[World Mental Health Day] How mental health affects girls and women in India
From a young age, girls are told to change the way they look to fit conventional beauty standards, and forced to follow certain educational and career paths. As they grow older, many have to take care of their entire family while balancing a professional life, and barely have time to look after themselves.
All the stress and pressure put on girls and women to fit a certain ideal standard can seriously take a toll on the individual’s mental health. But with the stigma surrounding conversation about mental illnesses and treatment, even this aspect is swept under the rug, and the women are told to keep quiet about their struggles.
HerStory reached out to a few girls and women in India, between the ages of 15-25 years, and asked them about their experiences with being forced to live up to expectations, and the effect it has had on their mental health. We also asked a psychologist for her take on women and mental health in India.
(Trigger warning: personal accounts of unpleasant experiences with family, peers, and mental health professionals; mention of self-harm, abuse, transphobia)
Scoring good grades and being the best at academics is something most Indian students are expected to live up to, regardless of how terribly pressuring the situation can get. Being compared to peers, and forced to take up subjects they are not interested in is also something that bogs many down.
“I had to take up science in high school because my parents wanted me to, and I used to cry at night. Then they asked me why I didn't take humanities if I disliked science so much, when they were the ones who asked me to take it up in the first place. Everyone else was better than me at science, and I was really hard on myself, when in reality it just wasn’t my subject,” says Koyena, an 18-year-old student from Kolkata.
And sometimes, there are aspirations that may never be achieved, because nobody understands or supports you; like this 22-year-old student from Brahmapur who had to give up her dreams of learning music.
“I am an only child and the eldest in my extended family. Expectations are really high. Once you start scoring well in exams, you are supposed to be good at everything. You don't get time to be yourself. I wanted to learn music but was met with passive-aggressive reactions, so I decided it was best to give up that dream,” she says.
At other times, one gets so caught up fulfilling responsibilities to make others happy and loses out on time to focus on their own goals. Aotula, a 20-year-old student from Bengaluru says,
“I grew up trying to be the good daughter my parents wanted me to be, the good sister my brothers deserved, and to study hard for a rat race that I feel trapped in. This frustrates me to the point that I just want to leave everything behind and escape.”
Fitting into boxes
There are certain standards of femininity that people consider ideal, and if a woman does not fit into them, she is often shamed. However, she is usually met with odd comments and criticism whether she fits these boxes or not.
Aditi, an 18-year-old student from Mumbai, shares her experience:
“In the beginning of Class 11 and throughout junior college, I had very short hair. Because of that, people assumed that I was a lesbian, and girls would often violate my personal space. At that point, I didn't think that I had any option other than to deal with it, so I went through those two years, becoming someone I wasn't. Although I hadn’t come out yet, I wasn't comfortable being stereotyped as a lesbian just because of my hair. I've had severe anxiety since, and I still do.”
It’s not rare for older family members to place a great amount of value and dignity in the length of a woman’s hair. And if that hair is cut off beyond a point, the woman is made to feel terrible about a harmless decision she made for herself.
Recalling such an instance, Ananya, a 17-year-old student from Bengaluru, says,
“Up until two years ago, I had the thickest, longest hair in my family. My mother was so proud of it and combed it every day. Strangers would comment on how beautiful it was. However, when I realised I was nonbinary, it became a symbol of dysphoria* for me. I didn’t feel beautiful at all. So, I made the decision to cut it off and donate all two feet of it to an NGO that makes wigs for cancer patients.
"But the backlash from my family was more than I expected. Many relatives told me I looked like a boy. My mom quietly mourned the loss of my hair. My grandmother told me I didn’t look pretty anymore, and I didn’t know how to react.”
*dysphoria is a term for the distressing feeling a person who doesn’t fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth goes through, with regard to their body, identity, and/or societal treatment.
Not dressing up “like a girl” and choosing not to remove body hair is often frowned upon by society at large. Women are expected to have smooth skin, and wear pretty, “feminine” clothing most of the time, and if this isn’t followed, people can be quite unkind.
A 17-year-old student from Bengaluru talks about her experience:
“I don't dress up like a conventional girl, and I've continuously been taunted for that. I've been called a boy, have been fat-shamed multiple times, and it has had a bad effect on the way I look at my body. I also have an excessive amount of hair growth for which I've been made fun of. It has made me feel insecure about my body and I think twice before wearing anything that shows the hair on my body.”
