06/07/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Being Nice: A 'Social' Remedy for Depression

Shutterstock / LeventeGyori

Organophosphates. It's a word which hardly rings a bell with people, except perhaps those working in agriculture and healthcare. These are chemical compounds present in most common pesticides and insecticides. They are extensively used in India and are easily available in stores. If consumed by humans, however, they are deadly. They put powerful brakes on your heart, froth up your mouth, make you urinate and defecate without control, drown your lungs in secretions -- and kill you. A ghastly death to die, and yet, shockingly, the method of choice for a huge majority of people who kill themselves. The story of one from among those thousands is a story that woke me from my stuporous apathy for suicide and depression and changed my outlook towards those issues.

One fine day a young 18-year-old guy (let's call him Sameer) suddenly concluded that life is worthless, living is useless, and death is 'the answer'. He bought a bottle of pesticide and gulped it down. Some time later his parents saw him reeling on the floor and quickly took him to a hospital where the doctor who would later fondly write about him was on duty. To use local hospitalspeak, the patient was 'bad'. For the first two days he showed scant improvement. But then the angels of death (who so often rendezvous with health-workers in ICUs) finally got too exhausted battling the deft trio of doctor-drug-device. He slowly regained consciousness and then, gradually, full bodily functions. What I most clearly remember is the smile on his face and the spring in his step on the day he was discharged (evidently in contrast to the horrible state he was in before coming to the hospital). He knew his being alive was a kind of miracle and that all his life he would never forget the name of Dr Khalate (my senior) who had heroically pulled him out of the abyss of Death.

"Isn't a suicidal or a highly depressed person in our midst a collective failure of us all?"

And he also knew another significant thing: that he actually didn't want to die. That trying to kill himself was a horrendous decision he took in a most terrible state of mind. But then, not everyone gets that precious luxury of retrospection, like those who jump from a bridge or shoot themselves. Being always mentally tough myself, I had forever subscribed to the common (and fatally flawed) assumption that people who commit suicide are kind of 'cowards'. Now I know better. In simple terms, it all boils down to making an incorrect decision, which of course isn't cowardly at all. Wrong decisions and wrong judgments, made especially in the 'heat of the moment', are inseparable from life -- making the wrong financial investments, saying Yes to the wrong partner (or No to the right one!), signing a contract with the wrong company under the wrong boss, etc. I finally realized that in most cases, suicide is an unfortunate wrong judgement call with only a different context.

I wonder what Sameer's state of mind would have been if, e.g., somebody had been really nice to him on his way back home that day. Anyone: a security guard, a schoolmate, a bus driver. What if someone had smiled at him and perhaps said a few good words? We have no way to know, but logic and common sense say that could potentially have made him feel better about life, about people, and about himself. It's a real crazy and wicked world out there, and there are always some who struggle harder to deal with it than others. A year after Sameer's discharge I got to know that a school-friend of mine, a 24-year-old sweet, bright girl, was dead; she had killed herself. It's hard to describe how wretched I felt. All through those days and even today, I rue the fact that we hadn't been in touch for months. I had no idea something was troubling her so intensely, but I believe that had she talked to me about it even once, I would have made her feel better. I kept wondering what thoughts went through her mind before she killed herself, and if friends and colleagues and family had really offered her no ray of hope. (Isn't a suicidal or a highly depressed person in our midst a collective failure of us all?) If we had got to talk, I would have tried to gift her that most beautiful of emotions, Hope. That may have, possibly, made her rethink her decision.

"It's a real crazy and wicked world out there, and there are always some who struggle harder to deal with it than others."

Saving lives thus through being kind and nice may seem a bit far-fetched, but it potentially is possible. At any rate, that's not the main reason we should stop being the modern-day narcissistic, selfish creatures that we are. Being nice just for the sake of being nice maintains magnificent harmony all around, because niceness is truly contagious. You are nice to your colleague or schoolmate, they feel nice, and are nice to people around them. So it goes on. Obviously it's not all rosy all the time, but that shouldn't be discouraging. It is commonly observed that if the boss in an office is a jovial, nice, well-mannered person, his or her employees are generally happy and satisfied and also nice to their juniors. We now mostly live in people-dense settings with countless individuals all around us each going through several different states of mind and stages of life, which are definitely not all positive. So one never knows, us being nice to someone -- replying to their texts, remembering to call them back, complimenting them for something good, sitting with them in a cafe if they're alone, volunteering to help -- may actually assume momentous significance in their lives. You really never know because, after all, we may make tonnes of advancement in big-picture stuff but it will always be the small things that matter the most. To do great stuff and to save lives, you don't have to be Batman or Spiderman: you only need to be human.