I’ve struggled with anxiety almost all my life. Growing up in a heavily militarised zone took its own toll. Once during cross-firing between militants and the army near my school, our class teacher asked us to lie down on the ground and cover our heads with our bags. The gunshots kept piercing the air. I remember being terrified. Another time my father was picked up for interrogation and didn’t return until late at night, and I saw my mother cry silent tears. Till date, any loud noise that sounds like a gunshot makes me anxious.
My anxiety got worse in the autumn of 2015, and it was only towards the end of 2017 did I learn to manage it after consulting a therapist. Medication combined with exercise made it bearable.
I grew up in a society where people don’t talk about mental health. At all. For the longest time, I believed my anxiety was a weakness. Although I was a functional adult with an anxiety disorder (that devolved into depression at some point in my life), I never spoke about it. Or sought any kind of help. I didn’t know who to talk to. It was a lonely struggle.
In India, the stigma attached to mental illness is huge. So huge that people hesitate to admit its existence, even to themselves. We are also a country with shocking mental health statistics. Schools talk about AIDS and HIV to children, but there is no conversation on mental health. And according to this study, people tend to discriminate against those diagnosed with mental health illness.
When in 2016, Zayn Malik of One Direction cancelled his gig in London amid the “worst anxiety of my career”, it almost made me cry. Not because I’m a 1D fan or I was attending his concert. It was because I understood what he was talking about. Before him when our own Deepika Padukone spoke about her battle with depression, about feeling “empty and directionless”, I listened attentively and understood everything. I’d been there, felt that.
It’s so heartening when people talk about their mental health issues. Especially celebrities. They shape our collective consciousness, whether we like it or not. I might not like media’s obsession with celebrity marriages, their divorces or childbirths, but I am a huge fan of any pop culture figure speaking about anxiety, depression, eating disorders and/or any other mental health related problem without romanticizing the battle.
The latest celeb to open up about his “lifelong struggle with anxiety” is Deadpool 2 star, Ryan Reynolds. Reading the interview in which he talks about how “everyone carries their own bag of rocks around” is eye-opening in so many ways. “I’ll look for the joke in things so that I don’t look for the sadness and the grief.” It’s heavy stuff. But it’s reassuring to see celebs talking about being mentally vulnerable.
Going by Reynolds’ Twitter feed, where he showcases the hilarious side that millions love him for, I would have never imagined he was battling depression and anxiety. The lesson learnt here: Everyone is going through something. Be kind.
I’m not a fan of the Royal family, but when the princes William and Harry, who head the Heads Together campaign, FaceTimed Lady Gaga, I sat up. What resulted was a heartfelt conversation that was part of the #oktosay campaign for Heads Together. Lady Gaga, incidentally has also spoken out about her post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Today there are numerous Indian celebrities too who aren’t shying away from or hiding their mental illness. Remember when Yo-Yo Honey Singh told his fans that he was bipolar? “I was scared about losing myself,” he told the reporter. “At one point, I thought I would live in this darkness forever. I had cut myself off from everyone. I didn't come out of my room, forget stepping out of the house.” His vulnerability was breathtaking. Here was a man, controversial for various reasons, talking about feeling lost.
As it turns out, acknowledging mental illness isn’t as zeitgeist-y as we might think. A study titled ‘Cultural aspects of anxiety disorders in India’ conducted by the Department of Psychiatry, Jaslok Hospital and Research Center, Mumbai, reads, “Mental disorders have been represented across ancient Indian texts. In the Ramayana, composed circa 5000 BC, Marrich is described as experiencing hyperarousal, re-experiencing of events, and avoidance. In Shrimad Bhagavatam, an epic written by Maharshi Ved Vyasa around 400 BC, the character of King Kansha develops generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms upon being threatened by Lord Krishna; the symptoms included excessive worry, difficulty in concentration, and sleep disturbances.”
So with proof that characters from the Ramayana and Gita experienced mental illness, you might think the country would be more open and proactive towards those battling these disorders. However, there is no insurance company that will help with treatment.
Other Indian celebs, Anushka Sharma, Varun Dhawan, Randeep Hooda, Manisha Koirala, Ileana D’Cruz have spoken about their mental health struggles too. Millennials are watching their moves. Gen Z is following them on Instagram and Facebook. And they all need to know that a conversation around mental health is OK and required. That it is curable. That it is nothing to be ashamed of. We have romanticised this battle long enough. Let’s get this shit over with.
There is a long way for this country to go. But at least, as they, let’s start the conversation.
I looked at what some celebs have said about their mental health. And it gave me life.
Selena Gomez: “I've discovered that anxiety, panic attacks, and depression can be side effects of lupus, which can present their own challenges.”
Prince Harry: “I sought counselling after 20 years of not thinking about the death of my mother, Diana, and two years of total chaos in my life.”
Deepika Padukone: “If we're a nation that's the most depressed in the world, there's definitely a much, much larger issue that we all need to sort of focus on and work towards.”
Ileana D’Cruz: “I used to feel low and sad all the time but didn't know I was suffering from depression and Body Dysmorphic Disorder till I got help.”
Emma Stone: “At a certain point, I couldn’t go to friends’ houses anymore – I could barely get out the door to school. You have to be present in improv, and that’s the antithesis of anxiety.”
Dwayne Johnson: “I reached a point where I didn’t want to do a thing or go anywhere. I was crying constantly.”
Bella Hadid: “I would literally start crying and shaking if I had to do interviews at red carpet events. It was really nerve-racking and it’s scary.”
Adele: “I can slip in and out of [depression] quite easily. I had really bad postpartum depression after I had my son, and it frightened me.”
Kendall Jenner: “You go online and you see everyone saying the worst things to each other, and it’s hard to stay positive. It’s hard not to get eaten alive by all the negativity.”
Mariah Carey (on seeking treatment for her bipolar disorder): “Until recently, I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me. It was too heavy a burden to carry and I simply couldn’t do that anymore.”
Zayn Malik: “Rather than hiding away, sugar-coating it, I knew I had to put it all out there.”
Amanda Seyfried: “You don’t see the mental illness: It’s not a mass; it’s not a cyst. But it’s there. Why do you need to prove it? If you can treat it, you treat it.
Lady Gaga: “I have a mental illness, and I struggle with that mental illness every day.”
If you're battling any mental health issues, call these helplines:
1. National Institute of Behavioural Institutions, West Bengal: 09836401234
2. Jeevan Aastha helpline, Gujarat: 1800233330
3. The Banyan, Chennai: 044 2653 0504
4. The Indian Council for Mental Health, Mumbai: 022 2267 9294
5. Sanjivini Society For Mental Health, New Delhi: 011 2431 1918
Follow Maroosha Muzaffar on Twitter .