Being bullied as children for being different or not as academically proficient as others can have a huge effect on a person’s mental health growing up. To make things worse, many schools and institutions don’t take action on instances of bullying, and continue letting it happen.
Lucy (name changed), a 23-year-old student from Bengaluru, who is also a trans woman says,
“At school, it was not great. Kids saw me as some weird thing, rather than a person. I could feel the stares and comments going around. I was mocked and bullied so much that I became numb to it all. I didn't see the point of talking to people about it, or telling my parents about it.”
When a child steps up and talks about their struggles with being bullied, it is the responsibility of the adults around them to do something about it, so that the situation is eased. However, this is not the case for many.
Darshali, a 19-year-old student from Bengaluru recalls,
“As a school-going teenager, my personality was always seen as happy-go-lucky, which made it very difficult to talk about mental health. I was often told that I am overly sensitive and need to calm down. The fact that I was bullied was completely neglected. The same happened at home. My parents did not believe that there was something wrong, and the pressure to score good grades was overwhelming.”
Work and family stress
Sometimes, the amount of workload at professional spaces can get overwhelming. Pair that with pressure from family and having to take care of the household almost entirely by yourself, and the situation can get quite worrying.
A 23-year-old professional from Mumbai shares her experience:
“As soon as I started working, my father had a mild paralysis attack, so he left his job. Since then, it has just been mostly me looking after everything.
"Two years ago, I had a panic attack while I was at work. I couldn't tell my parents. I then decided to take a sabbatical for a year so that I could sort things out and clear my head. But the day I was supposed to tell my parents about this, my sister told us that she had quit her job. So I was left to fend for the whole family again. The stress caught up to me and I moved to self harm.”
Growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive environment can have a severe impact on a child’s mental health, and continue to have a negative effect on them as they grow up. Ranica, a 23-year-old professional from Bengaluru, recalls,
“As someone who was raised in an abusive household, I developed anxiety at a very young age. This impacted my social skills outside of the house, to the point where I couldn't physically speak in front of strangers. I would also constantly be shamed for my speech disorder. All these things would put pressure on me to do things I clearly wasn't capable of.”
Seeking help for mental health struggles can be scary, but is often a necessary step towards understanding oneself better and leading a more peaceful life. However, owing to the stigma surrounding mental health in India, even accepting that there is a need for professional help can be challenging, let alone talking to family and peers about it.
Many of the girls and women who shared their experiences also said that there are mixed opinions and reactions around them when it comes to mental health. While some are very supportive, others don’t want to talk about it at all, or tend to ask intrusive questions.
“People were very supportive. I told my friends that I was going through something and that I needed some time. Many of them even now check regularly on me and ask me how I am doing. This is very helpful, and makes me feel loved and cared for,” says a 20-year-old student from Bengaluru.
“I receive support from peers, yet I sometimes hesitate to ask for help. I still feel like it can become a burden, and, at times, people have indirectly told me not to talk about my issues. They compare my struggles to seemingly larger issues, or their personal difficulties,” says a 21-year-old student from Bengaluru.
However, once the discussion of mental health is brought to the table, approaching a professional can go in different directions. It can be easy and affirming, as it is for a few, or difficult and invalidating as in the case of others.
Recalling her own experience with approaching a mental health professional, Mahita, a 22-year-old student from Bengaluru, says,
“I was in therapy for about eight months, and for the most part, my experience was good. However, there was one psychiatrist who asked me if 'just these issues' were enough to give me anxiety and kept talking about how there are more 'real' issues out there. Other than that I've been lucky enough to meet some amazing clinical psychologists and psychiatrists along the way.”
Another 21-year-old student from Bengaluru says,
“I've met amazing people who are incredibly supportive and will bend over backwards to accommodate my timings or just to be a good support system. But there have also been doctors who attribute my mental state to just being in college, and don't even bother with enquiring about my past.”
Darshali, on the other hand, recalls a not so pleasant experience:
“In the institution I was at, the doctors worked like a factory. They didn’t really listen to me, and if I wasn't able to complete a task, it was often blamed on me. I felt like I was fighting a huge system and the doctors who had ego issues and always felt like they had to be right.
