The recent string of celebrity suicides has reignited the conversation on a topic that’s usually brushed under the carpet: Mental health. Sunday Times speaks to four depression survivors who’ve lived through the darkness and, like Stephen Fry, believe that it will be sunny one day. Here’s what they want you to know…
‘It helps to live life in little spoonfuls’
Natasha | 22
DIAGNOSED 2015 COPING Rx Follows a routine, yoga, therapy
‘You have to fight it, or it will defeat you,” says Natasha, a 22-year-old student who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety following the death of her grandmother, who she was very close to.
It’s been a three-year-long fight in which following a routine has helped because “it breaks down everyday life into little spoonfuls”. Natasha says, “It gives my life stability and helps me be more productive, even if I’m overwhelmed.”
This routine, she says, is incomplete without yoga. “Yoga calms me down and clears my head. If I go three days without it, I notice that I’m duller,” says the Delhi resident.
Medication is important but cannot remedy the problem by itself, according to Natasha. “Pills help with the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression — the shaky hands and racing heart, but they can only get you to a base level that enables you to help yourself,” she says.
She credits therapy for helping her realise that depression was far from rare. “If it was, my therapist would be out of a job,” she jokes.
Natasha discusses depression with a casualness that is comforting, while never being callous. “The secrecy and the weight around depression amplify the difficulty of living with it. The more people are open about it, the easier it gets,” says Natasha, who has broached the topic with more people in her life, beyond just her inner circle. “Depression can sometimes be like you’re drowning in an ocean and you can see other people drowning but don’t know how to help each other. I find that the only way to help is to talk openly about it.”
While she is no stranger to ignorant comments like “Just try not to think about it too much!” and “Just be stronger”, she says one should realise that though it’s hurtful, the comments stem from ignorance rather than malice. “It’s hard to understand depression unless you or someone you love experiences it,” she says.
‘My friends thought partying or going on a cruise would fix me’
ANAND MULKY | 53
DIAGNOSED Feb 2018 COPING Rx Plays harmonica, works out in the gym
When Anand Mulky told his friends that he’d been diagnosed with depression earlier this year, they just refused to accept it. “How can a successful businessman have depression, they asked. Someone suggested going for a drink, someone said I should party, and one person recommended going on a cruise. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had taken their advice,” says Mulky.
Mulky says one of the triggers was stress. “My wife was very sick and my business was also not doing well. I think it all precipitated into these symptoms,” says Mulky. An extrovert, who knew how to party hard, he suddenly found himself shunning crowds and refusing to go out. “I lost my appetite and started getting negative thoughts,” recalls Mulky who researched his symptoms online and decided to seek guidance from experts at The Live, Love, Laugh Foundation in Bengaluru. They put him in touch with a counsellor; he also consulted a psychiatrist who prescribed him medicines. Today, he says, he’s much better.
While his wife understood his decision, Mulky says his children had a hard time accepting that their father was taking psychiatric help. Some of his friends told him that medicines would harm his liver or make him dependent. “Avoid all advice from well-wishers and friends. Just stick to what your doctor tells you to do,” suggests Mulky. To supplement drug therapy, Mulky started working out in the gym and spending one hour every day with himself. “I used to play harmonica in a jazz band; I have picked it up again. It calms my mind and helps me stay focused on recovery,” he adds.
WE CALLED 22 SUICIDE HELPLINES, ONLY FIVE PICKED UP
While there are many suicide prevention helplines in India, very few are functional. TOI reached out to 22 helplines across 10 cities, but only five answered. Most numbers were unreachable or calls went unanswered. There was one number where a person picked up only to disconnect the phone on this caller.
So what’s the problem? Unlike in other countries where the government funds a national suicide helpline, in India these are initiatives undertaken by NGOs, and mostly dependent on donations and volunteers to be the voice on the other end of the line. Vijay, a longtime volunteer at Sumaitri, a Delhi-based suicide helpline and crisis intervention center, says, “We run only on donations and about 30 of us volunteer our time here. It’s very difficult to run a helpline this way. Infrastructure for mental health services has to be strengthened. The government must play an active role so these facilities are available to all, and not just those who can afford expensive psychiatric treatment.” —Ketaki Desai
‘Depression feels like an old friend ’
NATASHA BADHWAR | mid-40s
DIAGNOSED 1985-86 COPING Rx Walking, photography, writing
When Natasha Badhwar decided to write her memoir on parenting, she chose to make her life an open book, first to her children, and then to her readers. And this included the fact that when she was 12, she had attempted suicide.
