What is the Biggest Challenge in Owning our Lived Experience?

While celebrating turning six, The Health Collective organised a panel discussion on ‘Owning our narrative and lived experiences.’ It was moderated by Anindita Chatterjee, a counsellor and expressive arts therapist. The illustrious panellists included Shubhrata Prakash, a director at Niti Ayog and the author of ‘D-word, the Survivor’s Guide to Depression’,  Tanmoy Goswami, the founding editor of ‘Sanity’, India’s leading mental health journalism platform and a fellow at the Reuters institute of journalism at Oxford University and Ayushi Khemka, the co-founder of Mental Health Talks India and a PhD scholar at the University of Alberta. 

Image by The Health Collective

Anindita Chatterjee began the discussion by pointing out how lived experiences are at the core of mental health. She asked the panellists why they chose to speak about their experiences. 

Shubhrata Prakash- I was going through major depression in 2014. Although I was taking medication and undergoing therapy, I just was not getting better. A reason for that was the stigma I had to face due to my mental illness. People very close to me kept saying, “You are not grateful for everything you have in your life,” and… “It is all in your head.”

 Unknowingly, I internalised a lot of this stigma. A turning point came when I stumbled upon first-person accounts while researching depression. The internet was filled with stories of people like me, who had suffered but had been able to recover. That filled me with hope. That was when I learned the benefit of sharing my own experiences. I have always loved writing. My therapist and family members also encouraged me to pen down my thoughts to channel my creativity and that’s how the book came about. I feel like it was important for me to write about mental health since there is very little knowledge about it in India.

Anindita Chatterjee– You said people asked you why you were depressed even when you had everything – That’s a common refrain that people from privileged backgrounds often hear. What did you say to that?  

Shubhrata Prakash– I simply said I don’t know. I just don’t know what caused my depression. It’s just something that happened to me. Even doctors do not know what causes mental illness. The current theory is that it is caused by a combination of  biological, psychological and social factors. 

People have heard me talking about my struggles and issues but they have not seen my life’s journey. They haven’t seen what all I have been through. I have faced many challenges in my life. Firstly, I was born a girl. In India, women have to fight just to be born.

A pivotal moment in my life was when I had heart surgery just before my UPSC interview. I was very young at that time and I took the train from Chennai to Delhi to get treated. I remember feeling very disturbed, but even then I was not depressed. I got out of that sadness quickly. On the contrary, it was when I had my first child that I went through a severe bout of postpartum depression. It was very strange because that should have been a happy time in my life. So, even I am clueless as to what caused my depression and why. It is all in the hands of the almighty. 

Anindita Chatterjee- You raised an important point regarding our experiences as a woman. Ayushi, what are some things you have gone through that men would not have had to experience? 

Ayushi Khemka- That’s a good question. It’s close to my heart and I can rant about it for so long. I think there’s a general misconception that women are overly emotional and hysterical. This stereotype has been following us around since ages. If a woman expresses her struggles, she is often told she is throwing tantrums or asked “Are you on your period?” 

Why can’t a woman feel the full range of human emotions without it being attributed to her ‘femininity?” 

Anindita Chatterjee– How do you respond to these misogynistic comments? 

Ayushi Khemka- I try to engage with people who hold these views. Now, I am doing a PhD in gender studies, so my language when talking about these issues is very different from that of a lay person. However, if I want to have a discussion, I have to be able to express my views in the language of the common folk. Change will only occur if I can reach out to the maximum number of people. 

Anindita Chatterjee- I think social media helps a lot in reaching out and creating awareness. Tanmoy did you face any backlash when you first spoke about mental health? 

Tanmoy Goswami- I do not think so. I took a break from work in 2015, for three years due to debilitating mental health issues. I discovered just earlier this year that I had been suffering from bipolar disorder all this while. I decided to write a post on Linkedin about why I had taken the break. I immediately got comments from my friends warning me against this and asking why I was writing this on LinkedIn of all platforms? However, I stuck to my decision. The morning after the post, I woke up to a flood of messages from around the world. 

LinkedIn had decided to promote my post on their website. I got a message from a man living abroad who said he had been sitting in a church, planning to end his life*. 

(Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know feel this way, please know that you are not alone and that help is available. Here is a list of suicide prevention helplines in India.)

However, my post made him reconsider and take another shot at life. When I read that, I felt that at least one person understands what I am going through. I was also appalled at the amount of loneliness in the world. A post made in India could save the life of someone sitting in the US. That made me decide to take up advocacy and I began sharing my experiences on social media. 

When I went back to work at a high-flying business newspaper, I was asked to fill an HR form about my medical history. You know the one in which we are programmed to tick ‘no’ in everything, as if we haven’t even suffered a common cold in life? I decided not to do that. I actually wrote down my entire mental health history, including the medication I was on. I knew work would get gruelling and I wanted the support of my colleagues during times of emergency. Although I did not receive any overt backlash, I would be lying if I said that my illness wasn’t used against me in many ways. However, since I am open and transparent with my struggles, people have nothing to attack me with. I have totally owned it. It’s all out there in the open. 

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Anindita Chatterjee- That’s very true. Everyone is a mental health advocate until they have to actually take action to assist those suffering from it. In my workplace, they had posh panels where they discussed these issues but when it came to an employee mentioning it or wanting leaves one can almost feel the tension in the air. Do you have such experiences? What are your thoughts about productivity and mental health? 

