Mental health issues. Photo: Pixabay

Often, on the way to work, from my air-conditioned cab, I just sit and stare at people outside. I look at women and men beating all odds, possibly overcoming greater struggles than I have ever seen, and still pushing through. People walking their kids to school, or setting up their shops, or heading to work … or taking others to work. And I always wonder: What drives them to live, wake up each morning and continue living?

If it wasn’t for two very naughty cats that I can’t bear to abandon, I might have succumbed already to this overwhelming feeling of nothingness. I remember feeling differently as a kid – when it was hard to get out of bed only because I needed a little more sleep. A time when I wanted to dance, sing, learn and be a hundred different things as a grown up.

I don’t know when I acquired it, but depression disrupted my life. When I look back, I can even see the signs. I started becoming socially anxious and preferred seclusion; I felt that all my emotions – and the ability to love friends and family – had been replaced with emptiness and there was a steady decline of faith in self, which ultimately killed my confidence.

However, I still dreamed of becoming an independent woman. So I found something that I thought I could do well – I got a job and moved out of my parents’ home. But by then, depression had already hit my ability to dream. I had completed one goal but couldn’t imagine where to go or who to be from there. On bad days, I often find myself wondering: Do I even want a future?

I reckon it’s a thought that crosses millions of minds, given that depression affects more than 300 million people around the world. It’s surprising that people still manage to be utterly ignorant about this very complex disease.

Take, for example, a recent tweet by the Indian Health Ministry on depression. Calling it “a state of low mood,” the ministry advised people with depression to follow routines, travel, be creative, take multivitamins, think positively, practice yoga, stay clean, sleep for a minimum eight hours, eat fruit and go for walks.

This utterly ridiculous tweet encapsulates all the asinine advice any depression patient is regularly subjected to, and it’s a stellar example of the kind of advice one should never give.

Ask yourself if it’s possible to care about keeping clean or traveling for someone who has lost the will to live altogether. The darkness that overtakes a mind with depression leaves no space for creativity or positive thoughts, and the suggestion of using multivitamins is like asking someone to take medicine meant for regular headaches to fix a migraine.

What anyone with depression really needs is a mental-health professional – like cancer needs an oncologist and broken bones need an orthopedist. It is only such professionals, who after spending time with their patients, can identify what their issues and triggers are, what medicines they need and what activities they enjoy or enjoyed in life, enough to be used as a treatment.

Sure, being organized and active can help, but only once people have developed the urge to heal themselves. This advice can’t be necessarily applied to everybody with depression – because everyone is different and responds differently to life, events, mental illness and its cures.

Fallouts from generalized advice

I see two severe fallouts from generalized advice on combating depression. First is the gap that results from the disease not being taken seriously.

In India, for example, there is an acute lack of mental-health professionals and infrastructure. I live in the national capital, have spent quite a lot of money looking for help, and keep running into therapists who suggest I should “smile” and “think positive.” Do they think I don’t already want to?

This makes me worry about the state of other depression sufferers in the world’s second-most-populous country. I’m also lucky enough to afford the idea of getting a long-term therapist – thousands of Indian kids and adults with limited means are unable to do so.

There’s also a lack of initiatives – government and otherwise – to build the right awareness around depression. Those living in conservative families, for example, are yet to overcome the stigma that comes with mental illness. It can be so deeply ingrained that many may not even acknowledge their depression and spend their entire lifetime in denial.

The stigma has also created a culture of victim blaming. A common example is how people with depression are branded as “lazy” if they are unable to keep their surroundings organized or keep up with social engagements.

The second fallout from generalized advice is its profound effect on depression patients. Some may feel frustrated at constantly being misunderstood, some others may feel hopelessly incurable seeing that someone’s “trusted remedies” are doing them no good. Depending on their emotional state, people can respond in a range of counterproductive ways that can worsen their depression.

Our prolonged ignorance has allowed depression to root itself so deeply within our society. Experts say patients should be treated and monitored for about a year, immediately after their first bout of depression, to ensure they are completely rid of the illness. If its first instance is not completely treated, depression has a tendency to recur, or even settle in more or less permanently.

Depression should be treated as a force to be reckoned with – a silent killer, lurking in the shadows, often identified too late to be completely cured

A positive dialogue around depression has certainly taken off – one that has allowed me to write this piece without fearing consequences from my employers or friends and family members. But this dialogue has mostly reached people like me, those with means like the Internet, education, awareness and a certain extent of freedom. And despite this, I continue to struggle.

Depression should be treated as a force to be reckoned with – a silent killer, lurking in the shadows, often identified too late to be completely cured. And we must use the ongoing dialogue to address depression with wisdom and responsibility.

The Indian Health Ministry signed off its tweet with the hashtag “let’s talk” – the only thing correct in its worryingly dense message. For anyone really wanting to help a person with depression: Urge them to talk, and not just to you, but more important, to a mental-health expert.

As my most trusted counselor once said, anything else would be like asking an athlete with an injured ankle to keep running until she manages to overcome the pain.

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Vishakha Saxena

The author is a freelance journalist