What we see is, sometimes, just the tip of the surface when we talk about mental health. In this age of social media, the term 'mental health' is often loosely used; while we are gradually accepting what it is, the chaos majorly blurs its significance somewhere in the backdrop. For Keya Irah, finding a method to this chaos was a challenge she learned to face right from her teens.
Keya, who struggled with mental health issues from an early, faced one of the toughest battles of her when she tried to self-harm as a teenager. Now in her 20s, it was her family's undeterred support and a deeper understanding of what mental well-being really meant that she took hold of her life and made a life-altering decision to get admitted to a mental hospital. Keya believes it was the best decision she has ever taken concerning her life, and her story elucidates why.
In this conversation with SheThePeople, Keya Irah talks about her mental health struggles, why she chose to get admitted to a mental hospital, why we need to prioritise wellbeing as a whole, her passion for music, and how her family's selfless support saved her in more ways than one.
Excerpts from Keya Irah's Interview
Please tell me about when you were diagnosed, and when you realised you needed help.
I have been struggling mentally since I was 12; that’s when all my problems sort of started. By the time I was 14 or 15, I realised I was going through stuff, and I did try to self-harm at the age of 15 for the first time. I was in the hospital, and that’s when my parents got aware that I was struggling. They had no idea that I was struggling mentally, they didn’t think along those lines until I was there at the hospital until everyone took it seriously. I was in the ICU for around a week so, yes, there was a whole team of therapists trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I had a psychiatrist and was put on regular therapy. Looking back, I know my problem started when I was 12 or 13, and it was only when it all exploded at 15 that we realised there was a major issue.
You got yourself admitted to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and you said it was the best thing to have happened. While the decision must have been difficult, the prior events must have been heavier. How did you navigate all of it, and what led you to decide you wanted to do this?
NIMHANS happened when I was about 21 so there was a long gap from my first attempt to my second attempt. Things kept piling up, and it took one last straw for me to break. I tried to self-harm again and, this time, it was way more severe. I was on therapy and medication and, despite that, I had an outburst. My parents and I realised maybe we need something more intense; once-a-week therapy wouldn’t work. I was in such a depressed state of mind, you can say in a vegetative state, I wasn’t able to move or function as a human for a while, so we thought maybe I needed to have a change of space and place.
Thought of leaving everything in Bombay, leaving my job because I couldn’t do any of it. And just submit yourself to a place that will get you back on your feet. I just came to Bengaluru because my aunt lives here. My family, too, left everything to be with me. We were looking for private rehab centres, we were looking at naturopathy and ashrams as well. We were open to any space that would help me get back on my feet. We went to a private mental care hospital, too, but soon a family doctor spoke very highly about NIMHANS and that it could be trusted being a government institution. We realised we could give it a shot.
We went on an OPD day and met the psychiatrist. We were told, given my condition, getting admitted would be advisable. We saw the campus and it looked good. There were a lot of people, a lot of patients, and many people belonging to my age group.
We took a while to think about it, as the whole step of walking into a mental hospital meant my life wouldn’t be the same again. I knew I’d always have that tag that I was admitted to a mental hospital but that seemed like the best option to seek help. Nothing mattered more than my intention to get better.
I was very sacred packing my stuff and walking into the gate and the gate closing; you’re not allowed to go out once the gate is shut, at least not until they discharge you.
How did NIMHANS change the direction of your life? As someone who was living in a space like that, what were your biggest takeaways about how mental health is navigated outside and inside?
This is such a huge thing. My first week at the hospital was quite scary, and it was uncomfortable at first. I was treated like a patient for the first week as they were diagnosing me, my bed had wheels on them and it was icky for me. The first two days, we did not get a private room, we shared a room with three other patients. One of them was a drug addict; she would howl and get violent.
It took a while to adjust to all of that and become a part. But once I was in it, it was magic. From thinking of running away to interacting with people and doing my therapy regularly, I adapted. We had a lot of recreational activities, where we would go for yoga or art class, and sit and jam in the evening. I made some friends there and it was a game-changer. You also gain perspective by looking a everyone else who is going through very different problems. You develop that empathy and gain gratitude.
There’s still so much taboo around mental health. To see someone like you taking whatever steps necessary to feel better and move forward in life without societal apprehension is so inspiring. Is there something you’d like to tell people, especially those who are dealing with mental health issues?
The taboo around it is okay. It’s not looked down upon now. Or, maybe, I am from Bombay where people are more open about it. However, I have heard comments like, 'You went to a mental hospital for just depression?' Well, if therapy is not helping you have to do something. I think the reason I am even so open about it is my parents; they are so open to everything, and they never once made me feel there was something wrong. Ever since they found out, they really did everything in their power to get me the help needed.
All I can do is share what happened with me; if that inspires you that’s great. I was at a place in my life that I didn’t think I could come out of. It sounds like a cliché but I'd just say, don’t lose hope. This is coming from a person who was once hopeless and is beyond it now.
I want to tell parents to be more like my parents, to be more open and never undermine their kids' problems. The reason I have gotten out of this mess is my parents got me this support.
During the pandemic, we tried everything under the sun, every other week we would have a family meeting about how to make things better for me. What steps to take so my mental wellbeing is prioritised My mother quit everything to stay with me in a mental hospital for three months. If more parents think like that, more children would be open to solving problems rather than dwelling on them.
What inspired you to pursue music?
Honestly, I was in a boring old corporate job and was prone to inconsistency. I have been flaky with my jobs too. While have done and tried a lot of things, music was always a constant. It was a hobby, and making a living out of it wasn’t on my mind. I quit my job to tour with a singer; it just happened and when it came my way, I accepted it. From Gigs and shows to teaching music to kids, and being the resident singer at Taj, Bombay, I embraced it all as and when it happened and I am very happy.
How has social media impacted you personally and professionally?
This is a very mixed answer. I have struggled because of social media in the past when I was super unstable and going through body image issues. Instagram was the evil in my life; that was a pathetic feeling. I had a toxic relationship with social media and took breaks from time to time. I didn’t want to have anything on my feed to scroll. Now, I know how to not let it affect and I channel it how I want to.
Professionally, as a musician, your can’t not have social media. You need to put yourself out there, put your work out there.
While earlier would post my work-related stuff and go off the grid, I'm now in a state where I have sort of tackled body image issues and am proud of myself even. Instagram only gives me joy at this moment; it's my safe space.
What would you say has had the most significant impact on your growth as a person?
Life is like before NIMHANS and after it; it’s not like it’s all been rainbows and sunshine, no. I have been through worse things also but now can deal with all of those things much better; I know how to navigate through my emotions. This decision was the biggest impact on my life that gave me a broad understanding and so much more perspective.
I want to mention that this is not going to solve all your problems. If you don’t want to be helped, you cant heal. Wherever you seek help, go in with an open mind, with an aim to work through your issues. No journey is the same. I went there voluntarily with the intention of healing and it worked out in the best ways possible.
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