"The psychologists also kept changing departments every three months, so I had a very inconsistent and unstable relationship with therapy.”
Ranica says she has had a very positive experience with therapy:
“I have been in therapy for about eight years now. I was extremely nervous and overwhelmed before my visit to my first therapist. However, that's how my recovery started and I'm glad it was with him. After that I went to a proper hospital, which I consider the best thing to happen to me with regard to getting treatment. I went to a therapist and psychiatrist there. I also was taking treatment under another psychiatrist outside of the hospital. Both these experiences were very healthy and positive for me.”
Lucy, who has been consulting mental health professionals since she was four years old, talks about a specifically upsetting experience she had while consulting a psychiatrist as a child:
“My parents took me to a psychiatrist when I was in Class 6 for being 'deviant' from usual male behaviour. The psychiatrist told me I shouldn't be behaving this way because I was a boy. When I hinted to him that I might be transgender, he was vocally against it. He kept reiterating that I absolutely could not be trans. I took his word as gospel, and it was very difficult for me to accept my identity.”
Ananya, who has had a good experience with mental health professionals, says,
“I’m lucky that my experiences with mental health professionals were good for the most part. I think what eased me the most was that since they were both women; they were able to understand how the treatment of women impacted my mental health.”
Shreya Giria, a psychotherapist and student counsellor at Azim Premji University and counselling psychologist at Mu Sigma, talks about how institutions can be more accommodating of students with mental health issues.
“Institutions need to normalise conversations about mental health, sexual health and emotional well-being. Words like OCD, depression, and bipolar are loosely thrown around, and as a result, people who really need help can feel extremely ashamed to seek it. The more these issues are used only in jokes or are talked down about, they're not taken with the gravity that it deserves.
"They should take mental health struggles as seriously as they would physical health issues, in terms of their functioning whether it be grading or class participation and in terms of policy making. They need to be inclusive when taking in students, regarding health, special needs, the LGBTQIA+ community and other sections of the population as well.It’s also important to make having counselors mandatory, and conduct awareness campaigns for staff and students.”
She also addresses her responsibilities as a psychologist, and how she makes the experience for her clients better:
“My role as a psychologist and therapist is to hold a mirror to my clients, encourage them in their journey and help make changes consistent, or work with trauma in a safe space, to lead them to a direction of self care. As a therapist, while there's no 'ideal' way because there are many styles of therapy; being empathetic, and non-judgemental is something that is necessary. Also, there are ethical standpoints we do follow.”
Keeping your mental health in check is extremely important. Having a good understanding of yourself, and learning how to cope with your issues and challenges can help with a better experience of life. Here is some motivation and encouragement from the girls and women who shared their stories:
“Not everyone will listen or believe you because most people don’t take mental health seriously. Talk to someone you think you can trust and find something that makes you happy. Try to distract yourself and do things you’ve always wanted to even if it’s something very small. You could also write down things that bother you.”
“You don't have to hit rock bottom to take your first step towards recovery. Plus, rock bottom is different for all of us. In a society that constantly tells womxn* their feelings and thoughts are irrational, delusional or irrelevant, it is even more important to take care of oneself. Taking the help of a professional, or even multiple, is a very normal and healthy thing to do. Listen to your body and set healthy boundaries in all circles of your life. Do not hesitate to ask for help. I promise it gets better.”
*womxn is a spelling of “women” that is more inclusive of everyone identifying on the feminine spectrum
“Always remember that you are not alone. It is important to speak up about your struggles and address the issues even if it scares you, because you are the most important person in your life. You come first before anyone else.”
“Talk to your friends or people who care about you and about your emotional well being. The only way I was able to get over the worst of times that came my way was by building some of the most amazing friendships. Asking for help is the hardest, but the best thing you can do for yourself.”
- 20-year-old student from Delhi
“It's okay to not be perfect all the time; it's okay to not be what you're 'supposed to be'. Take your time, figure yourself out. Be kinder to yourself and accept yourself. And know that it's okay to not be okay. Ask for help when you need it; you're not alone in what you're feeling and you definitely don't have to be alone in dealing with this.”
Read the first part of the series here, that delves into statistics regarding mental health in young women.