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Trigger warning: This article talks about suicide and self-harm.
Conversations around mental health in India have been changing in recent times, with even celebrities slowly opening up about their own experiences. However, there is still a long way to go, as the debate around the Sushant Singh Rajput case showed. And often, the conversations still seem very sanitised, with even those with a platform stopping short of speaking about the more intense experiences surrounding mental health.
At a time when going to a psychiatrist or a therapist is still a taboo, let alone talking about mental health openly, actor Swastika Mukherjee did something that perhaps no other Indian celebrity has done.
Last year, on World Suicide Prevention Day, she shared a photo of the self-harm scars on her arm on all her social media platforms. The photo was accompanied by a strong message against the shame associated with suicide and self-harm. While she was praised by many for her courage in speaking up, she also faced a lot of trolling. But that has not stopped Mukherjee, who has been consistently speaking about the need to break the stigma surrounding mental health.
“You have to keep making the noise, you have to keep voicing your opinions,” Mukherjee told HuffPost India in an interview on the occasion of World Mental Health Day 2020.
Speaking about the stigma in Indian society about mental health, she said, “I don’t think, irrespective of gender, human beings should feel ashamed of falling or failing or ashamed of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. How can feeling hurt be something that is shameful?”
Two of the most recent and significant characters she has played — Dolly Mehra in Paatal Lok and Sujata in Tasher Ghawr — have mental health concerns, and Mukherjee said that the experiences in her personal life helped her perform on screen.
At a time when our mental health has suffered because of the pandemic and the “new normal” she also has excellent advice: “There will be days when you’re not feeling ok at all, and that is ok. It is fine to feel vulnerable and weak.”
She also spoke at length about her own mental health journey, why she keeps “hammering” on the need to talk about it and her relationship with her daughter.
“I don’t think, irrespective of gender, human beings should feel ashamed of falling or failing or ashamed of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses.”
Edited excerpts from the interview:
On World Suicide Prevention Day in 2019, you posted a photo of your self-harm scars on social media. Why did you decide to do this?
We keep thinking that society and people around us will be ok with our vulnerabilities and our failures and we will be accepted, but nothing of that sort happens. People, even with me — my co-actors or people who are working with me the first time — I have seen them staring at my hand, they want to ask a lot of questions, and then they eventually ask those questions. Or they will just take my hand, flip it right and left and give very ‘what the fuck’ kind of looks at me. You know, you get those looks like ‘are you really mad? are you a psycho, who does this with themselves?’, those kinds of looks — from very educated, literate people who are exposed to the world, who are aware of everything and they do it.
If my mood is ok, I usually give them a funny reply — ‘arre, somebody wanted to kill me’’ or ‘I only wanted to kill myself’ or ’main gir gai thi’. I give them stupid replies, they also know that they are stupid replies and if I am not in a good mood I give it back to them with bad answers.
But, the point is that I may have the strength and the courage to not hide it, till date I have never put make-up on those scars and I have never tried to wear clothes for films where people won’t get to see it, or people will not come to know about it. I have never done it. I have let them be, I behave normally with the scars, the way I behave with my other hand, which is pretty clean.
I know a lot of men and women out there who constantly try to hide it, they don’t want to talk about it. They feel very ashamed of their past or they feel ashamed of feeling so low that they felt the need to hurt themselves, they feel very ashamed about it. And I have a problem with this ‘feeling ashamed’ bit.
So I thought, when it was World Suicide Prevention Day, there are many people who have attempted suicide but have lived. A lot of times it (self-harming) is also not the will to die. A lot of times you are so helpless that you want to hurt yourself badly to get over the emotional pain. You want your physical pain to be so excessive so that you don’t want to feel the hurt in your heart anymore. And a lot of times accidents happen, a lot of times people end up in the hospital. Maybe they didn’t want to die, they just wanted to get out of that hurtful moment.
A lot of things can happen, and I think we can talk about all that when you’re talking about suicide. There are a lot of people who have unsuccessful attempts, people who have lived, and they are very ashamed of those moments.
