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World Mental Health Day: A poignant series of films relates the stories of people who fought and won

These stories show why it’s essential to start a conversation.

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On World Mental Health Day, the need for conversations on the subject in India is as strong as ever, because despite a start, not enough of them are taking place.

One initiative that may make a difference by starting a narrative on mental health is a series of videos by Project Joy. The self-explanatory project, started by Mumbai-based filmmaker Suchita Bhhatia, aims to help people with mental health problems in a simple manner – by talking about it. The series of films relates the personal stories of women who have dealt with their own, or their loved ones’, mental illness, ranging from depression and sexual trauma to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“These films are primarily about real people, with real stories, who have come on camera to talk about their mental health problems,” Bhhatia told Scroll.in. She started the project on her own, but was joined in her endeavour by the Bhor Foundation, a charity dedicated to mental health and psychosocial disability, and its founders, Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait.

“I initiated this project because I’ve seen mental health very closely in my family,” said Bhhatia. “And we didn’t have any awareness about mental health at that point, neither did anyone around me. And it’s something people don’t really talk about. It was only after years that I got the courage to go out and talk about it with people around me, and ultimately that prompted me to make these videos.”

Echoing her experience, one of Project Joy’s videos (above), simply titled My Mom, conveys the story of Kathait’s experience with her mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, and how her family dealt with it. Everyone deals with it differently, she says in the video, but “it impacts all of our lives equally.”

On the opposite side of the realm is Anika Gehi, a 16-year-old who hasn’t been to school for a year. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, of which she bravely speaks in the video (below) titled Going to School. Though she won’t be “going to school” this year either, she encourages people to speak up and reach out to someone. “Don’t keep it all in,” she urges viewers.

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“The lack of awareness makes people fearful, makes family members act in the most horrific ways, all in the name of trying to do what they think is the best for the affected member of their family,” said Breckenridge, who herself suffers from depression and sexual trauma, to Scroll.in. “It is time to accept that the body and mind react to the outside environment, to relationships, to germs, to economic and social changes. Some of these affect the body, some the mind. And just as the body heals with rest, treatment, interventions, so does the mind,” she says, adding that Bhor is trying to refine the way mental abnormality is framed. “There are various shades of normal,” she said.

Breckenridge, who is primarily a poet, also happens to be the subject of the third video of the series (below), titled Mirror Mirror on the Wall. She was forcibly incarcerated in a mental hospital, yet survived, and wrote a chilling, subversive poem, Treatment, on the subject, a part of which she recites in the video.

“that was treatment
those hands crawling on your body
the poison injected
as you are stripped
dragged along the corridor,
the faint smell of formaldehyde
and phenyl
that was treatment
the laughing of nurses
the condescension of doctors
the asking of the same questions
every day
until you utter the words they want to hear
that was treatment
that was treatment
that was treatment”

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Shubha Menon, the author of The Second Coming, too, experienced the stigma that comes from mental health problems, which she shares in the video below. “If someone is mentally ill,” she said, “people just write you off. It’s like they don’t want to know you, they don’t want to touch you. Which is foolish, because...it’s just a different part of your body that got affected.”

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This is one of the most crucial steps necessary in de-stigmatising mental illness. In fact, Breckenridge said that the word “illness” needs to be pushed out of use altogether. “By taking mental distress out of the realm of ‘illness’ and doctors, we are able to be more compassionate and have empathy, which again will cause less stigma,” she said, adding, “Everyone who has been through the system and even those who have not know that stigma can often be more damaging than the condition itself.”

Michel Foucault, in his 1961 novel Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, resonated a similar view: “We must understand it [madness] not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled.”

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