Saturday, April 19, 2008

That thing called Mental Illness

About a couple of months back, I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital in NIMHANS in my capacity as a part of a patient’s family. This is not my first experience with psychiatrists, having stayed earlier in Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences for about 3 weeks in a similar capacity.

And it brought about the best as well as the worst in me. The feeling of frustration and anger was pretty obvious but the experience did open a window into another world – a world inhabited by people just like you and me, those who dream and those who just have lost the capacity to dream.

A hospital is not exactly a cheerful place of existence and a psychiatric centre can be even more difficult. All the patients in the ward are present there on account of some mental illness which cannot be understood by others.

So you see people there living in their own worlds disturbed by our actions and lives. Staying there in a timeless existence in the midst of people who are not in the same frame of mind as some of us can be a very reflective process.

The human mind is a complex animal and you’d be surprised by the thoughts and fears that plague many of us. But society ordains that we should not express our fears; after all, it makes us less manly.

Suppressing or controlling emotions is only an escapist action; we need to acknowledge them and it calls for a certain degree of change that we may not be willing to do at this point of time.

I am willing to spend money and refurbish my flat, service my car but I am not willing to rejuvenate myself; just too caught up with short term goals to be worried about long term ones.

It is the classic Chicken and the Egg Syndrome - Once I take care of my wants, I will look at myself but what if it is too late???

The difficulty of dealing with mental illness is in understanding and relating to the patient’s troubles. Unlike physical injuries that are pretty evident, mental injuries are too deep rooted to penetrate. Many of us have mental injuries which require attention but we refuse to acknowledge them.

Some of these injuries, if not attended to, manifest themselves in the form of major illnesses or at the least in various forms of unexplained irritation. Depression is a medical term, for God’s sake, and not merely an English word to signify a lack of cheerfulness. Definitions of beating the blues and down in the dumps may not be enough to explain the issue.

One of the biggest problems associated with mental illness is the stigma associated with it. People just do not want to discuss their illness with anyone. A mental illness is not perceived as just another disease that needs treatment. What cannot be seen cannot be understood and so the patient stands isolated and misunderstood.

The way people interact with people who suffer from these illnesses make you feel sad; it makes you ask why is it that we think that mocking at someone’s misery is the only contribution we can make. Jokes on the mental state of people no longer sound that funny. I guess seeing the problem from a close proximity gives a different perspective.

People who came to visit us at the hospital would wonder what the problem was. Was it actually a problem that required hospital treatment or was it just a state of mind that required cheering up? Some nice people did propose that maybe, just maybe the family is not doing enough to cheer up the poor man - clearly, easier said than done.

Living in a state of mind that looks at world in a state of void gives a sense of unexplained emptiness. Have we all not gone through situations in life when we suddenly go blank and think that the world is collapsing around us? What happens if this state of mind remains for a long time and occupies all our emotions?

People have called us up to understand what Depression actually means. Do people feel sad or anxious for no particular reason at all? It should come as no surprise that so many of us go through these phases but are unaware of them. Medical science and society have not enlightened us enough to understand the problem and acknowledge it.

Please understand that the problem of depression is not something that you can just “snap out of” as most people would like you to believe. Like any other serious medical condition, it needs to be treated.

As family members or friends, it is very important for us to be supportive of the patient’s predicament. All is not lost and it is important that we stand by the man. He needs all the help that he needs; please do not abandon him and call him mad or lunatic.

Medical care works only if there is a genuine concern attached, otherwise, all you can come up is with a short term solution. The feeling of being unwanted is quite painful and you may feel it one day, without ever being ready for it.

Anyone, just anyone, can suffer from depression, and it should come as no surprise that one of you who is reading this suffers from it. But are we ready to understand that there could be a problem and we may have to consult a psychiatrist? I know it could be potentially embarrassing to be known as someone who has a problem and needs psychiatric attention.

But then is the embarrassment (if any, mind you) so high that you are willing to subject yourself to hours, days and weeks of mental misery for reasons unknown. And then, most importantly, it’s your life; why should you allow someone to dictate what you need to do in your life?

I am not too sure of the statistics involved but it seemed pretty tragic to me most of the inmates in the hospital were youngsters – people in the age group of less than 30. Is this an ominous sign of the mental state of the people of our generation who are cramped mentally and do not have sufficient support structures to help themselves out.

We are moving ahead in life but the progress that we make is at a velocity that can be dangerous. The people who are not able to handle this momentum are at a danger of finding themselves discarded. Most of us are actually in favour of this survival of the fittest theory except when it comes to our people. And then the reality hurts and it hurts bad.

It is not totally unimaginable that one day we find ourselves suffering from this problem but are not willing to accept it. After all, how can I suffer from depression? Isn’t it one of those elitist ailments that calls for meaningless therapies? There are many of us who are in this state of perennial rejection who would eventually wonder "Why Me".

We need to be constantly aware of our state of mind and emotions to ensure that we do not slip into a depressive state. Of course, this requires those rare moments of introspection that we don't have time for. We need to value or lives much more, don't we?


  1. Very well-written and thought provoking message...

    I'm sure that a feeling of emptiness / anxiety may exist in all of us at some point of time in our lives making us to question the purpose of our very existence, usually such an emotion might be dormant in us for quite some time but surfaces only when we undergo a crisis because that's when we are forced to introspect. Rather than lack of time / busy lifestyle I think the main reason for not taking stock of our mental & emotional well-being is that we do not want to introspect due to the fear of encountering that void hiding in the depths of our consciousness. Those who are aware of it dont want to accept it due to the social stigma attached. It's easier to adopt a denial / escapism strategy so that we can carry on with our daily lives behind masks that none are able to penetrate. It's only when that outer facade breaks down that people around us realise the true extent of damage but by then it might be too late.

    On the personal front, I hope everything's fine now. Take care.

  2. Very well written.. Truly touching….

  3. Pradeep.. really an eye as well as mind opening article. I sincerely pray that Uncle gets well soon.

  4. Hi... saw your comment on my post on depression (

    Really liked your POV on this disease..and it did draw a few tears from my eyes.. guess it would from ppl who have been through this disease, or been with ppl who had/have this disease

    the experience a depressed person goes througn really transforms him/her.

    you would not recognize him for the person he has become. his thoughts, as you point out, turn inwards.

    Beautiful post. Waiting for the detailed one as well.