I don’t think, irrespective of gender, human beings should feel ashamed of falling or failing or ashamed of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. How can feeling hurt be something that is shameful?
Do you think this shame is because of society as a whole and not because of the person who’s hurting?
Yeah, yeah, of course it is. I mean lok e dekhle ki bolbe (what will people say if they see the self-harm scars)? People look at my hand and they judge me, they think I am ‘mad’, they will think I am suicidal. They may ask me questions that I am not comfortable answering, maybe I don’t want to relive those moments anymore, so I don’t want people to look at it and then roll their eyes and give me that stare ki ‘pagal hai’.
That shame comes from all these places.
What was the reaction like among your fans or colleagues when you shared this photo?
I was very, very overwhelmed to see that — because I had posted that picture and I had told people to come out of your shell, and share your stories with me and I shared them on my timeline, and on my stories and social media handles — there were so many men and women who actually posted pictures of their scars. It was on their back, it was on their leg, mostly on the hand, they shared so many of their stories — pills, some got into substance abuse. There were so many stories that people started sharing and I felt that it is also important to vent out.
It is also important to feel that if a woman who is always in the public eye, who is always getting trolled, who will be judged by people all the more, if she has the courage to show this to the world, then maybe I can also have the courage to speak about it. My only intention was that. I just wanted people to think that they can also come out and speak and vent it out to somebody.
Yes, there was a lot of negativity also, a lot of people thought that I am promoting that cutting yourself is a very cool thing to do. A lot of people told me we always knew you were a ‘psycho’. A lot of people told me the kind of roles you choose to do goes well with your personality. So, you know, I don’t really give a shit about all that.
Negative people will always be there. The same people will tell you to talk about mental health, become socially aware, do something for your fans or followers. The moment you open your mouth, you are categorised in a certain zone.
And we have made these words sound very cool in our conversations and vocabulary, having zero knowledge about what we’re talking about. Nowadays I keep hearing people casually say ‘I have OCD’. Being fussy about cleanliness is not OCD. OCD is a big thing. Also, we so cooly say we’re ‘bipolar’ because we are seeing a lot of series on Netflix, we are seeing a lot of serial-killer based content on OTT platforms, and we’ve watched Mindhunter and we pick up these words from web series or cinema we watch and we think it is very cool to use these words for people. You see somebody low and then happy in two hours time, immediately the reaction is ‘oh, she is or he is bipolar’. Do you know what bipolar means or what repercussions the disorder has, how it can destroy lives? They don’t have knowledge. We use the word psycho, we use the words psychotic, demented, bipolar, crazy, mad… and we think they sound very cool. I don’t think mental health awareness is happening like this.
People often use words like depression or anxiety casually without really knowing what it is. How do you think we can bring about awareness?
See, we’re in 2020, and we’re still in a zone where we don’t want to go to a therapist. And I am talking about people who can afford it, I am not even talking about outside urban areas. Depression and anxiety are not illnesses of the rich, it can happen to anybody, any time. We live in a bubble where we think this is only happening to people who live in multi-storied buildings, or people who are rich and can afford the treatment.
We don’t even realise that people who live in the suburbs can also suffer from depression and not even realise that they are suffering from depression. They may not even know what is wrong with them, because they don’t have knowledge of it. Even if I stick to the urban centres, in my experience I have seen that people don’t want to go to a therapist. They avoid going to a psychiatrist because they don’t want to be in that category. They don’t want their families, their friends, their relatives to think that they need help.
.... We don’t make such a big thing if we say we’re going to a dentist or a gynaecologist. So that thing needs to be normalised — that going to a therapist is as similar as going to a dentist or an oncologist or a gynae or an ENT or any doctor per se. And I am sure it will take decades to do it. But speaking about it and going on hammering on those facts is important. Because if we think ‘we are talking about it, what difference is it making so let’s just stop making the noise’, I don’t think that works. You have to keep making the noise, you have to keep voicing your opinions, hammer, hammer, hammer and then if we all do it, maybe somewhere at some point… maybe we will not live to see that day, but we also have to think of our later generations.
