In the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide, a strong albeit short-lived wave of empathy and understanding had taken over the internet.
Suddenly, comfort spaces came up in the form of open DMs, where one could vent and magically better their mental health and brush off any untoward thoughts that might be plaguing them. It was a revolution! Direct messages on social media as the solution to all that is plaguing humankind.
To be perfectly clear, as someone who has a mental illness herself, I wasn’t exactly thrilled that there were these newly opened, legally unprotected spaces for me to share my darkest thoughts, which could spill over any time, and were ill-equipped to offer me sound, well-informed guidance or resources. It was pretty obvious that: a) people were jumping onto a trendy bandwagon, and b) they didn’t have the expertise to help anyone who might be suffering from a mental illness. The people who were opening their DMs were mostly social media influencers.
But this stomach-churning, cringe-worthy trend took a sharp turn when Santoshi Shetty, an Instagram influencer and fashion blogger, decided to take undue advantage of her privilege and monetise the issue. She offered anyone who needed assistance the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to her, someone whose qualification was owning an Instagram account, at Rs 1,500 per ‘session’.
Shetty’s video was offensive
Can you imagine Shetty prescribing pills to someone with back issues without being an orthopaedic doctor? Her actions were similar to that, but they mostly indicate the laughable public understanding of mental health issues in India. People seem to assume that therapists sit and listen to people rant about their lonely lives and tell stories of wretched exes, which must play to the tune of Kangana Ranaut’s iconic dialogue from Queen, “Mera toh saala life barbaad ho gaya (my life has been ruined)”.
Santoshi Shetty is an influencer with clout. More than seven lakh people follow her on Instagram, and I’m sure a large part of that demographic must be teenagers who might be struggling to come to terms with changes in their bodies and surroundings.
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This gives Shetty power over a large group of people. To then post misleading videos is an abuse of this influence and privilege, regardless of whether she meant to spread “positive vibes”. I don’t buy the argument that it was a mistake, or that the video was ‘well-intentioned’ because she wanted to make money out of it. It was a calculated choice. After severe backlash, Shetty took the post down.
Kanika Shah, who has an MA in Psychology (Clinical), explains how offering help online has the potential to harm both parties. She says, “When someone shares personal and distressing details about their life, the response they are initially met with can greatly impact how they feel and view their situation. They may not find the empathetic, non-judgmental, safe space that they are seeking, and might be met with advice or personal examples, which may not necessarily work for them.”
Shah further explains how the person offering help might not be well-equipped with the right resources and could end up getting overwhelmed and affected by the conversation themselves.
“Mental health professionals are trained to hold space for others as they navigate their mental health. This training involves theoretical understanding, practical work and ongoing learning on their part,” the Mumbai-based mental health professional added.
Mental-health focused Instagram pages
I had attended a session by Jovanny Varela Ferreyra in Gurugram, who started the simple yet beautiful blog called The Artidote, which has since blown up to become a global mental health support group. Jova, as he is widely known, calls himself a leading mental health strategist and Artidote endorses itself as a community that has saved lives.
In the session I attended, many people had shared distressing stories of sexual assault, repeated rape, estranged parental relationships, to name a few. What I understood from Jova’s narrative was that wherever he goes, he always finds someone confiding in him. It is a very tricky place to be. Jova can be credited with starting a powerful global community, but he isn’t a mental health professional. Period.
The Artidote can be comforting, but such communities are just the start to an extremely long, arduous and continuing journey called therapy.
Kanika Shah clarifies how centering dialogue around venting can over-simplify and undermine therapy. “Such trends may foster the notion of a quick fix while mental health treatment is usually a gradual and non-linear process.” It’s a Sisyphean task that open DMs can’t help with.
The Artidote is still one of the responsible communities that also tries to connect people with therapists in case they need one. Most other pages masquerading as mental health support groups are full of, how do I put it mildly, bullshit.
Mental health therapy is not just inspirational quotes on social media.
Asking people to see positivity in every situation just undermines their suffering and trivialises their experiences.
You are not a therapist
The Instagram community needs to underline one refrain and say it over and over again: I am not a therapist and I shall not act like one.
An average person reading this is not a psychologist/psychiatrist, but they might be well-intentioned allies. It’s important for them to understand that while one cannot offer therapy, they can guide friends to a professional who can.
They can also help de-stigmatise mental illnesses. Deepika Padukone did a decent job of it after Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise. She focussed on normalising depression and talking to experts, which is a responsible use of her privilege and influence, since a very large demographic follows her. Hundred points to Gryffindor (she’s clearly one).
— Deepika Padukone (@deepikapadukone) June 21, 2020
Mental illnesses don’t begin and end at anxiety and depression. This is why one must stop using ‘Schizo’, ‘bi-polar’, ‘OCD’ as slurs at someone or adjectives for one’s own personality. Change begins at home. These are serious diseases and using them as insults just adds to the cesspool of stigmas people with them have to battle.
Kanika Shah encourages online dialogue and, at the same time, advises people to look at the broader systems that impact mental health and then include them in their dialogue. “It is imperative that the online dialogue also includes the intersections of mental health with caste, gender, sexuality, among other things.”
Views are personal.
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