MY GRANDFATHER HAS ALWAYS BEEN...
...my single biggest role model in life. From his life-long dedication to spreading education throughout central Gujarat to his will to give back to the less fortunate, he is the reason I strive to do better in school and volunteer in my community. As the vice chancellor of a university and a renowned speaker, I always thought of him as unstoppable, unbreakable. Within the past year, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, an incurable disorder that ends in permanent blindness. Since his diagnosis, his mental health began to deteriorate. A man who once read a book a day, gave moving speeches, and wrote poetry religiously now sits in his room in fear of the coming years of his life.
Two months ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder, and it has been heartbreaking to see his support system in India crumble. Family members have withdrawn their emotional support due to his diagnosis, and oftentimes he is simply written off as a “crazy old man” by neighbors and old friends. One would think that a culture that emphasizes family and sticking together during troublesome times wouldn’t let this happen right? When it comes to mental illness, this is unfortunately far from the truth.
It’s an age-old narrative to see mental health neglected in India, to see people of all backgrounds labeled as pagal, to see people tell others not to associate themselves with the mentally ill in fear of contracting some illness. Part of it has to do with the lack of awareness and education about mental illnesses-but a more deeply rooted cause of this is the collectivist culture that is so prominent in South Asian societies. One of the serious drawbacks about the culture is that it’s not just about you, and how you’re feeling, but also the impact of your emotions and thinking on your surrounding community- if it’s not in line with what the community wants, then it’s better to suppress it for the sake of everyone else. Once the issue resurfaces, tension arises in the community, and they have the ability to ostracize the outcast. It’s an unfortunate cycle, especially with mental illnesses in the picture: how does one prove that they are indeed suffering? It’s not as easy as physical ailments, where others can see and understand the pain.
It would be nearly impossible to uproot the culture of an entire nation, but one of the first steps anyone can take in understanding mental health in the South Asian lens is to educate themselves. If you are looking to support others, be aware of those in your community that may be suffering from a mental illness. Know their stories, know their backgrounds, and foster an environment where they feel welcome and supported. If you are currently suffering from a mental illness, know that you are not alone, and know that there are resources and support systems to guide you along the way.
Our culture has often been portrayed as colorful and full of life, while deeper issues are glossed over in the interest of preserving an untainted image. Mental health issues are not as easy as black and white, but it’s time we talk about them and bring them to light.