Indians are having a rare moment of discussing mental health, as the country grapples with the alleged death by suicide of a popular Bollywood actor.
Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his home in Mumbai, India over the weekend, on June 14. Police are treating it as a suicide while they investigate. Rajput’s autopsy reportedly says that his death was caused by asphyxiation.
There was an outpouring of grief over the passing of an artist who was among the few examples of a self-made star. Rajput, who grew up in the east Indian city of Patna, had made his mark in an industry that gleefully promotes the children of industry-insiders.
Rajput dropped out of a top engineering school in Delhi to star in television soap operas before making the leap to the silver screen, which has been - even after his rise to fame - considered an impossibility. During a seven-year stint, he starred in twelve movies that were critical as well as commercial successes.
Eventually, Rajput’s story came to be compared with Shah Rukh Khan’s: also a rank outsider in the film industry, who is today considered one of Bollywood’s most popular stars.
But there seemed to be something different this time, regarding discussions around his death.
While his family is yet to issue a statement, some of Rajput’s fellow actors have claimed the actor was dealing with depression. Actress Anushka Sharma, who has co-starred with Rajput in the Hindi film P.K., took to social media to express how upset and helpless she felt for not being able to get through to him.
“For the first time, instead of people just posting RIP, they’re actively addressing issues of mental health and making posts apologising for not doing enough,” Arushi Sethi, a mental health activist and co-founder of counselling organisation Trijog Wellness told VICE News.
At some point, users began to offer each other support and talk about their history with mental illness.
A lot of anxieties that had built up over the last few months also seemed to find release, suggesting that the world’s strictest lockdown had come with a mental health toll. The Indian State, which has often been accused of executing a largely unplanned lockdown and leaving people to fend for themselves, has offered scant mental health resources. This, combined with the extreme stigma around mental illness in the country, has made it difficult for those in need to ask for help.
“A strange outcome of even the pandemic has been in pushing mental health conversations several years forward,” Shaheen Bhatt, an Indian author who wrote a book titled ‘Never Been (Un)happier’ to detail her first-hand experiences of dealing with depression, told VICE.
Indians also started calling out the insensitivity with which the country’s most popular television channels reported Rajput’s death and mental health. News channels fanned the flames of speculation, used crude language to speculate on the cause of death and harassed his family for responses. One of these channels has now even been served a legal notice for “insensitive coverage.”
Social media users began calling out erring news channels and their anchors. The ire was then directed at those offering unscientific solutions to clinical issues.
However, social media was not blameless either. Photos of the late actor’s dead body circulated on social media, and Mumbai police warned that sharing images of the dead actor’s body will invite penal action.
Sethi said the general conversation are good signs towards the right direction.
“There are three stages to normalising mental health: awareness, acceptance, acknowledgement. Right now, India is at the awareness stage, but from the data we gathered after running a pro-bono campaign in the lockdown, we realised that people have opened up more in the last 90 days than ever before,” Sethi said.
"But we have to start identifying problems and seeking professional help before they reach the tipping point.”
Globally, about 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and 135,000 (17 percent) of these deaths occur in India. The National Crime Records Bureau says that in India, more than one student dies by suicide every hour, which shows the bleak reality of the problem.
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