“I think it’s very important to speak, it’s very important to speak about everything and you have to first own up to your own vulnerabilities and your own failures.”
How important do you think it is for people with a platform like yours to speak out?
I think it’s very important to speak, it’s very important to speak about everything and you have to first own up to your own vulnerabilities and your own failures. It just can’t be a preaching process — that I will not talk about my failures and I will just keep giving gyaan, that makes you very shallow and I don’t think people will even take you very seriously.
My social media managers and everybody, initially when I told them that I want to do this, they were a little sceptical, saying just think about it. Then I said ‘see, if I have to ask people to come out in the open, then I have to first do it myself. I can’t be hiding and then asking people to come out of their shell. And yeah, people will put me in a category and let them put me in a category. If me coming out of my shell makes even 10 human beings vent or rant or do something and feel better for a few days, then I’m completely up for it’.
And it’s also important to to genuinely talk about it and not use it to be in the news. You will understand the difference between the people who want to come in the news and in the media limelight, and never talk about it anymore.
So when Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise happened, there were tonnes of people — I saw on the papers or on social media — who suddenly started talking about being suicidal or having depression. What were you waiting for all this time? Why would you need someone to hang himself and then you want to talk about it? Why aren’t you talking about it all the time? There were people who said ‘say something about suicide now’, but I dont need to encash somebody’s death to do it. I have been talking about suicide and scars and mental health for a very, very long time.
Now that the entire circus is over, I am not seeing them talking about it anymore.
If you’re comfortable with it, could you tell us a little bit about your own mental health journey?
I have been going to a therapist for around 8-10 years. I think from 2007 to 2016, I was regularly under medication. I had a lot of anxiety and I still am a complete insomniac. I have huge sleep problems and even given my monstrous schedule, I can’t sleep. I feel I’m so tired I’m going to die, but then I can’t sleep for more than two three hours.
I have gone to different therapists, it started with heartbreaks, then there was also pressure of the career, and also being a single parent, it also had its own stress.
And I just felt that medications, you know, keep increasing. Whenever I am talking to people I don’t really suggest that they get into that habit of having pill, because you start with one pill, then it becomes two and then it becomes three, and four and because all these antidepressants, or whatever you call it, for different issues, those pills have so much side effects, that to counter that you have to have more medicines. So at one point in my life I was having almost 8-10 capsules in a day. It was difficult for me to remember what is what because when you are actually in that low, there has to be someone who has to tell you that you need to take this medicine. Half the times I did not remember only that I had to take that medicine.
I had to tell my sister, ‘if I am becoming like this then give me this medicine, okay if you see I am becoming like that then give me that medicine, because I am not able to remember’. And they had such bad side-effects, to counter that I had to take even more medication.
So one fine day, I just woke up in the morning and I told myself that I am not going to be dependent on medicines anymore from today. Let me just handle myself, I will do what I can to the best of my abilities, but I want to get out of this depending completely on my medicine and thinking that if I don’t take my medicine, I will not be able to function. It’s like a super-bad dependency on medication. If you don’t take the pill, you become so dependent on it, that your behaviour and your functionality becomes all around the medicine. Even if you’re well and even if you’re ok, and in your head you think ‘oh, I have not taken my pill in the morning’ you start getting flustered. Maybe you are feeling ok otherwise, just the thought that you have forgotten your medicine, it just makes you anxious about everything else.
I think also every therapist gives SOS pills, my friends who go to the therapist have them, I also was given an SOS pill. But I kept thinking to myself, if I am in such a bad state, where I can really jump off the rails or the cliff, how am I supposed to remember that I have to have the SOS pill? This question has always bothered me, that if I am in the deepest pit, how will I remember? Because me, personally, I never remembered. And the damage was done. It was in my bag, 24/7 it was in my bag, but not once have I remembered to take that SOS pill. I always remembered it after 12 hours of ‘damage was done’ kind of scenario.
