Our Collective Response to a Young Actor’s Suicide Reveals Our Poor Understanding of Mental Health
It’s been more than two weeks since a young actor died by suicide. The investigation is still on but the jury on what killed him is already out. It has been clearly reported that the actor didn’t leave a suicide note and postmortem has confirmed no foul play – but when has that stopped us from speculating and assuming on what possibly drove the actor to take such a step. Because depression or any kind of mental illness is just not something we can wrap our heads around. From trying to find links between his ex-manager’s death to nepotism in Bollywood, to bullying by his colleagues, to lost film contracts – there is nothing the media (both mainstream and social) left to be attributed to his death. The fact that none of the family members or close friends of the deceased have confirmed anything or even hinted at a possible cause has done little to stop the conjectural theories doing the rounds.
However appalling the reactions may seem, they are hardly surprising given how limited the discourse around mental health is in India. Last year, a close family friend died by suicide. Let’s address him by the name Rahul for this article’s sake. Rahul was in his early forties and lived with his wife and two children in Malaysia. He ran a successful financial consulting firm and was looking to expand his business to other South Asian countries. ‘Everything in his life was perfect!’ My father remarked a day after the shock of his death subsided.
‘That is not how a mental illness works, Dad. You can have everything in life and still be depressed. It’s just like you can lead the most healthy lifestyle but still get cancer.’
‘But he should have fought harder.’
‘Did you say that to your father who died of cancer?’
My father fell silent. I could see he was thinking of ways to counter my arguments but somehow decided against it. I could hardly blame him for his refusal to look at mental illness as an actual illness. When his father was diagnosed with stage III cancer, he witnessed him slowly chipping away – first his muscles, then his hair, then his appetite and then one day he just stopped breathing. How can he comprehend an illness with no physical signs at all? Our family friend spoke to his father normally a few minutes before, had all his meals, replied to messages on his WhatsApp all day, looked healthy and happy in the photograph his wife took a day before, and nobody knew that he was battling something so serious and fatal enough to take his life.
A few days later, a prayer service was organised in memory of Rahul. I was naive enough to think that this would be a space to discuss mental illness, instead all I heard were infinite speculative theories around his death which included every possible cause of death except depression.
‘You think his wife killed him?’
‘Was he under debt?’
‘Why didn’t the police conduct an autopsy?’
‘Why didn’t the local newspapers report the death?
‘How could such a brilliant man end his life? There has to be something more to this.’
Not a single person in the prayer service was willing to accept that Rahul was perhaps suffering from depression and his illness got the better of him, just like any other illness with apparent physical symptoms. After the prayer service, I hitched a ride with one of Rahul’s closest friends who had known him for more than twenty five years of his life. He lived close to where I had to be on that day. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, he turned to me and said, ‘I wish he had spoken to me about what he was going through. I would have helped him. What he did wasn’t fair!’
‘What would you have done?’
He thought for a long time and finally said, ‘I don’t know.’
‘We are unwilling to expect his depression even after he died from it. How do you think we could have understood it while he was alive?Forget helping people, we don’t even know how to engage with people battling any kind of mental illness. Our responses are either dismissive or demeaning.’
Four years ago, I fell into the deep dark tunnel of depression which I thought was only reserved for creative geniuses. Depression comes unannounced like a stray dog, and simply refuses to leave once at your doorstep – it doesn’t matter if you feed it or not. I don’t quite remember how and when it started but soon it took over my entire life. I was completely at its mercy. Performing simple tasks like getting out of bed every morning or holding conversations without breaking down became near to impossible. I found no meaning in living and often thought ‘would it really matter if I just cease to exist?’
If someone had asked me why I was depressed, I won’t have been able to answer the question. There was nothing terribly wrong with my life. I had a job I loved and worked with people who were supportive and encouraging – I had no financial struggles ( I wasn’t able to afford a therapist though) and there was no major catastrophic event in my life I could attribute my depression to. In absence of a solid reason to explain why I was feeling the way I was, I went through pangs of guilt which worsened my mental state further. I often screamed in the middle of the night begging my mind to snap out of this darkness. There were days I would feel completely in control and thought the so-called ‘phase’ was over, but found myself crawling back into the dark tunnel a few days later.
Apart from the constant darkness, what I most vividly remember is the inability to talk about what I was going through with my family. First it was, ‘why should I alarm them?’, then later it was ‘what if they call me back home?’, which later became, ‘how do I explain what is wrong?’ It was not that I thought my parents would be insensitive or dismissive but it was the sheer lack of vocabulary around mental health that I could draw from to explain my condition.
In a culture that constantly invalidates mental illnesses, just saying ‘mental illness is like any other illness’ doesn’t do much. We need more writings, dialogues. films and art to create understanding, and acceptance around mental health.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
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