“I have spent most of my life tiptoeing around that ‘event’,” says Badhwar, who is a filmmaker and media trainer. “Growing up, the silence between my parents and me was extremely hurtful. We never found the words to talk to each other about it, even though it shook each one of us,” says Badhwar, adding she did not want to repeat the pattern as a parent.
Though her children never asked her about her suicide attempt, she says she has a scar on her right arm, which she is often asked to explain. And this time, before she wrote ‘My Daughter’s Mum’, she decided to do just that.
Describing her attempted suicide as “hitting rock-bottom” Badhwar says that the final trigger was the fear of a direct confrontation between her school and parents over low marks in exams. “But I had already been on the brink for months before that. I had ideated about suicide, spoken to friends about it, read about suicide helplines and had a couple of inexplicable emotional breakdowns in school,” she recalls.
As an adolescent, she says, she had very idealistic expectations from life and no support to cope with the disappointment of how callous and cruel the real world really was. “I became suicidal because I did not know how to manage my expectations and sense of loss, and I felt powerless and unwanted,” Badhwar says.
Now in her mid-40s and a parent of adolescent children, depression feels like an old friend. “Sometimes it overwhelms me and often it is vice versa. I’ve learnt to recognise it from its physical symptoms. I don’t always triumph over it, but I have learnt to navigate through the fog and often trick the beast by leaving from the back door,” she says, adding that educating herself, volunteering at mental health centres and therapy have helped her.
“I’m still surprised at how quickly my thoughts can turn towards self-harm and suicide when I am distressed. I have my personal checks and balances in place to hold myself back from ever going to the extreme end again,” she says.
There is tremendous pressure not to talk about one’s anxieties, she feels. Her word of advice: “We risk losing too much by trying to hide our vulnerabilities from sight. We need to summon the courage to be honest about our needs and look at difficult feelings in the face.”
‘ People see it as a sign of weakness ’
SHUBRATA PRAKASH | 44
DIAGNOSED 2011 COPING Rx Mindful meditation, yoga and swimming
Shubhrata Prakash can never forget the dark years between 2012 to 2015. “I would constantly be thinking bad thoughts. I would be talking to someone and suddenly it would creep up on me. It would be so bad that I wouldn’t feel like holding my own child,” recalls Prakash, an officer with the Indian Revenue Service who was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2011. Looking back, Prakash says, the trigger was post-partum depression (following childbirth), which then kept getting worse.
What made things more difficult for her were the jibes from people she confided in. “People think you are just weak. I was told that I had everything in life so what reason did I have to be sad? One person even commented that these days it’s glamorous to say you have depression because celebrities like Deepika Padukone have admitted to it,” says Prakash, who has written a book on her struggle with depression called The D Word.
Surprisingly, during the darkest phase of her illness she took a dramatic leap of faith and stopped taking her medicines. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but I took this decision because the meds were not helping me,” says Prakash. The first few drug-free months were nightmarish. But she substituted medicines with cognitive behavioral therapy thrice a week, practised mindful meditation almost daily and went for a swim or a yoga session as and when her health permitted. “Finally, one fine day about eight months after I stopped taking meds, my mood shifted. It felt like a window had opened. I have been gradually improving ever since. Today, I am 90% better,” says Prakash.
Though things are looking up, she is still shocked by the recent spate of celebrity suicides, especially by 41-year-old Chestor Bennington, lead vocalist of Linkin Park, last year. “I’ve been in that place… I could understand what they went through. At the same time, I was grateful that I didn’t go that far. I thanked God for bringing me out of that dark place.”
Illustration by Sow Ay. A freelance artist based in France, Sow finds that drawing helps him cope with anxiety
DID YOU KNOW…
Genetics cause about 40% of depression cases; the rest being driven by other biological factors and life experiences
18-26% of the people suffering from heart diseases and a good 30-50% of stroke patients can experience depression
Common medicines, like paracetemol, cetrizine, montelukast, beta-blockers like atenolol have been found to cause side effects like depression, according to a paper published in The Journal of the American Medical Association this month