March 9 found Bihar’s health minister Mangal Pandey at a national conference on a ‘Partnership to Scale up Mental Healthcare in Bihar’, so perhaps it was protocol that the Bharatiya Janata Party politician share some thoughts.
“Take, for instance, a politically conscious man. He feels Pakistan is doing India wrong. Our PM’s action, he feels, could have been different. He doesn’t think he is in an office, that his work isn’t getting done, and that the PM’s work is not his. Even that man is mentally ill.” Shot with a smartphone, the video is grainy, but you can hear people giggle. Pandey got what all speakers often want—a laugh. The joke, though, was on him.
Pandey did make some right noises in his speech—he said Bihar needed to develop a policy for mental health that was separate from the Centre’s—but he forgot to tell us what happens if his politically aware idler did not have an office to work in. What if he was one of the many lakhs of Indians who are unemployed? Disillusioned, without any job to hold, are they going to be branded mentally ill as well?
If looked at dispassionately, however, Pandey has done us a favour. He has shown us that Pulwama and Balakot can make us ill. If the health minister’s equivalence is to be taken at face value, our mental afflictions are not just a result of biology. We are social beings, but also political creatures. Current affairs affect us, and at no point is that impact more profound than when a general election kicks off.
Pandey has also given us a clear choice—we can either question the government or be branded mentally ill. Holding the government accountable has perhaps never done anyone’s mental health any good, but American writer and activist Susan Sontag did have a pithy lesson to teach wannabe dissenters. She had once said, “Sanity is a cosy life.” In her life Sontag abjured cosiness. Though this piece ostensibly tries to map the points where our mental health and our nation’s politics awkwardly intersect, it also argues that in these times, it may be best if we give up on some of our ‘cosiness’ too.
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“Depression,” he said, “is not incurable. There is a need to create a psychologically conducive environment to begin with.” The PM was right. Compared to other mental illnesses, depression has been considered more treatable. But by asserting it was one’s family and friends who had the responsibility of creating a firm and secure environment, Modi deftly let himself off the hook.
According to a report by Amnesty India, India has allegedly witnessed 721 incidents of hate crime since September 2015. Because a majority of these were against Dalits and Muslims, it would be safe to assume that these social groups suffer an anxiety, perhaps even a depression, that is greater than those more privileged. The rhetoric of UP CM Yogi Adityanath makes clear that Modi lets that pot stir.
An October 2018 survey—Stress in America—found that 62 percent of Americans feel the current political climate of their country is a significant source of stress. According to mental health practitioners, this stress has now escalated into a “collective anxiety.” Donald Trump, it is clear, has not unified his country. India has a similar problem. For that “conducive environment” he prescribes, Modi must know that mental turmoil cuts across party lines. He leads the nation, and the mental health of his detractors is also his business.
THE MENTAL ILLNESS BARB
Narendra Modi, it must be said, uses learning disorders to mock his opponents, not mental illness. At IIT Kharagpur this March, Modi interjected a student who wanted advice on a project that would help dyslexic children be creative. He asked if such research could help “children” in the age group of 40-50. Only dyslexic individuals and Rahul Gandhi would perhaps find this veiled jibe offensive, but the Congress chief ought to have been unaffected. He’s used to far worse.
Though politicians only ever insult the mental wellbeing of their colleagues, the electorate can—and should— assess the mental health of those they elect to power.
In August 2017, BJP leader Uma Bharti was so concerned about Gandhi’s mental wellbeing, she said she’d “pray to God to grant him wisdom”. Earlier this year, the BJP and its supporters put their weight behind a tongue-in-cheek hashtag—#GetWellSoonRahul. A week after it had begun trending, the party used its official handle to tweet a definition of Multiple Personality Disorder. This time the “get-well-soon-Rahul” had more punch. In January, Subramanian Swamy said Priyanka Gandhi was bipolar.
Even though the Gandhi siblings seem to have been singled out for the mental illness barb, it has been frequently employed in Indian politics. Samajwadi chief Akhilesh Yadav, for instance, said recently that the BJP itself was “schizophrenic”. For its part, the Indian Psychiatry Society (IPC) has written to the Election Commission (EC) last week. It hopes the EC will caution politicians who are reinstating mental health stigma and trivialising suffering. All of 13.7% of Indians are mentally ill. Despite their turmoil, this sizeable demographic is still guaranteed voting rights. It is arguably entitled to more consideration.
A POLITICIAN’S MENTAL HEALTH
Though politicians only ever insult the mental wellbeing of their colleagues, the electorate can—and should— assess the mental health of those they elect to power. In his article, ’The Mental Health of Politicians’, British psychologist and professor Andrew Weinberg writes, “Perhaps it does not help that as citizens we can be sceptical of the role of our politicians in making important decisions that shape the world in which we live, yet if we turn away from scrutinising their behaviour we risk compounding the issue and compromising our own well-being too.” Weinberg works with the simple assumption that politicians are human and can be fallible.
