Around five years ago, a close friend was diagnosed with clinical depression. He was around the same age as the rest of us in our friends circle, and while many among us were married, he wasn’t. His parents, in their wisdom, concluded that his depression was a consequence of his being single, and decided to marry him off. Matrimonial agencies were recruited to find the best match, and sure enough, in a few weeks, a girl was chosen and the wedding date finalised.
Meanwhile, the friend had begun consulting a psychiatrist and was in the early stage of counselling and anti-depressants when the wedding took place. Two days after the wedding and the night before the couple was to leave for their honeymoon, the family sat down for dinner. There was some joking around and notes were still being exchanged on the way the wedding was conducted. The friend was just about getting familiar with his life partner.
In between the easy banter and pulling of legs, my friend excused himself from the dinner table, washed his hands, opened the door and walked out. No one suspected anything as he often took a post-dinner walk. The next thing the family heard was a loud thud, as if something heavy had fallen onto the car park below. The parents went to the balcony out of curiosity. They saw their son’s lifeless body; he had jumped off the roof to his death.
My friend is not an isolated case. Asha Bhosle’s daughter Varsha, too, according to the singer, was depressed — a probable reason for her to take her life on Monday by shooting herself in the head. In the celebrity-tragedy-media-circus that followed, we have lost track of the real reason for the 55-year-old journalist to kill herself — that no matter how much we have advanced as a society, we still haven’t been able to figure that depression, or any other kind of mental illness, can easily be treated by a competent doctor, just as a physical ailment would.
Why do we rush to doctors when we have a mild fever but consider going to a psychiatrist as the end of the world?
According to a statement her mother gave to the police, Varsha was lonely, and it is most likely that her depression was a result of that. Her death, therefore, has put the spotlight back on an affliction that we should have had the courage to deal with much earlier.
In his book Sputnik Sweetheart, the noted Japanese writer Haruki Murakami says, “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
Human loneliness is a fait accompli in Mumbai; millions reside, work and play here, but it is the loneliness that gets to them. The city is brutal that way.
This is why it is more important than ever that mental illness is not ignored by individuals or families. Of all the mental illnesses, depression is possibly the most common and is possibly the least treated because neither individuals nor families are able to take that first step to walk towards a psychiatrist’s office.
It could well be that depression, because it is a form of mental illness, is still equated with “madness”; it is this stigma that needs eradication. It is this dark aspect of our society that needs urgent attention than anything else to do with mental illness.
Teaching children about the fundamentals of mental illness and how to deal with a family member with one could be a start. It is at this stage that both the stigma as well as the trauma associated with such afflictions need to be dealt with. Many corporate executives go into denial about depression, thinking if it becomes known to colleagues, he or she would be targeted. It is a reasonable fear. Companies, too, need to be made aware of the effects of depression on an individual.
The personal and societal cost of depression can be immense. But most important, it kills individuals silently and, as in the case of Varsha Bhosle and my friend, quite brutally. And all the while, we’d be staring at the cruel irony — that depression is quite easily one of the simplest of mental illnesses to diagnose and treat.
Sachin Kalbag is executive editor, MiD DAY