Living With Mental Illness In India
Updated: Jan 1
Mental illness is still highly stigmatised in many societies, and in India it isn't even considered an illness given that many just don't know any better. There is little to no knowledge about mental illness in the Indian society, particularly in Punjab where the culture is still very traditional. Many people believe that those who are suffering from a condition are either just simply crazy or have been blessed/cursed by god. So how can you help educate those around you when they don't even recognise mental or emotional disorders as an illness?
As many of you would know if you follow my blog, I manage Bipolar Disorder with a tendency towards depression. I also suffer from anxiety and previously panic attacks when I was at my worst. Should you not manage your health well enough then it is very easy to slip into either a manic or depressive episode. If you let either of these get out of control then you can easily suffer from a psychotic episode and be hospitalised. Which I have been unfortunate enough to experience once in my lifetime.
Having the discussion with my husband about my health was easy enough, albeit having a discussion and experiencing it firsthand are two different circumstances. Although I had educated my husband on what conditions I suffered and what to do when I am suffering from a depressive episode, when he first experienced me in tears for no reason his reaction was to tell me not to cry.
Anyone with mental illness would know that someone telling you to snap out of it is the last thing you want to hear. He soon realised he had reacted badly and came to console me. The reality is it is also difficult for the other person to witness you suffering from a condition they can do nothing about. Albeit I had educated him and told him how to react, it was tough for him to see me crying.
Though you need to remember no matter how difficult it is for loved ones to witness you suffering, it is much more distressing for you. You should never feel ashamed or apologise to others. Therefore it is crucial you educate them on how their behaviour impacts your health and what you are able to tolerate. Make sure they are aware that your suffering is not their fault.
I now let my husband know when I am not feeling myself and if I am not able to handle certain situations. This way he just gives me privacy and leaves me to myself so as not to provoke the situation. However making your friends and family understand is much more challenging. Especially in India when most don't acknowledge or realise that mental illness is a real health condition.
When I first arrived in India I had such a long exhausting journey; flying for 24 hours with a 12 hour stop off followed by a 10 hour drive from the airport. I was emotionally drained by the time I arrived to meet the in laws. All the relatives were there ready to welcome me to the family, however I was so exhausted I couldn't put on a happy face. My husband was so anxious about me making a good impression he was pressuring me to make the effort to meet everyone, yet he couldn't understand how difficult that was. Especially since we arrived home at 10pm after such a long journey I was already teary. Having someone telling you not to get emotional, only exacerbates your condition and of course I arrived all teary eyed. Everyone was confused as to what had happened. Did I not want to be here?
The following morning I woke up with this shroud of fog over my shoulders. Tears were flooding down my face and I couldn't control them no matter how much I tried. Family were waiting for me in the living room and I had to make an appearance. His mother and female relatives came to see what was wrong with me in our bedroom. They gave me hugs and told me not to be sad. They all assumed I was missing home and were trying their best to fix the situation. However that was far from it.
My husband tried to explain to them that I was depressed as I overexerted myself these past few days. Not to mention that when you go through more than one major life change at a time, it is overwhelming. They just looked even more perplexed. They couldn't understand why I was sad, and it must be because I did not feel at home with them. Luckily for me this only lasted a couple of days and everyone soon forgot about it.
Although that wouldn't last long as living in India had so many ups and downs and to manage Bipolar you need stability. This means not making several major life changes at once given it is more difficult to adapt. So it was only given that after packing up house in Australia to move to India to marry my Indian partner, there would be some more awkward situations to come.
My father in law was driving us home from the markets one day, when he told me we had to make a quick stop. Little did I realise we were stopping to pick up some of our relatives who were coming to pay me a visit. There were already four of us seated in this compact car with only one seat available. I wondered where they were planning to sit. Before I knew it my relatives were cramming into the car, sitting on each other's laps and pushing me up against the window. I didn't have a chance to protest, and not being able to move made me claustrophobic; I started to get panicky.
Before long I was in tears hyperventilating; I was having an anxiety attack. Everyone in the car were in shock and had no idea what was going on. I tried to explain I feared being in a position that could potentially be dangerous and where I felt like I couldn't escape. Which is what being crammed into a compact car while driving in India feels like. They kept questioning me as to what was wrong as they just couldn't comprehend what I was explaining.
Even after these situations my in laws still couldn't fully understand and no matter how much I told them it wasn't because of them, I could tell they still felt like it was their doing. Instead I focused on what they can do when I am suffering from depression or an anxiety attack. I also explained what triggers made me anxious so that we could avoid any more awkward situations.
They were very supportive with this and going forward we never crammed more than four people into a car, or if we had to I was allowed the front seat. At times this made my husband frustrated given that when I am healthy you are none the wiser. So it can be easy to forget that there is a valid reason although I may seem okay at the time. This is another reason why it can be challenging for others to understand, given there are no physical ailments to suggest you are not well.
However I still suffered from depression occasionally, particularly when I was sick with food poisoning given that I would throw up my daily medication. My family eventually became accustomed to leaving me to myself to recover. Rather than constantly questioning me if I am okay. All I needed was the occasional hug and just knowing that they were there if I needed them.
If it is challenging to make friends and family understand, then you can imagine the reactions of the public. Unfortunately I also suffered a panic attack when we were at the hospital one afternoon for a check up. The medication they gave me in conjunction with drinking litres of water for my examination, didn't react well with me. I suddenly felt faint, teary and tight chested, then eventually began hyperventilating. Most people were already staring at me and almost every person in the waiting room had their eyes glued to me once I started having an attack.
The doctor I was seeing at the hospital didn't even have any knowledge regarding mental health conditions and told me it was all in my head. Which to some extent it is to do with your cognitive function but it can also be physiological. Essentially it's not as simple as telling a patient its all in their head. She checked my blood pressure and as expected it was excessively high, and she didn't even correlate my high blood pressure with just having an attack. She assumed I missed my daily medication given I also suffer hypertension. I am at a stage where I can read my body and more often than not, know what triggers an attack. It isn't always mentally or emotionally triggered, it can at times be a physical underlying cause. Such as a poor diet or other medication/drugs that interact badly with medication you are taking.
I could imagine just how difficult it would be if you were to live in India and needed professional help. Given that there seems to be so little knowledge held by the public and medical professionals alike. This could also present some issues with obtaining the appropriate medication that's best for you, or even receiving the appropriate care.
It is such a shame that mental illness is still highly stigmatised in today's society and even more disheartening that it isn't even recognised to be an illness in some parts of India. However I couldn't comment on what it is like in urban areas of India that are more westernised.
Have you been stigmatised for suffering from a mental illness when in India? What were your experiences like and how did you educate others? Or perhaps do you know someone who has been in a similar position?
I'd love to hear your experience so be sure to leave your comments below.