When I wrote on nepotism in Bollywood following actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s unfortunate death two months ago, I had no idea about the proverbial can of worms that was waiting to be cracked open. The case has quickly switched tracks from the suicide of an actor and nepotism in the Mumbai film industry to one of murder and criminal conspiracy. Soon, behind-the-scenes police procedurals and political shenanigans began to play out. However, one of the most disturbing aspects has been the distorted conversation around the subject of mental health and people’s cavalier attitude towards it.
Since word got out in June that the actor’s death by suicide was presumably an outcome of depression, a hasty, insensitive, and ill-informed discussion on mental illness followed, worsening matters for those facing similar issues. Instead of shining a light on mental health, the ongoing debate is more likely to put fear and shame back into those with mental health concerns. What is alarming is the manner in which the discourse has reinforced a damning subliminal message and the underlying implication that a person suffering from mental health is doomed, and even likely to take the extreme step sooner or later.
Not a single debate has addressed the problem of safety of those with mental illness, from being vulnerable to victimisation due to lack of awareness on the subject, to the dearth of adequate social and medical infrastructure when it comes to their involvement in contentious legal matters.
A mental health patient is already on weak grounds as the narrative surrounding a person suffering from mental health issues can be completely turned on its head on flimsy grounds, such as him/her being ‘paranoid’ or ‘delusional’.
The fact that the ‘woke brigade’ is leading this charge only makes matters worse. Producers Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt’s statement on Sushant Singh Rajput may have set the ball rolling, but it is the media, as well as the medical fraternity represented by therapists (those who were treating Sushant), who have done the biggest disservice to the millions suffering from complex mental health issues.
Susan Walker Moffat, Sushant’s former therapist, spoke to the media about his confidential medical history in order to ‘clear misconceptions’ regarding his medical health, and give the prime accused — his rumoured girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty — a clean chit. Ironically, her actions might have done more harm than good, because this could possibly be a huge setback for the confidence of those seeking professional help for mental health issues.
Varkha Chulani, the well-known clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Lilavati Hospital, Mumbai, and Associate Fellow & Supervisor, The Albert Ellis Institute, New York City, USA says, “I know it sounds radical but we have very little faith in our professionals. We will always assume ‘bad’ intent. Now with this disclosure people will be more weary. Yes, it has caused more skepticism around confidentiality.”
A silent epidemic
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that according to the National Mental Health Survey (NMHS), 15 per cent of Indian adults “are in need of active interventions for one or more mental health issues”. Even though we might not admit it, mental health problems seem to be the elephant in the room — a matter we seldom address adequately. And perhaps insensitive TV news debates are symptomatic of what really ails us when it comes to matters of the mind.
The general TV reportage that uses smiling photos of people as proof of them not being depressed is ill-informed and misleading. To expect a person suffering from mental health issues to be sitting around looking glum and depressed all the time is facile. This skewed representation only reinforces stereotypes, and underlines how difficult and problematic it is to suffer from mental health issues in India.
“Stigma and discrimination are common experiences persons with mental health issues report,” says Paulomi Sudhir, professor at the department of clinical psychology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS). “They also report possible disadvantages in occupational or social/personal domains of life. However, with increasing reports on mental health issues in recent years, there is a gradual increase in acceptance at workplaces and in society as well. Many organisations have initiated mental wellness activities and sensitisation programmes amongst their workforce in order to reduce stigma, delay in treatment, and discrimination.” This is indeed good news, but it is something that seems to have escaped public discourse.
The difficulties of those suffering from mental health issues in India are compounded by the low number of specialists and scant resources allocated to creating awareness. “Unfortunately, India’s idea about the ‘mind’ is still in a very basic and nascent stage. Indians don’t acknowledge that the driver of all action is what lies between our ears. So whether it’s neurology or psychology, anything to do with the brain doesn’t go down well with them,” explains Chulani. “It’s like the brain is not a part of their own bodies. As if it is a separate part of their being, which is something to be ashamed of, or avoided.”
Perpetuation of stigma
Nobody has once considered the fact that those suffering from mental illness could be more vulnerable to internal confusion. And the most terrifying of all, that they are burdened with shame at the thought of what others will think if they knew their mind was experiencing some ‘chemical locha’, often believed to be the cause of delusional or suicidal thoughts. As we know, shame and fear are a lethal combination when it comes to making people suffer and cover up mental health issues. Sometimes, it leads to them overcompensating for their issues.
Recently, television actor Sameer Sharma was found dead in his apartment in Mumbai, in what is suspected to be a suicide. Ironically, he had been putting up a stout defence of those facing mental health problems on social media just a few days before his death. It was a good time to table issues pertaining to mental health. And yet, they did not come to the forefront at all.
In the spate of sensational headlines and TV news segments that have emerged in the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, what is worrying is the fact that no ‘expert’ bothered to point out that with the right medication, therapy, and care, patients can — and do — recover. Actor Deepika Padukone underwent treatment for her depression, and recovered from it under the caring and watchful gaze of her family and competent healthcare specialists. She is a good example of how the right kind of attention can heal a person. “Anxiety disorders, depression, and other common mental health disorders, in particular, have evidence-based therapies available that show a considerable promise in terms of treatment response/outcomes. However, this is also determined by adherence to these treatments,” says professor Sudhir.
Instead of addressing Rajput’s case with the compassion and responsibility it deserves, the tone of the narrative was set by the likes of Mukesh Bhatt, who said he “saw (Rajput’s death) coming (because) Sushant was going the Parveen Babi way”, suggesting that those who suffer from mental health issues are doomed.
Sushant’s fear wasn’t misplaced
Those who want #JusticeForSushant seem to sidestep the questions surrounding his mental health, while those on the other side of the fence find a convenient excuse in it. Meanwhile, the ‘woke brigade’ is happier to nod disapprovingly, and suggest that Sushant should be allowed to rest in peace, almost reinforcing the stigma by insisting that the awkward subject of someone’s mental suffering should not be tabled at all. Both versions are a disservice to those who suffer.
The fact that someone with a scientific mind like Sushant Singh Rajput would need to go to such great lengths to conceal possible mental health problems is a reflection of everything that is wrong with the way Indian society looks at mental illness. Sadly, given the skewed narrative that has dominated headlines and TV debates since his tragic death, it would appear that his skepticism was not entirely misplaced.
The mark of a fair and evolved society is best indicated not by how it treats the strongest and fittest individuals, but how it treats the most fragile link. It is high time that we Indians start taking an open, balanced and sympathetic approach to matters of the mind.
The author is a senior editor, author, and media practitioner who comments extensively across Bollywood, celebrities and popular culture. Views are personal.