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Let's Talk About The Invisible Pain Of Homemakers This World Health Day

As many as 20,000 homemakers kill themselves each year...

03/04/2017 6:59 PM IST | Updated 07/04/2017 3:20 PM IST
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The focus of this World Health Day is "Depression: Let's Talk." And the section of the population that really needs to be part of the conversation is homemakers.

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We've all seen the tired stereotypes... the homemaker who ecstatically greets her muddied children with her preferred brand of detergent in hand, the goddess-like mother who juggles 60 different things with her multiple arms, the concerned domestic "CEO" who judiciously supervises the health and education of her family. Yes there are acknowledgements of a darker reality in popular imagery, but they are few and far between... the exhausted homemaker waiting eagerly for "wine o'clock", the housewife longing for a frisson of excitement in an unbearably drudgerous life, the mother hiding in the bathroom, her heart perhaps beating as fast as the toddler pounding on the door.

More than any other group in the country perhaps, it is the housewife who is rendered the most invisible—in life as well as death.

Now how about looking at the data. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 42% of stay-at-home mothers described themselves as struggling as compared to 36% of working moms. They also reported experiencing less happiness and learning fewer new things. They laughed less. They suffered more. In India, the burden for depression is 50% higher for women than it is for men, but let's dig even deeper. In April 2016, the BBC published a telling report titled "Why Are India's Housewives Killing Themselves?", noting the staggering statistic that 20,000 homemakers killed themselves in 2014, as compared to 5650 farmers. Yet, there was no furor, no media interest. More than any other group in the country, perhaps, it is the housewife who is rendered the most invisible—in life as well as death. She has no one taking up her cause, no one fighting for her, no one even noticing that she is suffering and that one of her "multiple goddess-like hands" is juggling a noose or a vial of poison.

As mental health specialists and providers of online psychological therapy, we see it for ourselves every day. We are often contacted by women in distress who are unable to leave the confines of their homes (because they don't have the confidence or the means or the "permission" to do so), and all they want to do is talk, to be heard, to be treated like human beings rather than glorified unpaid service providers. Don't forget that they live their days in relative isolation, with little in the way of stimulating adult company; they also rarely achieve appreciation for all that they do. It's a recipe for the blackness to descend.

She has no one taking up her cause, no one fighting for her, no one even noticing that she is suffering and that one of her "multiple goddess-like hands" is juggling a noose or a vial of poison.

They are taken for granted to the extent that they start losing their sense of personhood—many spend their days in a busy whirl, catering to the demands of the husband, the in-laws, the children, and it is only at night as they struggle to sleep that the anxiety, the depression descends: Who am I? What am I? What happened to me? Wasn't I clever in school? Didn't people say I wrote beautiful poetry? Is this all there is to it?

The crisis is existential, it is emotional, it is real, and it is life-threatening. On this World Health Day, we'd like to urge you to pay attention to the homemaker in your life—she may be your mother, your wife, your sister. Look at her, talk to her. And keep some of these pointers in mind to ascertain if she may be suffering some form of depression.

Symptoms to watch out for

Emotions/feelings: Low mood, often upset, tearful, irritable, less patient than usual, demotivated, angry, expresses feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Physical and cognitive symptoms: Poor concentration, poor memory, increase or decrease in appetite, lethargic/lacking in energy, sleeping too much or too little

Thoughts: She often says or thinks things like "No one cares for me", "I'm a waste of space". "I'm no good", "I'm a failure", "It is pointless to do anything."

Behaviour patterns: Spending more and more time alone, staying in bed longer than usual, keeping to herself, stopped doing the things she enjoyed, weeping often.

This is not a formal test to diagnose depression but if your wife/mother/friend/sister has experienced more than 50% of the symptoms above, it is possible that she is suffering from some form of clinical depression.

How you can help

Really talk to her: Ask her how she is feeling, if she's happy. Gently ask her if she'd like to try to do something new with her life. It's important not to be pushy. Just open up a space for dialogue. If she seems to be experiencing serious depression, encourage her to seek professional help. She may need assistance in navigating her feelings and charting out a new path.

Take care of her: She isn't a machine who exists to serve everyone else. Her role goes beyond that. Make it a point to ask her to sit back and relax while you make her a cup of tea or a snack. If she is depressed, her self-care may have plummeted to negligible levels. In such a case, help her to eat well, sleep on time and be physically active.

Help her address her intellectual needs: Let's face it, many homemakers do not have the time to flex their intellectual muscles. Yes they do a lot of accounting and management but they rarely get the chance to engage at a deeper level with intellectual subjects. Make sure she has access to books, puzzles and other stimulating activities. Encourage her to write a blog or start a social media page based on her interests. If she expresses an interest in working for payment, encourage her and support her.

Try and keep her involved with achievement-oriented activities: Ask her to maintain a log of what she did the whole day; and ask her to evaluate herself at the end of entire day. This is a great key to keep track of her progress which she can do herself. The tasks here could be acquiring a new skill or a language (Duolingo is fun!) or even learning to drive a car.

Don't let negative thoughts consume her: Help her socialise with people who motivate her. Help her avoid labelling herself ("I am so stupid"; "I am such a loser"). The latter can be achieved by complimenting her often and telling her how important and valuable she is, with specific examples.

Practice relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation are all ways to reach a calmer state of mind.

This World Health Day, #LetsTalk to our homemakers.

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