Mental Health Talks India: Lived Experience, Marginalities, and Social Media

— Ayushi Khemka

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that we all have mental health and as a result, we all can have some or the other issue with mental health at some point in our lives, just like our physical health (though binaries be damned). But is it? Probably not. It is 2021; we are battling a global pandemic, we have accepted (at least many of us) that yes, there is a virus which we cannot see and yet it has the power to ruin our lives, we are working on devising solutions to put an end to this worldwide misery, and all this has happened in last one year or so. Now, I know our pandemic fatigue makes us think that this curse has been inflicting us for years and years now, but honestly it is quite recent. And yet, we have made so much progress and are continuing to do so every minute! Now, think of mental health. For starters, we know it exists and there have been years and years of research on it. There are many kinds of doctors and professionals who can help one take care of their mental health. And yet, there is a huge section of society that believes all of this is hokum.

When I was pursuing my MPhil in Women’s Studies, I too came across many such people around me who did not believe in the very concept of mental health, let alone mental illness. During the course, as I developed depression and anxiety, I tried seeking help and support from my peers and colleagues, only to face immense stigma and ridicule. It did not make sense to me. While some created a space of social boycott, others admittedly were scared of me.

All this while, I kept on mulling over why such a situation arose in an extremely privileged and woke institution that I was a part of, at that point of time. I used to have these conversations with another friend of mine, who was also facing something similar in her life. As 20-somethings young feminist women, we were angry at the world simply not getting the fact that we were not feeling okay, and we wished to create a space wherein we could talk about all this and more. It was not until an incident of mental harassment on April 11, 2018, that I got all worked up (like many of us do) and simply created an Instagram profile and named it Mental Health Talks India.

It was only a matter of a month’s time and my friend Adishi Gupta came along and we both carried on to create a space where we could initiate talks around mental health in India from the lens of lived experience of depression and anxiety. As young feminists with our educational training in English, and Women’s and Gender Studies, we knew that we could not talk about mental health without talking about the social systems and structures that govern our society. We spoke from our lived experiences, but we wove those experiences in the material reality of our socio-cultural surroundings. On Mental Health Talks India, we create content on mental health that not only speaks about the everyday struggles and pains of a person living with mental health issues, but also about how the systemic injustices and violence affect or lead to those issues in the first place. At Mental Health Talks India, we try our best to not only end the stigma around mental health but to also widen our very understanding of what mental health and a lack of it, looks like.

Given that our primary platform is social media, specifically Instagram, we have consistently been manoeuvring through the myriad facets of social media and its frequently tumultuous relationship with mental health. While creating content on social media, we definitely keep in mind that social media creates an atmosphere of comparing two lifestyles with little or no context, and can be a cauldron of online abuse ever so often. With the immense digitisation of our lives, it almost seems as if we are living on social media on an everyday basis and it is no longer an add-on. Through our endeavour, we aim to pierce through the hostility of social media and carve out a space which nurtures conversations on something that affects each and every individual on an everyday basis. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that creating such a space comes with its own set of problems, given the limited tools that one has when establishing a niche as sensitive as mental health on social media. Through our content, we ensure to remind our readers that the content on social media is not a replacement for therapy and as much as we would want, it is quite impossible to attain the level of nuance that many of the subjects deserve. The aesthetics of social media tend to overshadow the politics that we need on social media, something that we time and again bring to the forefront through our content, both on Instagram as well as on our blog. Yet, the dialectics between social media and mental health demand a much nuanced and larger conversation, which is beyond the scope of this article.

Time and again, we have moved beyond the biomedical approach to mental health and rooted our conversations in the social categories of gender, sexuality, religion, caste, class and more. It is imperative that we as a society understand that mental health is political. Mental health does not exist in a social vacuum. The way we live, the rights we have, the kind of society we are in, all affect our mental health, and not just our biological makeup. Noted psychiatrist and global mental health professor Vikram Patel has poignantly argued in one of his interviews that the labelling of certain mental illnesses such as depression often does not work as well across cultures. He suggests that such a medicalisation of a social condition demands a solution in the social or political sphere, rather than a medical approach. (Patel 2)

We cannot afford to talk about mental health in isolation from the national politics, gender injustice, and the prevalent casteism and Islamophobia in the country. While it is true that self-care helps one in their journey of mental health, it cannot do much without community care. And community care cannot function well if we keep ostracising communities and taking away their rights! For instance, if we talk about suicide prevention, we cannot forget to acknowledge that for some groups of people, just the mere act of survival becomes difficult because of the doscrmination and marginalisation they face on the basis of their identity. We cannot talk about suicide prevention without talking about livelihood, education and healthcare.

Through our jargon-free and easy to understand content written in a way that it speaks to the millennials and hopefully, also gen Z, we attempt to bring the attention back to the material reality of how mental healthcare can also appear in the form of access to education, inclusive workspaces, access to healthcare, equal opportunities, clean environment and non-discriminatory laws. The initiative specifically focuses on the lived experiences of persons battling mental health issues. Being persons with lived experience of mental health conditions ourselves, we create content from the lens of the everyday realities of the affected ones. Being mindful of how our reality could be very different from that of others, on the basis of difference in privilege and social standing, we also invite people across the sections of society to talk about the issues affecting them and their mental health. Through a dedicated space of “Personal Stories” on our blog, we have carved a space where every experience of mental illness or mental health condition gets acknowledged. We are aware that the mental health spaces have an existing power imbalance of where the word of the psychiatrist or the psychotherapist is considered as the gospel truth, in the midst of which, people like us, whose lives are actually being talked about and dissected and affected, get pushed to the margins. Our attempt is to make the adage of ‘nothing about us, without us’ go redundant by creating a space where persons with mental health issues are included in each and every conversation on mental health, be it on the cozy realms of mood lighting and social media or a teak furniture-d formal policy making chamber.

We merge our goals of ensuring that the voices of persons with lived experience of mental health issues are heard and that mental health is seen as a political category through our content, where we invite people from the margins of the society to put their thoughts and concerns out for the world to reflect upon. Be it a conversation on stopping the Trans Bill of 2019 or the resistance of Kashmiris fighting for their rights, we have created a space where we can talk about how the state also affects our mental health. In the coming years, one hopes that the space would get strengthened and an understanding of mental health as a political category would not be seen as an aberration, but a norm.

Works Cited

  1. Patel, Vikram. “Global mental health: an interview with Vikram Patel.” BMC medicine, vol. 12, no. 44, 2014, pp. 1–4. NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3975269/. Accessed 10 August 2021.

This blog was commissioned by Subhanjali Saraswati.

About the author: Ayushi Khemka

A 27 year old Indian mental health advocate and activist, Ayushi Khemka created Mental Health Talks India, a mental health advocacy and awareness platform in 2018. Living with depression and anxiety herself, she wishes to end the stigma around mental health in India. She is also a researcher working on the intersections of gendered violence and social media. She believes in channelising one’s vulnerabilities into an honest conversation that can potentially bring about a change in how we live and exist in the world.

Blog of Digital Humanities Alliance for Research and Teaching Innovations(DHARTI), an initiative towards organising and facilitating digital practices in India