Today, April 7, is observed by the World Health Organization as World Health Day. This year, the theme for the day is — Depression. Just four days back, on April 3, Arjun Bharadwaj, a 23-year-old college student from Mumbai, jumped to his death from the 19th floor of a luxury hotel. His elaborately planned suicide, which he also live streamed on a social media platform, was said to be the last resort to end a struggle with depression and drugs.
Depression affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all countries. It causes mental anguish and impacts on people’s ability to carry out even the simplest everyday tasks, with sometimes devastating consequences for relationships with family and friends and the ability to earn a living. At worst, depression can lead to suicide, now the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year olds.
According to the study, Suicide Mortality in India: a nationally representative survey, India has the highest number of deaths occurring from suicide, worldwide. The study also found that of these deaths, the largest percentage occur between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Mental health is an issue of grave concern today — but, how often do we talk about it?
A few months back, a VOICE Counsellor, *Jharna, made frantic calls to a staff member. She sounded distraught and said she did not want to live anymore. It has been a year since Jharna’s father passed away; she lives with her mother and brother now. She told the staff that she felt like she was all alone and that no one cared about her; she missed her father terribly; her accounts indicated neglect and possible abuse. She confessed to having taken several sleeping pills in an attempt to end her life. On contacting her mother, we were met with indifference and coldness. Within minutes of Jharna’s call, our staff sprung into action. Finding her address in her internship contract, we were able to find her in time and get her to a hospital where they flushed out the pills and kept her under observation. With the help of a partner organization, Jharna was counseled and relocated to a girls’ hostel where she is happy and safe.
VOICE Camps address mental health issues while talking to adolescent girls. We talk about the mind or brain as a part of the body that requires care and attention as much as any other part. We talk to girls about emotions; why we feel them; managing these emotions well; and about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. We talk to young girls about identifying symptoms of mental illness: extreme sadness, lack of motivation, extreme fear or anxiety; inability to carry out day to day tasks, a sudden change in behavior patterns, trying to hurt self or wanting to end life. We encourage girls to recognize these signs, not only in themselves but also in others. We help girls understand that there is no shame in talking about how we feel and that doing so is one of the ways we can manage emotions in a healthy manner.
At one of these sessions, we had a camper, *Sujana whose case was brought to our notice by her classmates. After the VOICE session, Sujana’s classmates approached the staff and reported that she was prone to having violent mood swings and that she would often cut herself. With the help of school and intervention from district level authorities, Sujana was referred to a therapist who was able to help her.
The problem today is this — mental health is taken for granted, far from being considered a critical aspect of health; the mind is not considered as subject to irregularities and illness. Teenagers and young adults especially feel an incredible amount of pressure that stems from pubertal changes, the pressure at school or to build a career, peer pressure, parental expectations, identity and sexuality-related issues, romantic relationships etc. It is but natural to feel overwhelmed by these pressures from time to time.
It is time to unbox mental health and depression; it is time to open up channels for people to discuss these issues and get professional help if required. Perhaps then, a young man standing at a window of a high-rise might not feel alone enough to jump out of a window, maybe he will be able to walk back into the rest of his life…
*Names changed to protect identity