Over isolation, I’ve developed a fairly reductive routine. Every morning, I open Twitter. I scroll through my timeline, and see the same meme pop up on my feed every few days – that of the uninterested high school staff, and its suffering students. You know the type. “My university e-mailing us to take a mental health break and then making us take finals and 50 homework assignments two hours later”. We laugh. We retweet. We relate.
But underneath all these meme-ified, Internet pre-packaged expressions of pain lie a deep-seated problem in the Indian education system’s historical approach to mental health care.
I’d be lying if I said my high school has ever cared about the mental health of its students. While we had a school counsellor, and a values class every Tuesday, a large part of our discussions went only skin-deep. We would touch upon common mental health disorders, discuss their symptoms and, of course, how to normalise them. One thing I noticed that was common to every single one of these conversations was that the dialogue focused on mental health issues such as anxiety and depression as a faraway phenomenon. These classes, while they had good intentions, only helped in perpetuating the idea that mental health disorders only happen to older people.
I noticed another gross commonality in the way that solutions to these issues seemed as simple as talking to a friend, or a trusted adult, journalling and expressing your emotions. In retrospect, I think my peers too, in a way, helped in the stigmatisation of mental health issues. They’d casually talk being “depressed” after failing a Math test, and would go even further by making fun of mental health patients. This kind of ignorance thrives in the environment in which me, and so many Indian teenagers, have been brought up in – an environment where mental health disorders are palatable, easy to deal with and never an actual threat to our lives.
It is nothing of an understatement to say that mental health has always been a taboo topic in urban or rural Indian families. Psychiatrists have discovered many reasons for this attitude – stemming from childhood neglect that blossomed into toxic family environments, hardened daughters, and the distinct failure to acknowledge that somewhere along the line, their classic methods of parenting their child may not have succeeded. Because the truth is, as much as we tell children that it is okay to fail, we are not comfortable with it. It is not familiar territory. Most Indian parents hold the belief that if your child is depressed, it means you, as a parent, have failed.
Over the course of the lockdown, our lives moved online. The pandemic set in. Schools and colleges adapted to new models of teaching, and all this change undoubtedly took an extra toll on faculty and students. Already overburdened with steadily increasing workloads, we now had to deal with the adverse effects this had on our minds. I remember a brief period of time in October where I couldn’t get through a single day without crying. I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed every morning, and certainly not enough energy to attend class, participate in discussions and finish the work assigned.
I lost my grandfather the same month. I know so many friends who have gone through the same, but our experiences have been brushed aside. We should be happy we’re not at the frontlines. We should be grateful to have a roof over our heads.
But I am relatively lucky – I have something of a support system, in my online and offline friends. For most Indian teens, this isn’t the case. Many are queer, low-income, at-risk, and from abusive households, in extremely dangerous situations. For so many of them, it is already too late.
One might argue that in recent years, the ‘destigmatisation’ of mental health has led to more nuanced conversations around it. But the harm in these attempts at destigmatisation is that this ever so often transforms into commodification. Mental health is seen as something pretty and simple, and eager to be shoehorned into Instagram infographics with perfectly coordinated pastel colour schemes. We are eager to talk about mental health, but only when it is convenient to us. No one talks about the ugly side of it, how most symptoms of mental health disorders go beyond disinterest or the unwillingness to talk to your friends. We are very eager to discuss mental health issues, till we have to deal with the symptoms.
There is a common myth that people like to believe, that the landscape of mental health care in India is rapidly changing. This myth is advanced by the dozens of mental health helplines, Google Docs filled with queer-affirming therapists and non-profit organisations available on the internet. Social media helps! “You are not alone,” reads an ad for a common helpline number. I put up an Instagram story once that revealed the experience of someone who had called the number, but had been shamed and ostracised by the volunteer for their mental illness. I helped to amplify this story, and got a message from a woman whom I had never spoken to before. She was a therapist herself and her experiences with the helpline were the same. I told her I was sorry. Sorry that she had to go through this, sorry that the system had failed her, sorry that there had never been a good enough system in the first place.
But there is only so much I can do. There are only so many op-eds and long winded messages I can send to my parents about how their thinly-veiled attempts at toxic positivity cause a lot more harm than good.
We are children. This hasn’t been easy for us. All we want is to be heard.
Anoushka Kumar is a student who enjoys niche video essays, poetry and Phoebe Bridgers.