Political office, Weinberg argues, is also a workplace, and the psychological support we give our employees, must also be made available to, say, the members of the BJP, the Congress and all other parties. Parliamentarians, in particular, also have their constituents to think about, and some MPs are inevitably tasked with governance. Unlike sport, politicians do not receive special training for public life. The stress they suffer is immense. They need to be mindful of their limits. The PM, for instance, has said he hasn’t taken a day’s holiday in his tenure. He sleeps for four hours. This ideal he has invented is impossible, and for his voters and colleagues, this is a dangerous and unhealthy precedent.
Given his alacrity, one can’t accuse Modi of neglecting strain, but leaders before him have shown that it is possible to govern even while struggling with mental illnesses. Diagnosed retrospectively, Abraham Lincoln is believed to have fought clinical depression all his life. Thought to be bipolar by some, and a depressive by others, Winston Churchill once confessed to his doctor, “I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me.” Norwegian PM Kjell Magne Bondevik announced that he was suffering from a depressive episode in 1998. He stepped down, and waited for three weeks to resume office. Then in 2001, he was again elected PM. Bondevik’s candour is said to have bolstered mental health awareness in Norway. In India, sadly, mental illness remains the monopoly of the weak.
In July 2017, IndiaSpend concluded that between January 1, 2017, and July 5, 2018, 33 persons were killed as a result of mob violence and at least 99 injured in 69 reported cases. National Crime Records Bureau figures from 2016 show that of the 106 daily rapes in India, four out of ten victims are minors. In Uttar Pradesh, 44 people were killed as a result of 450 communal incidents in 2017. The apathy of politicians can be triggers, but these numbers can have a more adverse impact. Twitter did laugh about our GDP, but most figures in these past five years have not afforded humour.
If Twitter, however, was a barometer of social cohesion, it’s clear that ours is a society irreparably divided. Trolling, which was once primarily some clever jibing, is now treacherous. At the height of the #MeToo movement, trolls targeted women who had already been harassed. Their tweets were mostly misogynistic. Given a free pass this election, trolls have even taken their bullying offline. Not just was journalist Barkha Dutt assailed with nearly a thousand texts and calls, she was also sent ‘dick pics’. Such bullying is known to cause depression in teenagers. Adult trauma is usually one’s own to process.
According to a study conducted by a group of Canadian researchers, trolls are generally psychopathic and sadistic individuals. This diagnosis, though, is little solace. It doesn’t offer an escape. Deleting your social media accounts is perhaps an option, but that means giving up on a ready, sometimes essential, source of news and information. Besides, it’s often only avenues like Facebook and Twitter that gives those on the margins their voice. You’d do well to tune in. There may be only one way left for you to safeguard yourself. The self-preservation manual dictates—when the going gets weird, just walk away.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca lived above a Roman bathhouse. When “assailed by a cacophony of noises”, Seneca uses every trick in the Stoic handbook—he forces his mind to pay attention to itself, he stems the turmoil inside, etc. Someone comes along and asks why he won’t move. Seneca hadn’t thought of that. He promptly decides to pack his bags. The point of the story is not that you should leave the country. It simply insists that you take practical measures. We often forget that doing something to change our mood—reading a book, watching a film, taking a walk—is easier than changing the nation. We also forget that the nation, like moods, will always need changing.
Yet another Stoic philosopher, the Greek Epictetus, had once said, “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of things.” Though this offers little consolation to those directly impacted by political high-handedness and cyber-bullying, it is perhaps important to remember that this quote was a primary inspiration behind the inception of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Now used by a majority of therapists the world over, CBT insists that your health matters more than the world outside, or to put it simply—the internal matters more than the external. The impact of political discourse on your health can’t be undermined, but at times only humour and detachment offer relief.
Of all the pictures taken in New York on 9/11, Thomas Hoepker’s was perhaps the most controversial. Sitting across the river from Lower Manhattan, a group of New Yorkers sit chatting casually. They could just be sunbathing. Smoke and dust, however, fill the sky. They do know something terrible has happened, but apparently, they are unmoved. Hoepker waited for five years before he published this photograph. Expectedly, it was met with anger, and Hoepker’s subjects were accused of being callous. These accusations might well be true, but rather than exacerbate it, the photograph may also force us to economise our outrage. Frenzy, it shows, is never the only option, and May 23 is thankfully no 9/11.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light, a bipolar memoir.
This article is part of Second Thoughts, a series on mental health in India. Write to us here: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you or someone you know needs help, mail email@example.com or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).