The first time I came across words describing how I had felt for years as a person struggling with anxiety and depression, I was 25. This was 2013, I had a new job in a digital media company and had just moved into a shared apartment in Mumbai from the home I shared with my mother in Chennai. One afternoon, groggy from a very early morning shift, a stark departure from a very late night routine I had at a newspaper office, I spotted a Thought Catalog article. It had popped up on my Facebook timeline probably because someone on my friends list had shared it, and phrases that caught my eye were ‘tightness in the chest’, ‘shortness of breath’.
For a moment, I felt jubilant. “Oh my god, this is exactly how I feel,” I thought to myself and went on to devour the article on what people with anxiety feel but often can’t articulate, in a breath. It was significant because this wasn’t a link from some sort of a difficult to read medical journal, clinically listing symptoms of a disease. It was from a website that had articles on everything from heartbreaks, loneliness and grief. It was comforting in a “so there are others like me” sort of way.
It had been a few years since I figured that constantly feeling miserable, isolated and overwhelmed wasn’t okay. I had gotten used to feeling like that. During my 10th standard exams, I would come home every day, cry for a few hours, nap, study, cry again, and sleep. But after a point, feeling like it was me against the whole world felt too much to wake up with. I finally sought help from a therapist when I was 23.
Social media a decade ago
Though in reality, I could barely even reach out to my friends, or the people who cared about me and felt trapped in some sort of a black hole, my Facebook feed was a neatly curated exhibition of happy things — outings with friends, birthday parties, trips to Mahabalipuram, trips back home to Kolkata.
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Social media was not a place where you spoke about your actual feelings, unless they were happy feelings, I felt. Even the posts that qualified as ‘sad’ were mostly romantic, fluffy musings about life, love or simply quotes from authors.
An older friend, who had closely observed my patterns of feeling crushed was the first one to suggest I seek therapy. It scared the daylights out of me. But he explained to me that his friend had sought therapy and it had changed her life for the better. When I spoke of it to my other friends — I was never sure if my mother would understand — the conversation ended in assurances that I was “strong enough” to sail through this “phase”. Therapists, they said, were a waste of money.
So I googled about mental illnesses. There were studies, pages after pages of medical journal articles, but barely much about feelings, about having to deal with life when you feel that way. About how to talk to friends, how to go to work every day, how to live.
It did not help that the only ‘relatable’ representation I saw of therapy was on Sex and the City, where Carrie Bradshaw was brushing off the idea of therapy saying it was not for her. The other women with mental illnesses depicted on screen were almost always institutionalised — think Girl, Interrupted. And in India, there was literally nothing on TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs that indicated other people also suffered from mental illnesses.
So even after starting therapy, I was scared to talk about it. By 2012, I finished almost a year of therapy, moved cities, fell in love, I spoke more about my mental health with people, but I often found it difficult to explain why I felt what I felt.
And then the Thought Catalog article popped up on my feed that morning, like magic or something. Then, I began to consciously look out for articles on their website. There were multiple people writing about multiple mental illnesses, about loss and grief, and friendship and each of this was about how they felt. Half-way across the world, I felt supported.
A year later, in 2014, the death of Robin Williams left everyone stunned. Even in India. Though he wasn’t the first celebrity to take their own life, people were shocked that someone as successful could kill themselves. This prompted many to take to Twitter to discuss the need to pay attention to mental health. People spoke about how a mental illness was a “silent killer”, they spoke about their own stories of struggle. A few days later, Williams’s death was forgotten, and people had gone back to their lives, and like everything on social media, this conversation too kind of died. But, this brief public debate gave me the guts to talk about my own journey.
Talking about therapy
Still the journey was not entirely easy. My admission to having sought therapy elicited different reactions from shock to sadness to plain disinterest. The funniest was people completely ignoring it, and changing the conversation after a few seconds of silence. Then there were those who were of the opinion that taking your own life was “cowardly” and “selfish”. The media, on the one hand romanticised celebrity suicides and on the other mostly linked non-celebrity suicides to “love failure”. I sometimes found myself exhausted trying to deal with this banality, ignorance and unwillingness to read or understand mental health. Especially in the Indian context, there was literally.
A lot of that changed when Deepika Padukone first spoke about battling depression in public. I clearly remember the vehement outpouring of personal mental health stories by Indians following her interview on NDTV in 2015.
“The reason why it is like this way is I think there are various reasons and a lot of it are because lack of knowledge and even if people are aware of the mental illness, I think there is sort of stigma attached to it which you know, let’s not talk about it, you can’t take medication for your mind and for your brain because nobody does that, what are other people going to think, you are going to lose your job. So all these things and I think the reason why I chose to speak up,” she said. Since then Padukone’s talking about depression has often been criticised as a publicity gimmick, but honestly, I’m glad it happened whatever her motivation was.
An A-list actor speaking on national television did make all the difference, suddenly everything I was saying seemed to make sense to more people.
For me, it felt like a tiny little win. I had been crying hoarse to my friends and acquaintances about the exact same things. But an A-list actor speaking on national television did make all the difference, suddenly everything I was saying seemed to make sense to more people.
Ruchika Kanwal, a clinical psychologist, said, “Social media has played a great role in spreading awareness about mental health issues. Especially the role of Bollywood celebrities like Deepika (Padukone)who have really inspired a lot of people to accept that it’s okay to talk about mental health.”
