Paromita Vohra: The mind's lonely heart

Oct 08, 2017, 06:51 IST | Paromita Vohra

In all my growing up years, the only word I ever heard, in relation to mental health, was the pejorative 'pagalakhana'

Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

In all my growing up years, the only word I ever heard, in relation to mental health, was the pejorative 'pagalakhana'. The first time I heard of someone going to a therapist — someone I knew, not someone in a Woody Allen film — was in the late 1990s. It was almost exotic. But it was an incredibly appealing thought, that one could actually try to heal one's emotional or hurting self. When I suggested it to a friend going through a hard time, she stopped talking to me. She thought I was unsympathetic and implying she was 'mad.'

We have travelled a distance since mental illness was treated with exorcism or that fix-all solution, marriage. As International Mental Health Day approaches on October 10, you see some discussion about mental health issues in the media now.

The World Health Organization puts the number of Indians suffering from major or minor ailments — depression, anxiety, phobias, disorders, all of which need expert intervention — at 7.5%. Of these, 4.5% - or 56 million people — suffer from depression. Yet, there are barely 4,000 mental health care practitioners in India, which reveals how invisible and neglected mental health is.

A lot has to do with a deep-rooted prejudice and stigma in relationship to mental health. Most people are ashamed to admit to debilitating unhappiness, anxiety and low self-esteem because these are seen as weaknesses or a self-indulgence that can be fixed if you man up a bit. As importantly, we often ignore how mental health is also determined by social structures like poverty, gender, caste attitudes, or normative sexuality. This creates a strange separation and hierarchy of the structural and the emotional, which is not true to life. This often leaves us tackling these feelings alone and doesn't always result in the best treatment either.

It was easier for me to talk about menstruation or sex openly than it was to say that I, too, had been for therapy in my hardest years as a young person trying to live a not-so-typical life, doing not-so-typical work, on my own. Friends felt embarrassed and changed the topic. Family members felt accused. Silences became awkward before being filled with words either too breezy or laden with deathly grimness.

But, really, all I had said was that when I had not always been able to make sense of the world on my own I had chosen to feel better and happier by seeking some help. And that it had equipped me with stronger emotional muscles to traverse life, take responsibility for my mistakes, accept my limitations, celebrate my strengths, acknowledge my desires, and recover faster from setbacks. Not only had it made me kinder towards myself, but it had made me more patient and understanding of friends and colleagues. Most of all, I understood that mental health is a life-long process, the same as physical health. But just raising the topic caused discomfort and squirming.

It is important when someone like Deepika Padukone speaks about depression and counselling. It would be very powerful if male role models did this, for notions of masculinity mean men feel a double shame about their mental health. Even as the world becomes more connected and networked, people also find themselves isolated, lonely and fragile. No messages are too many or too soon for the mind's lonely heart.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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