In the past 12 years, I have struggled with mental illness in a variety of ways. As a confused and distressed adolescent and young adult prone to prolonged low moods, negative thoughts, and occasional suicidal ideation. As a client of psychotherapy trying to fix problems caused by my anxious behaviour in relationships, and my fear of social disapproval. As a caregiver supporting my depressed sister and distressed family. As a teacher and mentor engaging with other confused and distressed adolescents.
I would like to share seven things that I have learned from my struggles with mental illness from these different perspectives.
(1) Being Mentally Ill is more than “Having a Disorder”
It took me a long time to realize that mental illness falls along a broad spectrum. Despite my regular low moods, tendency for being anxious, and having suicidal thoughts, I never thought that I needed help. I felt that because I didn’t have psychotic symptoms (seeing things, hearing voices), and I wasn’t harming myself or others, I could deal with my issues by myself. It was only once I started looking at mental illness in the way that we see physical illness, that I felt convinced that I needed help. After all, we check with a doctor even when we have a mild cold or even a low fever.
(2) It is Useful to think of Mental Illness as Patterns of Thought and Behaviour
A close friend helped me see how there were patterns in my experiences of mental distress. I began to realize that certain kinds of interactions and situations (being criticized, being overworked, feeling rejected, etc.) triggered feelings of anxiety and low moods. I also began to notice how my own behaviour (being inexpressive, being caught up in my own thoughts, being choosy about whom I would interact with, etc.) contributed to these experiences. This realization led me to psychotherapy; and through therapy I have learned ways of noticing and self-reflection that have allowed me to try breaking unhealthy patterns. It has also enabled me to notice and strengthen healthy patterns of thinking and behaving.
(3) To Feel Well, Be Relentless
All forms of mental illness are influenced by different combinations of physiological, neurobiological, psychological, and socio-political factors. This makes it much harder to understand, prevent, manage, and treat than physical illness. Even in cases where mental illness is clearly identified and understood, it is rare that someone can be completely “cured”.
For me, and I am sure for many others, being mentally well is a continuous, relentless process. The causes of my mental illness dwell deep within me–in my cells and in my memories–and will perhaps always be a part of my life. I have learned this through multiple instances of unexpectedly experiencing low moods and anxiety at times when I have felt self-confident and in-charge of my life.
I realize that to feel well, my daily life needs to involve the conscious pursuit of some combination of physical activity, positive self-care habits (this includes going for counselling / therapy), healthy relating, and reflective practice. Perhaps this is true for all of us. Some people I know argue that in addition to all this, sometimes taking medication becomes necessary too.
(4) My Body is My Greatest Ally
I am often struck and moved by the fact that my body has been / continues to be my main ally in my struggles with mental illness. It is no coincidence that the times in my life when I have felt most mentally fit have been times when I have paid attention to and cared for my body (taking adequate rest, eating right, exercising, and playing). These have also been times when I have regularly engaged in mindful physical practice (playing a musical instrument, cooking, doing woodwork, and doing housework).
Given that our bodies are the site of our subjective experience of life, this may not seem like a very profound insight. However in terms of the reality of coping with mental illness, these experiences have been crucial and life-changing for me. I strongly feel that this will be true for all of you as well.
(5) When In Distress, Talk; When In Doubt, Ask
People who don’t express themselves get sick. If you are regularly unhappy, anxious, low, or stressed – talk about it – it is not “normal”. If you see things, hear voices, or think of hurting yourself – talk about it. If you are unsure whether you are mentally ill or just going through a bad phase, ask someone.
From first- and second-hand experience, I am convinced that not expressing distress, being unwilling to ask for help, and thinking that one can deal with one’s problems are all indicators of mental illness.
It is important to note that talking to the right people is crucial to getting appropriate help – talking to just anyone may not always work. This is a challenge in our social context, where mental illness is stigmatized and inequalities are deep and persistent. Educating oneself and others about mental illness from sensitive and credible sources is important. The fact that you are reading this on the internet is a sign that you are on the right track.
(6) Sharing Stories is Important
Sharing my experiences of mental illness with others–whether to get help, to express myself, or to advise someone–has been a hugely therapeutic and empowering process. It has helped me build meaningful relationships with all kinds of people, and taught me how to ask for and give help in appropriate and empowering ways. I have often been surprised by how my sharing has prompted others to share their experiences. Just as often, hearing others share has made me open up about things I would normally not express. Healthy, meaningful relationships are a necessity for feeling mentally well.
(7) I Am Privileged
The course of my struggles with mental illness constantly reminds me of my privilege in the Indian social context.
While it is true that I have experienced significant stresses in my life, and have suffered deeply – it is equally true that the nature and intensity of my suffering and distress have been tempered by my social location. The fact of being a Hindu upper caste, upper-middle class, metropolitan, English-fluent, college-educated male with college-educated parents sensitive to mental health issues characterizes my experiences.
Most significantly, my social background has guaranteed me freedom from humiliation and discrimination, has ensured that I have not faced any severe setbacks (education, career) in life despite my distress, and has allowed me to avail of and benefit from good-quality mental health-care. It is important for all of us who are interested in mental health issues to acknowledge and understand how mental illness and social inequality are related to each other in India.
I hope that reading this helps you find the clarity, courage, and strength that you need to feel, relate, and be well. Take care.