You won’t ever go up to a person with diabetes and tell them, “Hey, you’re missing sweets, well you could go and buy some, just eat some if you want to.” Likewise, you’ll never encounter an individual with coronary heart disease and say, “I know you are missing high cholesterol fat-rich food, so just get some from the market and eat them, easy.” Unless you belong to a particularly weird category of person, neither of these will seem acceptable; for obvious reasons. Which is what continues to frustrate both mental workers and activists, as well as those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from these ailments. Just like how the diabetic cannot eat sweets because his body can’t handle it, just like how the heart patient can’t eat fat-rich food because his heart won’t tolerate it, a person suffering from depression cannot simply be happy and enjoy life, no matter how well they’re doing with respect to academics, career, art, or anything else. They can’t because their bodies, their brains simply do not have the ability to do so anymore.
And that is where most of our efforts toward combating mental illnesses seem to encounter a bottleneck. Despite making massive progress, we as a society still do not entirely accept or aren’t able to properly comprehend mental health issues as pure biological diseases. A lot of the times this ignorance is very inconspicuous, trickling into our thinking without us ever noticing. The best example is the nature of the public reaction that follows almost every high profile suicide. Posts reading, “My inbox is always open”, and “I’d rather listen to your story than attend your funeral”, have almost become clichés of their own. And that perfectly highlights the severity of our problem.
Going back to the previous examples, you wouldn’t ever see a status asking people with heart conditions to reach out if they were suffering. Because they don’t need encouragement and support, and nor will encouragement and support help them. They need proper, professional medical care; something which is pitifully lacking with respect to mental health disorders. The fact that most of our attention when we learn of a tragic suicide seems to be on asking everyone to “be there for each other”, instead of “We need more investment in healthcare infrastructure for the mentally ill” — perfectly underscores the fact that even today, we have not entirely grasped mental health issues as the biological illnesses they are.
The bitter truth is that to this very day, we believe depression, anxiety, BPD, PPD, and other mental illnesses can be treated with care, respect, attention, encouragement, and the like. Most of us, particularly those belonging to younger, more liberal demographics will certainly argue that we are aware of the need for professional help. But the fact that our first response whenever we learn of someone taking their life looks like the above, shows that in our subconscious we don’t yet see these conditions as outright medical diseases.
And ultimately that is where our efforts at improving society’s mental health tend to get bogged down. Our focus lingers too much on what we as individuals can do to help those around us, on what practices the mentally ill can adopt to keep themselves healthy. Whereas in truth, these will only ever amount to tiny steps in a journey where we have to start making strides. Our attention and the bulk of our efforts have to be directed towards pressurising the system to allot enough resources and infrastructure to the treatment and alleviation of mental health disorders. A friend listening to your struggles won’t know exactly what to say or what medications you need to feel better, but a psychiatrist will. A suicide awareness seminar won’t tell you what exactly is wrong with you, but a scientific questionnaire or an MRI scan will.
It is well beyond time we understand this, and to do so, we ourselves have to first accept and understand that these conditions are biological diseases that can only be treated with medical attention.
Whether it’s pop culture, fiction, or politics, writing is Saam’s ultimate passion and reprieve.