World Mental Health: "I sought help. I survived." 5 women's stories of coping with mental health

On World Mental Health Day, women share their challenges with mental health and tell HerStory why it’s important to seek help at the right time.
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In a UNICEF survey across 21 countries this year, only 41 percent of young people in India said it’s good to seek support for mental health problems, compared to an average of 83 percent for 21 countries.

Also, India has only 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 people and the World Health Organisation estimates that about 7.5 percent of Indians suffer from some mental disorder. Alarming statistics indeed.

Add to these, the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking professional help, and most disorders go unnoticed.

This is why it’s also important to celebrate stories of overcoming mental health challenges and laud those who are raising awareness in their own ways by speaking about their personal experiences.

They are also telling others, #itsoknottobeok, and there’s no shame in seeking help.

HerStory spoke to a few brave women about their struggles with mental health.

Trigger warning: Some stories may include thoughts and tendencies related to suicide.

Culmination of a “bad habit”, says Sreeja*

Last year, after a few therapy sessions, I realised that my presumed "bad habit" of biting my cheek could be a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). However, before I could take professional help for it, the pandemic broke out and I had to discontinue therapy.

Months later, when I had a severe toothache and rushed to the dentist late last year, he noticed the bite marks on my cheek. I had to assure him it was not because of the alignment of my teeth and my cheeks, and I might sometimes accidentally bite my cheeks.

My mother witnessed the entire conversation. I come from a family where mental health is never discussed, beyond as a topic in casual, surface-level conversations on "fitness and wellness". This made me nervous about telling my family about my mental health issues, so I never chose to. 

When I got home from the dentist, I realised I had to come clean. I opened up to her about the cheek biting, my therapy visits and the compulsive thoughts I always had. I was surprised when she was extremely comforting and did not dismiss it as "just a difficult phase in life".

She even shared stories of mental health issues from my family, and how she took professional help for depression at a point in her life. I regretted not sharing my experiences with her much earlier. 

Mental health issues feel like you are constantly carrying a load that you only wish you can get a break from. My experience tells me it is only going to get lighter as you begin to have open, honest and healthy conversations on mental health issues. 

Be seen and heard, says Krishna*

My journey with mental health started at age of 21 despite the fact that I studied Psychology in college. 

I remember that the only reason why I am alive at this point is that I didn't want the person standing on their balcony on a late Diwali night to witness me. I was just comfortable enough to be judged for it after, not seen or heard, but I thought he could see me, so, I naturally shrunk back into my confines. 

The next day, I sat my parents down and told them I needed help. Who knew, all I wanted was to truly be seen and heard, and how empowering and enriching that really is and that it should start with me. 

I have never been diagnosed, but I know I was depressed. I used to write in the cracks on the walls, how I didn't want to live in the hope that no one else would see it. Since that day, I have sought help multiple times for various issues. The last few times, I did because I felt unsafe in my marriage, only to realise I was being severely emotionally abused.

I developed panic-related and anxiety issues, and some sort of PTSD. Since then, I have since filed for divorce, and have been working with an NGO for counselling services. 

With the help of mentors and counsellors who have helped me recognise the behaviours that trigger me, to the ones that have made me realise that I need to see and hear myself better, I have slowly and surely started to feel a lot more like the part of me that felt vibrant and alive.

Most people lie about sneaking out, or such things — I sometimes lie to parents when I'm out seeking help and therapy to get over my latest challenge when I find I can't breathe right and am triggered with trauma. 

The one thing that keeps me going is the day I held my nephew for the first time some 10 years after my suicide attempt. It’s crazy because the first thought that went through my mind was "If I wasn't here today, I wouldn't have been able to see you. I'm so glad I am!"

And I always remember that moment if the thought should ever vaguely resurface, or I feel hopeless/helpless. That I stood there, am standing here all these years and challenges later.

Two mantras that have helped me get through some wildly difficult times — "It too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it shall pass" and "isn’t it wonderful that some of the best days of our lives haven't happened yet?".

Better with therapy, says Deepika

My relationship with mental health has always been tricky. As a child, I dealt with bullying and the loss of a parent which left me dealing with severe anxiety and depression. I didn't know it then, of course. But I had closed off from the world, become quieter.

I'd bottle things up and all the anger would show up in random outbursts. I also dealt with insomnia for a while. I realised much later that it was a mental health issue. I couldn't really seek help back then because who could convince Indian parents to pay for therapy?

But today, I know better. My most recent experience was psychological stress during the second wave that hit India. I wasn't working properly, my sleep cycle wasn't really a cycle anymore, I was stress-eating, and whatnot.

So, I did what I could to make myself feel better. You see, now I can pay for my own therapy.

Fighting the odds, says Leena*

At the age of 18, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Coming from a small town, people generally don’t talk about it or consult a doctor. I am very grateful to my family for taking the step ahead and taking me to the doctor. This was not easy.

I suffered for almost five years. I was hospitalised for almost two months and given electroconvulsive therapy for some time. During treatment, I was unconscious for some time. I was at a stage where I wouldn’t speak out my own name.

Despite the odds, I decided to do something for myself. In 2011, I moved to Pune all alone without any support. I founded “Women’s Connect”, a campaign for women entrepreneurs, and launched a coffee table book She The Change covering 50 women entrepreneurs. Right now, I can say I am fit and fine.

Grateful every day, says Aliya*

In 2017, I was diagnosed with depression. I think it started around 2015 when I first got into a reputed university outside of my home state. I had never been outside my hometown before. The college environment was different from what I had witnessed back home. It was truly a cultural shock and induced anxiety. I had trouble making friends, I used to dine alone and go out alone for a long time. 

After I got my first job in Bengaluru, this anxiety kept on growing. It was difficult for me to adjust and grow. I was not able to keep up with the competition around me.

On the other hand, I was also struggling with my relationships, especially with a boy, which didn't really pan out the way it should have. It also was a very mentally abusive relationship. The funny thing is, you see all the red flags, your family and friends try to warn you too, but you are just too lost to see any. 

One day, I decided to do the inevitable (attempted suicide). Now, I think of myself as a very stupid person for doing that, but at that time, it felt very hopeless. I got admitted to the hospital, got my parents worried, and everyone else in my life. Was it worth it? Yes and no. 

I got into counselling and therapy while I was at the hospital. After several months of sessions, anti-depressants, more counselling from friends and family, I realised nobody in this world is worth my life. A very simple lesson but I had to learn the hard way. 

Slowly, I started seeing my relationship with my family and friends improve and I also broke away from the toxic relationship. 

It's been five years since that incident. I have had to face some really challenging life situations too. But I never felt desolate like earlier. Now, I am able to handle my issues without inducing anxiety. I discuss my issues with my family and friends now with ease. 

I now practise gratefulness and mindfulness every day. I make a constant effort every single to stay positive and love myself. Some days I fail, someday it's just beautiful. But isn't that what life is all about? A mix of good and bad experiences?

(*These names have been changed on request.)


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Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta