Ever felt like you are standing still, alone, in the middle of nowhere and the world around you is zooming in and out—you try hard to hold onto broken pieces of yourself —but the feeling of sadness keeps hovering over you; like you just can’t breathe and you are drowning deep?
Well, you are not alone. As per the World Health Organization’s (WHO) study in 2018, mental health is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, with about 300 million people suffering from depression alone.
Depression is one of the most common yet under-emphasized global health issues in the world today. In the case of Kashmir, the ongoing decades-old conflict has further impacted the mental health severely. According to a recent report by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) on mental health, 45 percent of Valley’s adult population suffers from some form of mental distress and 93 percent has experienced conflict-related trauma; 50 percent of women and 37 percent of men are likely to suffer from depression; 36 percent of women and 21 percent of men have a probable anxiety disorder, while 22 percent of women and 18 percent of men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Being often sidelined, mental health is as crucial as other aspects of well-being including physical, intellectual, social, workplace and spiritual dimensions. In Kashmir, it only becomes even more important to focus on mental health due to complex political, cultural and social dynamics of the Valley.
Despite their utmost gravity, what keeps us from accepting and engaging with mental health issues sincerely?
Based on my peace-psychology work (focused on self-transformation) in Kashmir (and outside) with students, teachers, half-widows, orphans, women entrepreneurs, young leaders, and various other professionals; here are a few things that I have observed and understood in this context:
Emotions: Emotions are important. Period. We are the first feeling beings and then thinking beings. Unfortunately, we still haven’t developed an effective vocabulary for emotions. Many people can only list sadness, happiness, anger, and joy as main emotions while being unaware of a wide range of emotions that we simply don’t know even exist (Google ‘emotions chart’). We still equate being ‘emotional’ to being weak or unintelligent, when the fact is that being emotional is important for survival because emotions help us understand our needs.
For better mental health, it’s crucial to understand emotions, and simultaneously, learn to express and manage them in healthier and constructive ways. Expressing sadness, feeling low or even going through situational depression at times; due to a major life-changing event like a death in a family, is normal and totally human.
But, when sadness or feeling low affect our regular functionality over a longer-than-normal period of time, we must seek professional help, as it could be clinical depression; while keeping in mind that not every mental health issue is depression. There are different kinds of mental health issues that demand psychological or psychiatric support accordingly. But yes, healing involves pain as it uncovers many wounds, even from the past. Be vulnerable and open to that process if you really want to get better.
Stigma: Despite a mental health crisis around us, mostly due to the stigma and taboo attached to it, we still think of mental health issues and illnesses as something ‘abnormal’. For instance, we empathize with people suffering from cancer. While identifying cancer as a disease and blaming it for the individual’s pain, we believe that once the cancer is cured, they will be fine again.
However, when it comes to mental health, we don’t use the same language. We believe that they have ‘gone crazy’, or often emphasize that ‘they should be able to deal with it on their own. It is just stress. It is just in their head — no need to see a professional for it’. These issues aren’t ‘just in our heads’; they affect us physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and economically. We encourage people to see a doctor when they have a disease or symptom that is visible (for instance, running nose or a broken bone).
However, with mental health, since we can’t always see the symptoms with our naked eyes, we don’t encourage people to seek professional help.
In order to resolve an issue, firstly, we need to accept that there is a problem then only we can engage with it constructively — there are people who are suffering silently under our noses, without letting us know. Then, there are people who are going through various mental health issues but don’t even know. Talking and sharing are simple but important steps towards eradicating the stigmas and taboos associated with mental health.
We need to change our vocabulary when we talk about mental health issues. Don’t ask people, “What is wrong with you?” Rather, pay attention, listen actively and ask better questions to understand: “What’s happening to you? What are you going through?” Additionally, we need to stop telling our children ‘not to cry’, especially to boys who are often ridiculed for being girly or weak if they express emotions. We are sending out wrong messages to them from young ages and then wonder what is becoming of them as they grow up!
Abnormal Becomes Normal: The often subtle but brutal conflict in Kashmir forces us to keep trying to adapt to the changing scenario; having us shuttle between wedding ceremonies and graveyards — making the abnormal a part of our daily normal. Though our resilience is commendable, it makes one wonder about how the situation here is shaping our psyche as a society.
It’s normal to feel helpless and hopeless in this kind of scenario. However, the reality is that the chaos might change its form but it could always be around us because it’s a part of our existence. Hence, it’s important for us to find our own inner pillars of strength—creating our moments of equanimity whenever we can; being aware of what is happening to us so that we have some way of making a conscious sense and expression of our own narratives. And it all starts with the acceptance of what we are feeling and thinking.
Every time, something abnormal seems to be becoming normal, try to be mindful—pause and ask yourself—“Is this really normal?”
Social Media and Safe Spaces: Social media has become a huge part of our lives, and it’s important to be aware of how we are using it, understanding its impact on mental health. We need to stop portraying on social media that we are having a grand time—all the time because the truth is, we are not; not all the time. For people who are suffering or are in pain, seeing that everybody out there is always ‘happy’, can have a negative impact on their mental health.
Every day can’t be rainbows & butterflies; we have to get drenched in rain too. An increasing number of suicides, globally, portrays a harsh and ugly reality of our times. We, as a society, haven’t been able to create safe spaces for people, to share what they are going through. Pain & sadness are a part of our normal human experience, and we need to use the online space constructively to create awareness and support for these issues.
However, at the same time, being proactive about mental health issues on social media is hypocritical if we run away from our own people or ourselves when they/we are in pain in real life. Facing our own & others’ pain, and being empathetic involves vulnerability which can be scary, but it’s essential for being human. We need to learn to deal with pain kindly. The more we try to hide it or escape from it, the more it can overpower us.
Hiding away from pain doesn’t make us strong; being comfortable with it, having the courage to express it constructively, and accepting being broken only to build ourselves again makes us strong—makes us alive.
Self-empathy: In a society like ours, the concept of self-care and self-empathy sounds selfish to most people, especially women, who are very giving by nature and because of various cultural norms, mostly know how to take care of others. Though, in order to empathize with others, we need to empathize with ourselves first—knowing when to empty and fill our own internal jugs.
It might sound harsh, but we need to learn how to say no at times to do justice to ourselves and to others as well, who might seek our help and support when we are not in a position to offer that. Before we genuinely try to be there for others, we first need to be there for ourselves—always. Making physical exercise a part of our daily routine (for instance, something as simple as brisk walking while talking with people on the phone) can be a simple, good start.
Mental health is certainly something we must be proactive about. We can’t afford to just talk about it anymore—it needs well-thought-out immediate action—today and now.
We need to start from the places and people that make us most vulnerable, that make us who we are and who we can possibly become – our minds, our homes, friend circles, educational institutions, workplaces. Be aware of what’s happening to you and around you. Be mindful of your and others’ pain. Be kind towards your own self. Learn to express in healthy ways. Talk and seek help. There’s no shame in seeking help. You will be surprised to see how even a good conversation can be helpful. You never know how you could be silently inspiring others—merely by being a powerful catalyst in their journeys.
Question, if I may: How are you creating safe spaces in your and others’ lives, to constructively engage, express and act upon mental health issues?