It forges a sense of solidarity and empathy for those people who may not be related to you, but who you share your day to day environment, and germs, with.
Secondly, if you notice anyone behaving out of the ordinary, even if it is someone you are not particularly close to, please make an effort to have a conversation with them. You may not realise it, but sometimes even a casual ‘How are you? Are you doing ok?’ – in other words, feeling that someone has noticed them and cares enough to ask – makes a huge difference to the other person. These are simple, non intrusive questions, and even if you ask them to someone who is not depressed or generally going through a bad time, it will not lead to an awkward silence or embarrassing moment of any kind.
Thirdly, if they say they are ok but don’t seem so to you, talk to someone who is close to them and ask them to check on them. Alternately, try talking to them about it a few days later. If they do admit to having a problem, please listen to what they have to say without offering any judgement or unsolicited advice. Nothing is more irksome to a person who is talking about their feelings, than to be told stuff that they have heard and thought about a few hundred times anyway. Just offer them your ears, some empathy and a warm hug. And maybe a cup of tea, that always helps.
Fourthly, once they open their hearts and minds up to you, try and cheer them up. Going out and doing something you don’t usually do together is a good way to start. The distraction and sense of newness adds to their excitement, will forge a bond of friendship between the two of you, and will hopefully benefit both of you. If that does not seem to work as well as you’d hoped, gently suggesting professional help (keeping in mind that most people may take offence to that suggestion) and convincing that person to seek it would be the next step to take. Do remember to be neither too intrusive nor too distant though. Consistency in behaviour is the key. Even if they want the distance, please do not disappear completely from their lives. That sends the wrong signals.
Finally, just continue to be a good friend to everyone. Read up more on the topic. Listen to what people are saying – or not saying – when they talk to you. Empathise with the people who populate your world. Hug each other more often. It is not as tough or depressing a task as it sounds when you do start doing what you need to for the people around you. If you cannot help someone, please find somebody who can. Be a joy to the people who live, work and exist around you. Because they need you, just as you need them too, irrespective of how many friends or family members you may have anyway. Let us all join hands and bring in a little more sunshine into each others’ lives. Let us try to become a community that gives the people around us a place and an environment to comfortably share their woes, fears and troubles with us, before it is too late. Because while it is the very least we can do, it still has the potential to make a world of difference to someone. A lifetime of a difference.