Here's how Mumbaikars perceive mental illness

Updated: 29 December, 2018 10:23 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

An American photographer and a city-based mental health activist spent five days traipsing through Mumbai to document how people perceive mental illness

The header of this piece is enough to remind many of Joey Tribbiani (Matt Le Blanc) of the hit TV sitcom Friends, who is famous for asking the question as a pickup line. But when posed with the same question daily, we often struggle to settle on an answer, other than a binary i.e. "good" or "bad". Most of us go for the first one because of the fear of judgment that follows or we'll brand it as a sort of confession session. And we'll confess we say the same thing, when Arushi Sethi asks, "How are you doing today?"

The 24-year-old activist and entrepreneur behind mental health organisation Trijog in Mumbai has been busy asking questions along with 69-year-old American photographer Peter Maeck, whom she met at the World Mental Health Congress in New Delhi last year.

Maeck, who has authored a book Remembrance of Things Present that details his father's journey with Alzheimer's, was interested in collaborating with Sethi's organisation. "He flew down to Mumbai in March this year and then we began brainstorming. He asked me what was the one thing close to my heart. And I said that I wanted to write a book — one that made people feel good," Sethi shares.

And so, the two set out to complete a first draft that they could send to publishers. They ventured on to the streets of Mumbai, covering Dharavi, Bandra, Kala Ghoda and Powai, and asked around 67 people how they felt. And Maeck documented the same with portraits. "We expected resistance since Indians are famously reluctant to discuss mental health, and rarely seek professional treatment for emotional disorders. To our surprise and delight, Mumbaikars spoke freely to us!" he exclaims via a phonecall from Raleigh.

But the experiment with a tiny sample size proved a white-coat syndrome. "People found themselves in a relaxed setting with sympathetic, non-threatening, non-intimidating, non-judging listeners — even if the listeners were strangers. One wasn't even Indian! And another was a mental health professional albeit not in a white coat. And we even said that we were going to publish these interviews in a book!" he shares.

When people opened up to having mental health problems, the duo asked them if they would consider therapy. A young man recalled his child psychologist who helped him deal with his anger issues, while a successful lawyer who confessed to being depressed said, "As Indians, we must solve our own anger. We are a self-sufficient nation... we can talk ourselves out of it, or we can meditate..."

Arushi Sethi interviews a woman for The Mind of Mumbai
Arushi Sethi interviews a woman for The Mind of Mumbai

Sethi and Maeck intend on releasing the book The Mind of Mumbai in the first half of next year, once they find a publisher. The book also features prose and poetry written by them, as well as mental health statistics and inputs from professionals. "The book is divided into nine rasas, each describing a state of mind," says Sethi, adding "we want to go out with a strong message that just because these conditions are invisible, doesn't mean that it is not present."

Peter Maeck
Peter Maeck

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First Published: 28 December, 2018 09:25 IST

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