Deteriorating Mental Health in Times of Protest

I had never attended a single public protest or march until January this year. Even though I was political enough, I never quite got the chance to go for one. More so, I always knew deep inside that I wouldn’t actually go for one owing to my social anxiety and inability to handle myself at large gatherings.

I had never bothered to view my mental health and politics together until I was being crushed by a decline in the former caused by the latter. Even when voices were being raised against draconian government actions that escalated after the arrival of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the announcement of the impending National Register of Citizens (NRC), I was still unaware of the many ways it could affect my daily functioning and routine.

When the moment of truth finally arrived, I was appalled to see how wrong I was.

I spend a significant amount of time on social media to equip myself with information and put out the occasional thought. But what comes with the reams upon reams of despairing headlines and equally defeatist content is a crippling feeling of pessimism, negativity and hopelessness. And this came at a time when I was already struggling to cope with tension I was incurring in my personal and professional life.

Despite the million identical resolutions, I found myself shrinking more and more. Even on days where I did not have much work, I would be extremely tired by the time I reached my room just by thinking about everything happening in the various corners of our country.

Besides, I was constantly looking at the protests, struggles and activism on display from students and people online. Along with the brutal violence and oppression students from various universities and protest venues were braving and actively fighting against, this made me feel utterly useless. Barring the statuses and posts I was sharing online (that too from an air-conditioned office and a comfortable room), I was increasingly feeling like a privileged hypocrite.

Also read: Musings of a Student Protestor

Night after night, I was finding it difficult to sleep. To feel better about myself, I would stay up and read everything I could, but taking in only half of what I was going through. In a nutshell, cynicism had consumed me.

It was during one of those nights that a friend urged me to use the most important and comparatively powerful medium that I had in my possession – words. He forced me to write something, ‘anything’. I tried to dodge the pressure he was putting on me, but in the end, I buckled and I am grateful that I did.

I attempted writing a few informative pieces to spread awareness and to stimulate questions in the heads of indecisive, neutral and hesitant people. It achieved moderate success, but I was still convinced that this wasn’t enough.

Whenever I tried telling myself that I was doing all that I could, I felt that writing about the protests happening in India was me making it about myself (which I might be doing again as I write this), and me trying to advance my articles by taking advantage of the political turmoil.

I was feeling guilty all the time, and I lost the ability to articulate anything without questioning myself about the morality and selflessness of my actions.

During that same month, I had many chances to participate in anti-CAA/NRC protests in Bengaluru, the city where I currently live. Scared to go on my own, I was always looking for friends or acquaintances to tag along with so that I would feel safer and less alone. When I finally got someone to accompany me on a weekend, I was more than happy to grab the chance. It would be a lie to say that going there didn’t make me feel good about what I was doing. But I was cautious about getting ahead of myself. Yes, it was liberating to be in the middle of the protestors and scream slogans at the top of your voice – contrary to my fears that I would not be able to bear the noise and the crowd.

I had always felt that going for such an event for the first time would make you feel like an outsider, but I realised the purpose of the protests transcends all such individual misgivings. It was also very encouraging to see women being very active as organisers and speakers. Beyond just students, citizens from all walks of life were involved in sloganeering and engaging in sit-in protests.

Still, at the end of that day, I felt a slight shade of disappointment for not having the guts to do even the bare minimum when people were out protesting every day against a future where the controversial Act comes into effect to strip people of their rights.

Indeed, I could get myself out for a protest only after I knew that it had been organised with permission, and had no immediate risks of detention, arrests or violence. In that context, I don’t think it required a good amount of courage to go for it, especially considering my cis male privilege. Nevertheless, I was indeed part of an act of dissent that day, a demonstration against the repressive and discriminatory policies of the government.

Also read: A Letter to My Recently Turned Silent Friend

I won’t say that I started feeling “inner peace” after that day because the experience was neither cathartic nor remedial. But it gave me a clearer idea about why I was out there protesting, and why I must continue to feel strongly about everything happening around me. I also saw that there was a significant proportion of people who were involved in some kind of struggle and protest constantly, and there was so, so much more everyone else could do to help them depending on the kind of resources available at one’s dispensation.

Lastly, I realised that judging contributions based on the validation one gets from others alone is not going to help their mental health positively.

I still don’t know whether I can say the political situation was making my mental health worse. It was the despair I felt seeing brutal violence and lack of humanity daily, frequent self-doubt regarding my apparent silence, remorse for having done something that even I wasn’t aware of. There were also times when I considered staying off social media entirely, but I figured this would make me even more ashamed of being complacent – just like those who perpetrate the violence and those who refuse to speak up.

All these pointed to my deteriorating emotional and psychological stability, as most of these could have been avoided through rational thought and logical reasoning. But when you are already struggling with emotional stability, you are more prone to such things and these end up exacerbating your already fragile condition. Ultimately, I know that no matter the effects it has had/will have on me, I did not turn up for the protests just to ease my problems, insecurities, or anxiety issues.

But for many who may not enjoy the same privileges that I have, getting out for protests day after day requires an immense amount of courage. For many, it would be such an ingrained part of their life that there is no question of a yes or no. For others, it involves bursting that bubble surrounding their comfort zones and stepping out, and most importantly, it comes down to the fact that you chose not to remain silent.

On top of this, I can’t even begin to fathom the kind of mental agony and distress those who are close to the terror sanctioned by the ruling party are going through. But I have chosen not to be guilt-tripped by everything, and instead, keep myself motivated by doing every bit within my power.

There is always a chance that the current political discourse might push me further into the vicious cycle of anxiety and depression sooner or later, but I have accepted that the choices I made will ensure that I am subjected to weeks, months, or even years of unrest, fear and desperation.

There will be many more days plagued by strain, sleeplessness, nightmares, breakdowns, and lack of motivation and concentration. Refusing to give in is the only way such times can be survived. I still don’t know what would work for me, and I can only hope that I figure it out eventually.

However, I have firmly decided to write and talk about my stance on every available platform, to attend more protests, and to use these to spread relevant information, so that I can get at least a few indifferent people to listen, and thus mainstream the resistance as much as possible.

(While writing this, I am not excusing myself of the possibility that I might use my words with blind privilege or occasional insensitivity. If I have indeed done that, I sincerely expect people to call me out.)

Gokul KP is a B.Tech graduate hailing from Kerala and is currently working in Bangalore. He is an aspiring journalist and constantly tries to spread awareness about LGBTQIA+ rights, feminism, and climate change. He also often writes about politics, mental health and mainstream media. As someone who identifies as queer, he is constantly working towards gender inclusivity in all communities, one step at a time.  

Featured image credit: Reuters