Jun 13, 2021

Why tackling mental health needs to be prioritised

Pandemic has seen a big increase in the number of those who are mentally disturbed; they need counselling, psychiatric help

Rahul Singh
The Tribune 
June 13, 2021

The ailments connected with mental health have been with us for centuries. The pulls and pressures of modernisation have brought them to the fore in advanced countries. Fortunately, psychiatrists and psychologists are available there for treatment and counselling. But even in less developed nations, there are plenty of mentally-ill people, usually untreated and uncared for. In India, there are far too few trained psychiatrists. There is also a great reluctance to go to them because of the common perception that those who do so “must be mad”. The result is that many resort to so-called “godmen”, most of them charlatans. Some are far worse — outright criminals. Asaram Bapu and Gurmit Ram Rahim are just two who were caught and mercifully jailed. There are plenty of others, roaming free, fleecing their gullible followers.

However, these “godmen” do provide comfort and solace to a large number of Indians, and even to foreigners, that organised religions fail to do. Strange as it may sound, they are, in my reckoning, the psychiatrists of India, though they know nothing about psychiatry. They are canny enough to identify the insecurities of their followers and exploit those insecurities. Surprisingly, they attract high-profile celebrities as well, right up to prime ministers. Indira Gandhi was closely linked to Dhirendra Brahmachari, PV Narasimha Rao to Chandraswami, the Beatles had transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (they got disillusioned with him later). The brilliant constitutional lawyer, Nani Palkhivala, was an ardent devotee of Sai Baba, as is the cricket great, Sunil Gavaskar.

Mental health issues are often genetic. Many families have a streak of mental instability that gets passed down through the generations. I had an eccentric great grandfather who liked writing letters to Queen Victoria. One of his grandsons (my uncle) was mentally challenged, and a great great granddaughter (my cousin’s daughter) died by suicide while studying for PhD at Oxford. The dividing line between eccentricity and mental illness is blurred, as is that between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. One can merge into the other over time. Perhaps the most famous schizophrenic was John Nash, the American Nobel Prize winner on whom a wonderful film, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, was made some years ago. He was constantly haunted by imaginary demons.

Mood swings and depression are also common mental issues. Fame is no insulator of depression, as the confessions of Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone have revealed. In the case of Parveen Babi, one of the great film beauties of her time, depression and schizophrenia turned into a more severe mental illness, bordering on insanity. But few would have thought that sportspersons could be similarly afflicted. Just the other day, Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old Japanese tennis player who is the world’s richest female athlete, stunned the sports world by withdrawing from the French Open after winning her first round. She said she had been suffering from bouts of severe depression since 2018, the year she had won the US Open, defeating the legendary Serena Williams in the final.

In that match, the audience had vociferously rooted for Williams. That, along with the press conference that followed, had evidently traumatised Osaka. So much so, she dreaded being asked tough questions by the media. Which is why she announced that she would not address the traditional post-match press conference at the French Open (for which she was heavily fined). This led to her subsequent withdrawal from the tournament. There is now intense speculation over her participation in Wimbledon. Could we be witnessing the end of the tennis career of a great sporting talent, mainly due to her inability to handle mental issues? If she doesn’t want to face the media, surely she has the right to refuse. Since we are on tennis, one of the best players India has produced, Premjit Lal (he took the great Rod Laver to five sets at Wimbledon), after being quite normal, suddenly descended to the depths of despair in the last years of his life, leaving his many friends and admirers saddened and uncomprehending.

Indian TV is also being targeted by some in the social media for its coverage of the pandemic. Hundreds of bodies floating down the holy Ganga, hasty burials on the riverside, overflowing crematoria, lack of hospital beds, patients struggling to breathe from lack of oxygen — all this has been graphically, and perhaps sickeningly, shown on various channels. One Facebook post labelled such coverage as a “second pandemic”, this time a mental health one. Reporters and anchors were called “ghouls” who were “disrespecting the dead and violating the last sacred moments of the departed”. The post had more supporters than detractors. Clearly, most social media viewers don’t approve of the unsparing TV coverage of the pandemic, however honest it may be. Admittedly, these images could have troubled many, particularly the young and more sensitive. However, reality can sometimes be ugly and repulsive. Should one excise it completely, as if nothing has gone wrong? And yes, the pandemic has seen a big increase in the number of those who are mentally disturbed; they need counselling, perhaps psychiatric help. Students have had to take their classes online and stay indoors. Some cannot cope with a situation that they have never faced before. They need counselling which their parents are probably not equipped to give. Millions have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood, while still in their prime. They, too, need some kind of help. There has been much talk about the inadequate health infrastructure in the country. That certainly needs much more investment and urgent overhaul. But let’s not forget mental health, which has been ignored and neglected for far too long.

— The writer is a veteran journalist


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