23-year old Neha and her mother have always shared a close bond.
Being the youngest of three children and the quietest, Neha developed a trustworthy relationship with her mother early on. She recalls their daily hour-long conversations during her transformative years in undergraduate college.
Today, however, those conversations have turned difficult, sometimes ending up in heartbreak. For the past two years, Neha has been managing Bipolar II Disorder, which her mother refuses to acknowledge. Her mother often calls Neha’s extreme emotional behavior as “bakwaas” (rubbish) and “excuses to not get better.”
Neha is one of the countless Indian millennials struggling with parents who carry rigid prejudices and ignorance around mental health.
In 2018, India was declared the world’s most depressed country, with a staggering 6.5% of its population dealing with serious mental health conditions.
Despite this disturbing figure, the majority of Indian parents do not accept mental illness as a credible health concern, confirming the social stigma around it.
The Tempest spoke to journalist Sophie Cousins, who covers health issues in South Asia, about this mindset and she underlines the perception of weakness associated with people struggling with mental illnesses. Parents often use their hardships as parameters to judge their child’s mental health concerns. “We lived through war/famine and you are having trouble in getting over a break-up?”
“If you’re acutely aware of what your parents have been through, you’re less likely to speak up,” Sophie adds.
Furthermore, the reprisal “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say) attitude delineates the young from opening up to their parents.
The fear of becoming a social outcast presses upon the need to tag mental illness as a phase of life. A period where one is expected to toughen up and move on.
21-year-old student Shashwat was diagnosed with severe clinical depression during his first year of undergraduate studies. “There was a certain period of time that had to pass before my parents would believe that it wasn’t a problem that would just go away with time or ‘positive thinking,’” he says.
Emotional self-censorship, self-blame, and guilt are the leading causes of why India accounts for 37% of the world’s suicides among women and 24% among men. In addition, nearly 63% of total suicide deaths in the country are between 15 – 39 age group.
A public health crisis like this demands a pivotal shift in the way our parents think and understand mental health.
The formative step towards that dialogue begins by empathizing with our parents, who might have also undergone periods of undiagnosed mental illness.
Leading counseling psychologist and author, Rachana Awatramani states, “During our parents’ generation there was no access to Google nor were there platforms where people could share and speak about their challenges. Furthermore, mental health was never important, the entire focus was always on physical health”
Building empathy towards one’s parents can open pathways of better understanding. This can break the cycle of denial and guilt within families, and generate mutual emotional support.
Shashwat highlights that this understanding helped him a lot. “An emotionally supportive point was that, when I stopped wanting to live for myself, my parents’ understanding made it easier to live for them. At least until I could learn to live for myself again.”
Empathy can build insights into our parents’ thought processes, and help customize ways to improve their understanding of mental health. This can progressively evolve into a two-way communication, leading to what Sophie terms as a “collective realization”.
In 2017, India passed the Mental Health Care Bill, giving the much-needed push to formalize mental health care apparatus and set rules to protect the rights of citizens with mental ailments.
This law and the healthcare system can fully function only with the co-operation of families, their willingness to be open while respecting their child’s mental health.
Persons living with mental illnesses face emotional depletion and social exclusion on a regular basis. Having non-supportive parents can further defragment their self-confidence, stunt professional development, and deteriorate their ability to co-exist with their peers.
In worst cases, lack of communication can embolden social stigma and render parent-child relationship fragile under severe emotional stress.
As Neha points out, “Had we (her mother and herself) been secure enough to be vulnerable with each other, maybe we could reduce the toxicity we have now in the relationship.”
For a parent, seeing your child undergo difficult periods can be heartbreaking, but not being there when they need you the most, can be as detrimental to the child as the illness itself. Families need to initiate difficult and often uncomfortable discussions inside their homes. “Active listening, believing in them and collaborating with them,” are the keystones of building trust between parents and children, Rachana underlines.
Neha’s empathy for her mother is what keeps their relationship alive. She knows that if her mother could understand her emotional needs as a three-year-old, somewhere she understands them even today.
The path to that actualization is bitter, but there is a path nonetheless and that hope makes Neha have a deep conviction in her relationship with her mother, and a brighter tomorrow.