I have had my ups and downs. I used to hear voices. Constantly I thought somebody is living in my head and telling me to do things. I was very hyper, I got anxiety problems. And I always felt that for me to get out of emotional pain it’s better to inflict physical pain and I can just get out of it that way. Hurt myself so much that my focus shifts on the physical hurt, so that I am not going to feel the pain in my head anymore.
But generally people think, you know, hurting oneself is being suicidal. It’s not that at all.
Yes, self-harming is a different thing…
It’s not about ‘I want to die’, its not about ‘I want to kill myself’. I never wanted to kill myself, never, not for once. But I just didn’t want to feel the hurt. And then you’re so helpless that you don’t know what to do, and you just think ‘let me hurt myself, it’s just going to give me so much of physical pain, then the circus will start, you have to go to the hospital, take medicines, this, that, so my focus from the actual pain will shift’. That’s what goes on in someone’s head, it’s not about killing oneself.
But people have very, very weird ideas and very cliched ideas about mental health. They think that there is only one thing, and under that one category everything comes. It’s not that at all.
And how are you coping with it now?
I’m fine, I’m ok. You know, my mother passed away in 2015, all of a sudden. So then so much responsibility came on me to look after my father and also to take care of the household. Because till my mother was there, I did not know what was kept in my kitchen. One day in the morning I had to hear my cook telling me “noon ante hobe, noon phuriye gyachhe (the salt is over, we need to buy salt)”. I had no idea about where to get groceries, from where the chaal (rice) in the house comes, where is the machwala’s (fish vendor) number or the gaswala’s number — to run a household, I was clueless about everything till my mother was there. I was just working, that’s all.
I did not even know my debit card PIN, my mother knew it. I was just working, coming home and giving out a cheque. She used to take care of the accounts, banks, CA, income tax everything. I used to just work and give her the money to take care of everything. And when she passed away, it was like one big chunk of sky had fallen on my head because I don’t know anything. I don’t know where the locker key is, I don’t know where the almirah keys are, I don’t know my PIN, I don’t know where the cheque books are — life has become a big zero because you don’t know anything and you have to start from scratch.
That and my daughter, who was very, very dependent on my mother as well, so I had to switch from the friend mode to the mother mode in a day. And also the household, since no one else is there I have to take care of it. The responsibility did not give me any time to think about what was happening otherwise. I did not have the time to feel what the others — you know it’s always the others who are hurting or doing things that make you really question yourself — I had no time to listen to what other people were talking about me, telling about me, and I had to work and take care of my family.
I think that put me in a very active and ‘I have to do everything now’ kind of a zone. But that also has its own disadvantages. Because as a working woman if you’re constantly taking care of your own career, your work and household and parents and children, that one day comes when you just want to run away and you can’t take that load anymore.
So those days come and go, but it’s ok. I keep telling people to keep talking about it, not calling up people and constantly ranting, but just, you know, lifting up people on the way. As I have gone through this, and I see that a person is actually struggling, the least I can do as a human being is say that we can do this together.
How has your journey helped you raise your daughter and speak to her about mental health?
I have always been very honest and very open with my child. I have never really hidden anything. If I have gone through, even if I have been in the deepest pit, maybe not then, but I have told her, and shared with her what led to me being like that. Maybe I’ve done it later, but I have done that.
I have not really hidden my relationships, I have not really told her we’re just friends, when we are not just friends. I have also discussed my work decisions with her, because I do a lot of films that deal with adult themes that have gone under the censorship “A” category. And in school, I know kids discuss their parents and their work. But I made her understand that I’m an actress and I don’t really have inhibitions, and I don’t think I should hold on to inhibitions if I really want to grow and develop as an actor.
I have been very cool with her friends as well. I have never really been that ‘I am a star and your friends should behave with me like I am a star’. I have taken her friends for holidays, and they’re really chilled out. Things are always really transparent between her and me.
She is giving her graduation exams now online, which got postponed, and she is doing her double major in psychology. She is the in-house therapist now.