Tanmoy Goswami- I can honestly do a half-day event on this topic. Productivity is like a snake eating its own tail. It’s this obsession with productivity that makes people fall sick in the first place. However, employers discuss mental health to increase productivity.  It is quite ironic. Businessmen often ask why employees blame them for their mental health issues, when these issues stem from many other social spheres of their lives as well. A psychiatrist answered by saying that as a society, we have a social sanction to discuss work-related stress much more than we do other parts of our lives. I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. However, I feel like the work environment is a much more controlled environment than we are used to in life. It is so easy to fix problems here, yet it doesn’t happen. That’s another reason why people get frustrated easily. 

I once heard a story about someone who had lost their child. When they returned to work, they were not offered any support from their organisation and had to hear comments like “You are young, you can have another one. Why are you upset?” 

It is troubling to put yourself out when struggling with mental health issues. Since I have been through my own struggles, I am sensitive about dealing with them. Whenever I give an employee leeway about this, I invariably get comments like I am being too lenient and people will take advantage of me. That’s not true because those suffering from mental health are overly responsible because they do not want to be singled out for their issues. 

Anindita Chatterjee- Work can be a very unaccommodating environment. When I was working abroad, I told my manager, I was three months pregnant. She immediately withdrew my permanent contract and made me a freelancer. It was because she felt I would be too invested as a mother to commit as an employee. I felt violated when it happened. There is no other way to describe it. Shubhrata, did speaking about something so personal pose challenges or did it help you to recover? 

Shubhrata Prakash-As far as my personal healing is concerned, it was liberating to own my truth. I no longer had to hide behind excuses to wriggle out of social commitments or doing things my illness did not allow. Mental health is my passion and speaking about it helps me to cope with my struggles. 

Initially, I faced a few challenges at work. A few of my seniors thought I was making this up just to shirk work. However, after my book got published and I turned to mental health advocacy, they realised I was telling the truth. I still get stigmatised. I still get asked why I am depressed when I have everything. However, speaking up about it is amazing because not only am I able to get the support I need, I am also able to help others talk about their problems. Many of my friends tell me about their experiences and what they’ve been through. I urge others to speak up about their challenges. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. What I do is just a drop in the ocean but if everyone did that, it can make a full ocean. 

Anindita Chatterjee- I’m glad you had this experience. We are often told to be ‘grateful’ for what we have, as if its our fault that we are depressed. It can feel like forceful gratitude. What are your thoughts?  

Ayushi Khemka- I am grateful for so many things in my life. But my depression exists. I cannot just wish it away. It’s not like I can just buy a nice bag or something and my depression went away. If you force yourself to feel grateful even when you feel sad, then you are just suppressing your feelings. I am grateful AND I am also depressed. Why are they mutually exclusive? 

Anindita Chatterjee- Right. Let’s take a moment to talk about how parents deal with the mental health of their children. Did you speak to them about it? 

Ayushi Khemka- Yes but my conversations were not very sweet. I started blaming them for a lot of my issues. I felt very frustrated when they could not understand exactly what I was feeling. However, I have come to realise that maybe it was a linguistic gap rather than an emotional one. They do not have access to the language I use for describing my condition. If you think about it, the Hindi word for depression is ‘afsad’. Who even knows that word? I have never heard it being used. No matter how much content we make in English, there is still a huge dearth of such content in Hindi and other regional languages. 

Tanmoy Goswami- As the lone male representative, I have to point out that being a man, it was difficult for me to cry in front of people. It is socially unacceptable. When my four-year-old son was born, someone told me to be careful so that I don’t pass ‘it’ (my mental illness) on to him. 

Speaking about language, everyone has mental health and lived experience. It’s not like there is one correct way to talk about mental health. Nowadays we put a lot of pressure on being politically correct. We get offended when people use terms like ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ frivolously. However, in our country, people have never had the luxury to talk about their mental health openly. Thus, when they finally decide to speak up, we should not beat them with a stick for their terminology. We should not gate keep this community. We need to be more tolerant and empathetic. Maybe they are using these terms due to ignorance rather than intentional malice. 

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Shubhrata Prakash– I wanted to follow up on the argument that people with mental illnesses are not ‘grateful enough’. If you think about it, the go-to instinct in Indian society is to blame the victim. When people get a heart attack, the first thing that others comment is “It is because they were very fat”, or “they used to drink and had many vices.” It is always deemed to be the sufferer’s fault. The same is the case with mental health. I hope that provides some solace to people!  

Tanmoy Goswami- I also want to add that nowadays there is a lot of discourse around the challenges we face during mental illness but there is not enough talk about recovery. All of us, who are suffering from mental illnesses, do not want to go through pain. We want to get better. We need to have open conversations about how to do that. 

Shubhrata Prakash– Mental health is also a spectrum. Everyone has mental health and it constantly fluctuates. On any given day, we can be on any side of that spectrum. If the scale is from 0-10, where 0 is catatonic depression and 10 is extreme positivity, we can be 9 one day and 7 another. That does not mean we are depressed. That is a regular, human emotion. Maybe if you fall towards 5/4 you can be said to be depressed. That’s why it is not right to self-diagnose. It is very important to visit a psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis and the correct treatment.