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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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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.