Yesterday a celebrated actor in the Indian Film Industry was found dead in his house. Preliminary reports suggest that he died by suicide.
Ever since then, my social media is full of people with long captions about mental health and how depression is real. Most of these statuses are either copy-pasted from each others’ feed or share suicide prevention helpline numbers from both unverifiable and vague sources alike. The fear of missing out is real. No one wants to let their followers think that they don’t care- after all, cinema is a religion here & I agree sometimes the loss feels personal.
My generation grows up on a healthy diet of Twitter & Instagram, knows how to be political online, knows how to evoke emotions and express their anger on the Internet- but does this online activism ever get translated into real, on-ground actions?
When it comes to mental health in desi societies, the stigma is far too real and suffocating. And it makes sense too; it is preposterous to expect a society to “care” about mental health issues if they don’t understand them in the first place. I agree that the entire concept of mental health issues is complex for an average person to grasp completely, especially to those who grow up oblivious even to its existence. The term ‘mental health’ includes more common temporary and severe moments of anxiety and depression, to acute chronic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. The institutional barriers, systemic stigma, and the lack of a robust social infrastructure do not help either.
In Indian families, mental health issues are often seen as an extension of other ‘real problems’, and thus, all efforts are focused on fixing that instead of taking the person suffering to a professional psychiatrist or a counselor. It’s common for families to start looking for ‘rishtas’ for their kids if they seem a little aloof or withdrawn. For Indians, mental health issues don’t exist, it is just ‘dimag ka veham’ or in other words, a figment of our imagination. India accounts for 37% of the world’s suicides among women and 24% among men. Mental health in our country is a public health crisis and yet has been ignored for decades.
So the question arises- How come a society that completely overlooks and even unflinchingly mocks mental health issues suddenly starts trending hashtags and a barrage of well-meaning but cosmetic tweets on mental health every time someone famous passes?
You see, social media by its very definition and structure is intrinsically performative. It rests the power in the hands of the user to create a desirable image of how they want to be perceived. Everyone on the Internet is, in one way or the other, always performing, pretending to be a better version of themselves.
We made being “woke” cool and hip and, thus, slowly began the acceptance and celebration of merely acting out the notions of activism to gain social capital rather than engaging in real action.
Somewhere down the line, the boundaries of real actions and performances became blurry, and being ‘woke’ became a social capital currency. In such a scenario, it makes sense that we have become more focused on performing activism in order to gain social capital than seeking to change the status quo from within.
Making real-life, tangible changes is challenging, uncomfortable, and hard work. People openly talking about their own mental health issues are still judged and isolated. Consequently, it’s not only convenient but also hugely self-rewarding to jump on the bandwagon of awareness and mental health activism online rather than making real efforts and fight the system from within.
Amongst all those trending hashtags and tweets, you will also come across deeply problematic stances that say things like, “Suicide is selfish” or “How you just need to be positive”. When people speak out of the mere need to feel included for causes that don’t affect them, there is an evident disconnect in what is to be said and done, and how it is to be said and done. This can often be very triggering to the people actually suffering and causes more harm than help.
It’s time we stop patting ourselves on the back for doing the bare minimum and realize that it’s not about us and our online persona. As a society, we all need to be a little more authentic to ourselves. Even though the art of performing on the internet is easy, accessible, and instantly gratifying to our egos, let’s not forget that if our behavior and values are not in alignment with what we are posting it’s useless and sad.
What can you do more:
- Be a good listener
- Actively check on people around you
- Seek help if you are struggling
- Donate to mental health organizations
- Sponsor therapy for someone who cannot afford it
- Move beyond performative activism
- Educate yourself, read about mental health. The Internet is an amazing resource for those who want to learn.
Real activism requires honesty and awareness of what our place is in this long and hard fight against mental health stigma.
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