Depression comes unannounced. That’s what they all tell you anyway. That one day you would be living your life, and then suddenly, over the next few weeks, begin sinking into a void bit by bit without realizing you’re so deep that the way out seems impossible.
My name is Gurmehar Kaur; you may remember me from a 2017 video in which I told you that I am from Jalandhar, my father Captain Mandeep Singh was killed in the 1999 Kargil War, when I was two years old, and that my mother made me understand that Pakistan did not kill my father, the war did. I told you that it took me a long time to let go of my hate, but I eventually did. I have since then written two books and I’m pursuing my higher studies in the United Kingdom.
Before I tell you about how the online trolling and abuse that followed my video manifested itself as depression three years later, let me explain why I’m revisiting this in my own head — the recent irresponsible remarks made by Karnataka Health Minister K Sudhakar on women and mental health. Of all the messages or even information that the minister could have given young people struggling with mental health issues, his was regressive, illogical, sexist, and unhelpful.
It was exactly one year before the minister’s remarks that I started therapy in the UK after the advice and encouragement of a professor. I remember it so clearly because it was World Mental Health Day 2020. For months before that, there had been persistent tiredness that never left.
The UK, known for its lack of sunshine and painfully dark winters, tends to suck the soul out of the best of us. Maybe it was the cold, I told myself and ran to the nearest Boots pharmacy to get Vitamin D tablets. The blog that turned up as the first entry when you googled “tired in the UK winter what cause” suggested two Vitamin D tablets a day over the next month and the unexplained fatigue that had claimed my body would begin disappearing.
The heaviness over the course of the Vitamin D cycle made itself comfortable in my body. The excitement with which I entered my morning classes — often annoying my classmates — began fading, replaced by a never-ending complaint of “God, I’m exhausted.” My lack of will to get out of bed was compensated by mugs of tea, cups of coffee, and cans of Red Bull littered across the desk and floor of my student housing. With just enough caffeine in the system, I’ll beat this dreadful feeling, I thought. But it wasn’t caffeine that I needed; it was awareness of what was happening to me. That this was depression.
It wasn’t until seven months after first experiencing the debilitating tiredness that my therapist diagnosed me with depression. People assume that if you start therapy, it doesn’t take long for one to get clarity on your situation. But that clarity comes from honesty with yourself. In the initial therapy sessions, I made excuses — “I’m a happy girl.”
That is what people had told me — I had a great education, I was an author, and people had expressed love and appreciation for my beliefs.
“How could I be this sad despite everything going for me?” I asked myself. “Toughen up, it is just exam stress. It is thesis stress. It is homesickness.”
“Ungrateful,” I told myself, looking at the mirror after spells of crying on the bathroom floor.
There was every excuse but the admission that there was something fundamentally awry in the chemicals in my brain.
A year after my first therapy session in university in the UK, when I read about what the Karnataka Minister had said in an address at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Science, I was, well, aghast. It wasn’t just his remarks, but also that he had made them to young Indians training to take on the country’s mental health crisis.
Sudhakar began with an apology: “I’m sorry to say” — and ideally he should have stopped exactly there — but instead he went on to add—“but a lot of modern women in India want to stay single. Even if they get married, they don’t want to give birth. They want surrogacy. So there is a paradigm shift in our thinking – which is not good.”
The women in this country were quick to take to Twitter to point out the only thing ‘not good’ was his terribly ill-informed speech and not the paradigm shift where young women are exercising their agency and making choices that suit them and their bodies.
As a young woman, I take offense to the sexist remarks, and as a young Indian, who suffered from depression for months completely unaware of its existence until a foreign university professor flagged it for me, I feel offended at the cruel reminder that little is being done by our leaders to raise mental health awareness. Instead, they blame me, my freedom, and my choices.
Post the Twitter uproar, the minister said that his comments need to be understood within the context: “The only point I was trying to convey was that our youth can find solution and solace to mental health issues in our traditional family and its value system which offers a wonderful support system.”
While there is legitimacy in saying that familial support aids mental health recovery, but for me, that doesn’t translate into hinging my mental health on a future husband or child that may or may not happen.
At 24, my familial support exists beyond the bounds of patriarchy, with my mother and sister being the most important people providing me with support.
In a patriarchal society like ours, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that the oppressive structure contributes to the depression among Indian women. Data show housewives accounted for the second-highest percentage of all suicide victims in India in 2018, after daily-wage labourers.
Blaming the “modern Indian woman” is not helpful either. Would it not have made more sense for the minister to speak about reducing the stigma for those women who choose to live their lives outside the confines of so-called tradition. In the context of their mental health, what effect would the minister’s message have on women who are waging battles to not marry, or end bad marriages, or fending off the pressure to have children?
As someone who recently recovered from depression and continues to learn how to manage the symptoms, I wish our leaders were more committed to providing mental health support and erasing stigma. With the second-highest suicide mortality rates in the world, God knows that this country needs it.
Over the course of the year, I worked on figuring out the reason for my depression, and unsurprisingly it was not because I chose to remain single and not have kids. It was because, at 19, I was mercilessly abused online for my political views. My depression was born out of a delayed response to trauma. While I was in India, the constant barrage of abuse, often sexual in nature, forced me to be on the edge — hyper-aware of my bodily safety. It was only with the passage of time and physical distance, did I begin to feel the trauma.
And yet, despite being someone with access to all the literature around mental health, a healthy support system, friends, and family who care for me, it still took me a long time to understand my state of mind.
If the minister is really concerned about mental health, and if he does get invited to speak again, he should devote 19 minutes to women’s safety — online and off. I’m a modern Indian woman and I say that it is vital for my mental health.
Gurmehar Kaur is the author of Small Acts of Freedom and The Young and the Restless: Youth and Politics in India. She graduated from Lady Shri Ram College and holds a Master’s from the University of Oxford. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1800-599-0019, India’s 24/7 toll-free national mental health helpline.