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Be Honest but Log Kya Kahenge?

Pandora's Diaries | Personal Narrative

I’m a 20-year-old college student who has faced the losses of two extremely close family members over the course of two years. Even as I write about this, I feel a familiar but terrifying mental pull into something extremely dark and unsettling. However, like every other person my age, I feel compelled to push it back, plaster on a smile, and go about my day as this feeling gnaws at me until I pass out. It’s not that people don’t care that someone is struggling, they do; they’re just chained to living in a society that might raise eyebrows and whisper about them if they took a public stand against the status quo concerning mental health.

The trepidation of walking on the ice of society is tremendous and the people growing up in this landscape are subject to such stressors that our preceding generations could not imagine. In fact, the type of stress that these stressors instigate is what sets generations apart, and for people growing up to believe that perfection is the baseline, makes way for an extremely traumatic journey to potential social and professional acceptance. A popular reaction to mental health struggles in India, especially by Indian family members from Gen. X or Gen. Y is “Log Kya Kahenge?” (what will people say?).

We have all heard this phrase before in some form. It might have been in a different language, different accent, or in a different context but we have heard variations of this phrase at some point in our lives. Whether it’s related to academics, socializing the opposite sex (especially if you are a girl), or more specifically in the Indian cultural landscape, dealing with mental health. In this dynamic, digitised, fast-paced world, it’s only natural we feel burnt out which can worsen over time if left unaddressed. This could be because of overworking or struggling to work, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, or simply getting up every morning and going to class/work and anything in between.

We are able to recognise that something is wrong, something that is affecting our ability to maintain a normal life, free of stress and anxiety, but why is it that we don’t come forward and address it? If you’re in India, I can provide you with a very succinct explanation: cultural attitudes, parental attitudes towards mental health, and lack of access to resources to address such issues.

On a legislative and national level, India may have created laws and set up organisations to address those who are suffering and provide them with respite, but it has not placed a damper on the stigmatisation of mental health. The subject remains a taboo that threatens to dismantle a person’s reputation, should they choose to tell the world of their mental struggles. It’s a label that seeks to box its recipient within the bars of the most ironclad see-through jail one can imagine. Labels such as ‘crazy’, ‘lunatic’, and ‘attention-seeker’ would become part of such a person’s communal perception, that they would carry with them till they die.

In this century, I believe no one is exempted from the clutches of burnout, depression, anxiety, and any other mental anguish. However, I also believe that teenagers today are pressured differently, a way which requires a constant need to put up appearances and maintain an identity everyone has ingrained in their minds. Ideally, one would expect that these teenagers would be able to talk about their struggles with their parents, but I can say with a great deal of assurance that parents are extremely reluctant to speak openly about these topics, let alone with their own children. Studies have shown that factors such as financial status or consumption do not have much of an impact on poor mental health. One thing I have noticed is the pervasive emphasis on having a negative major life event or experiencing a negative major life event is the only way a person can be considered as one with depression or a mental health disorder. Jishnu Das writes, “Poor mental health is not a "disease of affluence" in the developing world - nor is it a disease of poverty.” (Das, et. al 33).

We celebrate those who made it past the journey of mental and emotional torture, to reach the other side; but why don’t we take the time to help a person who is in that phase right now? And now, I direct this question to every parent: Have you ever sat down with your child and asked them how they’re coping with their lives? It could be school-related, friends-related, or just in general. Have you ever had an honest conversation with your child about how they are doing mentally?

I can say from my own experience that parents love using success stories as a means of motivation for their children; for parents, the concept of seeing a person fight their way out of the dark side into prominence and success is a lucrative way of encouraging children. Having experienced this, I can say that it goes sideways very easily- instead of encouragement, it becomes a gaping hole, one that prevents a teenager from feeling as if they are enough, or creating deep insecurities. Success stories are good to hear and applaud, but I have another question; Why do we celebrate the end of struggles when we cannot support the ones who are struggling now?

And let me tell you this, no one is exempted from the clutches of mental anguish and suffering. You could be the most successful and popular person ever, but you could still potentially experience feelings of inadequacy. I even have my own example. Within 3 years, I went from being an average and uninvolved high school student to a very active, academically-inclined, and future-driven college student, with a 3.76/4.0 GPA and my own organisation to boot, and yet, I experience tremendous feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Since I come from a privileged background, and have access to any amount of knowledge, I’m able to recognise my feelings and acknowledge them; there are innumerable people my age who aren’t as privileged as I am, and don’t possess the luxury to even understand the magnitude of their problems and feelings.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family about how mental health struggles can happen to anyone, but an overarching problem in my parents generation is an assumption of external expressions of sadness or anxiety to be deemed as a potential mental health problem. The concept of people hiding how they feel to not be judged by society is not a prominently known phenomenon. Students are the most vulnerable to mental health disorder especially in this current social and professional climate. A study conducted by Sibnath Deb, Parveen Banu and others at the National Library for Medicine on Indian University students revealed a terrifying reality. Out of 717 students who were interviewed, nearly 42% of students reported experiencing mild to severe symptoms of depression. This is a similar result that we see in multiple universities as well. This isn’t an isolated issue at a particular point in time, it is very much present in the world around us.

Pop culture has very shrewdly picked up on these patches of misaligned realities, by creating replicas of these lives on the big screen. Most notably, Dear Zindagi (2016) has brought the public to near hysterics with the very painful and chilling reminders of the realities of living with a mental illness, and the critical role that family plays in it. Dear Zindagi starring Alia Bhatt as Kaira hits me in the feels because of how painfully real the story is; a young professional experiencing abandonment issues from childhood, and being mistreated and unequally cared for by her family making her way through life, shielding herself from getting hurt.

Eventually she develops insomnia, and approaches Dr. Jehangir, a psychologist to receive support. Her journey to understanding her underlying emotional problems stemming from trauma is remarkably refreshing to see. The way in which stereotypes are broken down, and the ability to stand up and own one’s feelings in front of people is incredible. As we see, much of Kaira’s trauma began from her parents not giving her the love and care that she deserved as a child, being forced to live away from them, and not being given any stability or comfort in one place. It makes me wonder; what if Kaira’s parents did not leave her and go and simply gave her the same love and care her younger brother eventually got? What if her parents spent less time berating her by trying to know and understand her? In my opinion, the turnout would be noticeably different.

As a young adult who has experienced the brunt of these issues in some form, I would just take a moment to say this to all parents, whether you are currently raising an infant, a pre-teen, or an emerging young adult, encourage communication between you and your child. I can guarantee that they are experiencing something that could be very new to them, and they might just need someone to tell them that things are going to be okay. They might even yell at you and say that things aren’t going to be okay, but you need to understand that no matter how old we get, sometimes we just need to be heard, to be told that we are enough, and that you are proud of the people we are. These sentences are life-changing in a myriad of ways. So, if you’re reading this right now, if you have a child, go to them and tell them that no matter what happens, no matter how tremendous their anxiety or stress is at this moment, no matter how much of their future is uncertain, that you are there for them, to listen to them, and that you are proud of them.

By Ishani Datta

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