Why is mental health so important and yet so neglected? In a recent panel in Chennai, mental wellness activist Neharika Rajagopalan brought together experts who spoke about the need for more openness and less stigma about the topic.Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy
Mental wellness and emotional health are now getting the attention they deserve. With Bollywood star Deepika Padukone seeking help for mental health and well-being, the conversation is heading in the right direction. But there is still a lot of taboo and stigma surrounding mental illness. To continue the conversation on mental wellness, and highlight how it is as important as physical health, Neharika Rajagopalan started Desha Dhwani.
A senior associate at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR) looking at policy and outreach, she was thrown into a series of tough situations that really drained her. But this was not the first time she went through a trying time.
Her father, who was the anchor of the family, suddenly succumbed to a heart attack in 2016. Watching her mother and sister cope with the sudden loss as well as grappling with her own grief left her mental health in tatters. Soon she had a child and along with it came a whole host of responsibilities. Neharika was overwhelmed and at her wits’ end. She says,
“After facing so much in life, the reason I refuse to be pulled down is because my mother had been a rock-solid support. Unlike her peers, she was open to seeking help, and took me to counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. They all reinstated the belief she showed in me.”
Her own experience with mental health pushed Neharika to write about mental well-being on her blog first. As a next step, she started Desha Dhwani to raise the awareness about mental wellness. Recently, she put together a panel in Chennai to discuss the importance of mental health.
Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam, obstetrician Dr Uma Ram, sustainability consultant and mental wellness advocate Biren Vora, psychologist and counsellor Dr Nappinnai Seran, Chennai Vivekandanda Kendra Publications in-charge VV Subramanian, and Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) Vice Chairman Dr R Thara shared their views on mental health in a panel discussion on mental wellness, stigma, prevention, and cure, moderated by counsellor Usha Gautam.
Even after a concert, Aruna Sairam is the one to serve dinner at home. Straddling her demanding music and her personal life that came with a lot of family responsibilities was not easy at all, and soon she was burnt out. “After some time, I realised that I am living two lives: one when I am singing and one when I am not. I must say that for many years I was not mentally well because I was living different lives at different times,” she said.
The stress of chasing her career and performing her duties at home left her feeling constantly anxious. This was when she discovered introspection, acceptance, and seeking help are ways to be at peace with herself.
Gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Uma Ram dwelt upon issues that shape women’s health before, during, and after pregnancy. She said that depression and anxiety are common in young women and more so in women who come for antenatal care. As stress of the mother can affect hormones and even the unborn child, Dr Uma emphasised the need for OBGYNs to be cognizant of their patients’ emotional and mental health when they come in for appointments.
Young women worry that starting a family may hamper their career plans. They are therefore anxious. Postpartum challenges also remain for the mother. “Women need to feel proud of themselves first,” Dr Uma stressed, while underscoring the need for families and society to not pile on so much expectations on women.
Corporate consultant and mental health advocate Biren Vora spoke about the need to address childhood trauma, which tend to have far-reaching implications as they linger on as mental illness in adults. Biren himself had a difficult childhood, as he was put in a boarding school when nine and was subjected to bullying. It took 30 years for him to even realise that he had a few issues on mental health and immediately he saw a doctor to help him out.
“Do our annual health checkups include mental health checkup,” he asked, adding that workplace pressure can also take a toll on one’s mental health. Equations with the boss, unreal expectations about work targets, and long commute times add to the stress of an employee. He recommended being articulate and seeking help as the best ways to beat stress and ensure mental well-being.
Mindfulness was one technique used by the older generations to keep themselves mentally healthy. “We are running a rat race to the future without being mindful,” psychologist and counsellor Dr Nappinai Seran said. Mindfulness requires being more in the present, and not forgetting the small gestures of being grateful for your existence.
Learning to live in the present moment, smiling, and accepting yourself as you are can lead to happiness. But happiness is not a constant, and neither should you aim for it to be that. “It’s okay to not be okay at times,” she added.
VV Balasubramanian emphasised the need for being part of a community and having a larger purpose to ensure mental well being. Be it practising yoga in a group, or taking in a music concert, there is much to be gained by the rich culture surrounding us. This helps us perform our duties as partner, child, parent, caregiver, and employee with more energy and less exhaustion.
Dr Thara of Schizophrenia Research Foundation agreed, pointing out the ills of not being part of a greater community, and its toll on the elderly. Elderly care is a highly neglected area.
“Elderly patients suffer without letting others know because they don’t want to burden others,” she said.
Many illnesses that the elderly suffer are kept to themselves and not articulated, which piles stress on themselves as a result of which they might also become depressed. She stressed on the need to pay more attention to the mental well-being of the elderly by taking the time out to listen to them.