The same year, my suicidal thoughts were back and I went back to therapy. And this time around, just taking from the conversations about mental health happening around me, I was able to tell more people about it, without being afraid of what they thought about me. I even told my mother. I had a breakdown and I was able to ask her for help. She flew down from another city to be around me, and to have that support made a world of difference. There is no doubt in my mind that the change in my approach to discussing my mental healthcare needs was because of the change taking place around me.
Change of attitude
The change of attitude towards mental health care also brought with it conversations about the language that we speak when we talk about it. We have, in the past few years, moved away from words we would generously use. Slowly, I noticed people calling out others in real life and online when they frivolously used the word “depression” or “OCD” or “crazy” to describe themselves or other people. We were so used to saying “I feel depressed” when we are sad, that even I have found stopping myself from saying it when I was actually not depressed.
Mainstream media has mostly stayed away from talking about mental health — except for publishing an occasional report on studies on how bad the suicide rates are or how many children in the country are depressed — but the conversations on social media are now completely different. The arrival of influencer culture — where people open up their entire lives to social media — also brought with it several narratives mental health. Now, there are even dedicated Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages on mental illnesses (run by professionals) and sometimes I find myself getting doses of encouragement from there. Twitter accounts like @depressionnote, @RealAnxietyMan and Instagram accounts like @ocdrecoveryuk, @bpdmatters and @mithratrust use social media platforms to reach out to and provide tools for those who are suffering.
Kanwal said that young students often read about mental illnesses on social media and approached their parents to let them know that they need help. This is a far cry from when I had first thought about seeking therapy in 2011 and there was little to know information available on anything anywhere.
"The way that mental health is being talked about today has a lot to do with how women in particular are talking about it.”
What prompted this change? Psychologist Vaishali Rathore said, “Perhaps the breaking down of patriarchy and the movement of the personal being political has given a space to mental health as well. The way that mental health is being talked about today has a lot to do with how women in particular are talking about it.”
During the Me Too movement in the US in 2017 and in India in 2018, many women not only courageously spoke of assault and abuse, they also spoke about the mental trauma it caused. Even those sharing accounts of assault put “trigger warnings” on their posts, something that has now become standard practice while writing news articles with graphic details.
I hadn’t given it much thought before, but indeed, the people around me who talk openly about their journeys are mostly women, and so are the ones online. However, Kanwal said she has seen a steady flow of men walking into her office in the past few years than she would have expected.
As 2019 comes to a close, much has changed in my own approach to speaking about my mental health. Thanks to the numerous things that I have read online, I now know how to talk about my own mental health without feeling guilty or ashamed. I can actually call up a friend or even my manager and tell them I am having a bad day — something that was unimaginable three or four years ago. Most of us are also constantly educating ourselves on how to talk about mental health, on how to listen to each other better and navigate intense conversations around it. And much of it we have learnt from the conversations that happen on social media.
“There were always stories of mental health, but maybe they were looked at as isolated incidents or isolated cases. But now because there is a kind of pattern being recognized with this kind of a global movement on mental health, global discussion and global awareness, people are starting to see the patterns and that awareness is building more empathy, its building more recognition of the fact that mental health is more important,” Rathore said.
However, the mental health conversation on social media also comes with its pitfalls. I remember being extremely triggered when an influencer with over 240 thousand followers on Instagram spoke about her journey about self harm. While she was coming from a good place, she kept reiterating that she did not self harm “consciously” and said “remember I never used a blade to cut myself or anything”. I typed out a message telling her she was otherising those who had “consciously” self-harmed and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.
This incident left me wondering — I may have been triggered and angry by the post, but I had ability see it for what it is, and move on, I also had the ability to keep with me the good, and discard the bad of social media.
While for someone like me, whose mental health journey began from a complete void of information, social media is a blessing at times. But therapists have relentlessly warned about the mental health issues sparked by dependence on social media.
“Only if I have a life outside of social media, only then can I consume this [things on social media] responsibly."
“Now with the kind of dependency we have on social media or technology in general, we are surrounded with information 24/7. As a consumer it is very difficult for me to break out of loops,” said Rathore and added, “I know so many kids who get anxiety because someone didn’t respond to their text message, or someone didn’t like their video or because they were not part of a certain photograph. So huge impulse control issues are coming from social media.”
In that case how do we deal with anxiety caused by social media? Rathore says we require “individual anchoring”.
“Only if I have a life outside of social media, only then can I consume this [things on social media] responsibly,” Rathore said and added that one should be a part of groups outside of social media to remain grounded.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2019 that I realised I must use my experience on mental health to write articles that could be helpful to those who are searching for answers online. How does one cope with suicidal thoughts or the urge to self harm, or identify if their children need help? I was lucky enough to work at a place that took the issue of mental illness and mental health care seriously. Not many people have the reassurance of a supportive workplace. But despite all the progress we have made, it made me realised that in India Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are still out of reach for many, and so are the expensive therapist visits. We have miles to go before mental health services are available to every category of people in this country.
As 2019 comes to an end anti-CAA protests have spread across India and social media has played a crucial role. Much of the news is triggering, and there are multiple social media handles talking about ways of coping. The night after the violent police crackdown on Jamia Millia Islamia University, social media became the only way in which lawyers, doctors and mental health professionals offered help to the students who survived the night of horror. It was really reassuring to see that the mental trauma the students suffered had found prime importance in conversations — something that likely wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.