I think talking to her really helps whenever I am not feeling ok with certain things… I am a very positive person, I don’t allow any negativity in my life now. It has taken me a long, long time to practice and become a pro at it… it has taken me 40 years. But I also have bad days, low days and I keep ranting about stupid things.
I am always talking about body positivity online, I am very vocal against body-shaming, I don’t believe in being a specific body type even though I am in this glamorous profession. But I also have my bad days. I am shooting for a series now, and I am the most “well-fed actor” (laughs)... the teaser was shown to us and I’m constantly WhatsApping my daughter and ranting about how everybody was so thin and I am looking very fat. So she kept telling me ‘Maa you’re not looking fat’ so I kept telling her ‘check that scene, check that shot’. Then she told me she had sent the teaser to her friends, they said ‘you’re looking very nice’, so still you know I was ranting that ‘Anwesha, your friends are not going to come and tell you your mom is looking fat’.
… Then she sent me a GIF of Winnie the Pooh and told me ‘Ma, be like Winnie the Pooh. He doesn’t bother and everybody still loves him’.
Has your own journey with mental health helped you play the complicated women characters that you have played recently — like Dolly in Paatal Lok or Sujata in Tasher Ghawr?
Yes, yes surely. I think as an actor, experiences are very important. In a personal space also experiences are very important. Feeling everything very deeply is very important. It’s a disadvantage in your personal life when you’re feeling everything very deeply, but it really enhances your work. It makes you prepared to take all the challenges in front of the camera. It messes up your personal front, but now what has happened, you know, anything that happens to me, any kind of experience, good, bad ugly, whatever, the immediate thing that comes in my mind is how to incorporate this if I am playing something like that. I think in my head, ‘am I going crazy?’ I’m supposed to feel very bad, and I am feeling very bad but also something in my head tells me, ok I can use this in a character…if I am in this situation and if I am in front of the camera, I will remember this and I will react exactly like this, how I am feeling things now. There are too many things going on in the head all the time.
“There will be days when you’re not feeling ok at all, and that is ok. It is fine to feel vulnerable and weak.”
As someone who has experienced mental health concerns, what would you say each one of us must do to make it better?
I think it’s important first to accept ourselves the way we are. We are always suffering from self-doubt, we are always questioning our abilities and thinking we are the ones always at fault.
Something goes wrong somewhere, we take all the responsibility on our head. And also we as women inherently put up with nonsense for a very long time.
In Bengali, there is a saying “meyera Ma er jaat (women are motherly)” because women are supposed to be motherly and because mothers are always adjusting to everything. We have always seen our mothers adjusting to everything, everything that goes wrong from morning to night, we have hardly seen our mother, that generation of women, complaining.
It was a normal thing for us to expect our mothers to eat (lunch) at five in the evening. Shobaar khawa hoy jawar pore jeta pore thaake sheita kheyei shuki (They were happy with eating the leftovers after everyone had eaten). They had no problem with anything.
So when you grow up seeing your mother like this, if not all, you will adapt that quality.
It’s also about abusive relationships — so many people are talking about it on social media now, saying they were wrong to put up with an abusive partner for years. And say, after five years they have put their foot down and called it a day. So it took (them) so much to come out of it. So we need to tell each other that it is not ok, it is not ok to put up with everything that is happening to us.
It’s important to put ourselves first and not what the world will think of us, not what others will think of us, not what our friends and relatives will judge us with. ‘I am important to myself’ — it is very important to feel that — ‘I need to take care of myself first’ and not bother about what others are saying about me.
You have to stop thinking that you need validation for anything. You have to like yourself and give priority to yourself as far as feeling good is concerned. I am not saying ‘fuck the world, and fuck responsibilities’. Give yourself priority as far as your own feeling good, feeling happy and feeling ok is concerned. And even if you’re not ok, even that is ok. There is no hard and fast rule that you cannot feel low, or feel bad or you cannot fail. There will be days when you’re not feeling ok at all, and that is ok. It is fine to feel vulnerable and weak.
HuffPost India is publishing a series of stories around mental health in October. You can read our other articles on the topic here.