Just like periods, dark skin and a career in the arts, mental health issues are just another one of those subjects that live in a perpetual cloud of stigma within Indian society. According to Art with Impact, at least 60 million Indians struggle daily with mental illness — but only one in 10 receive treatment. A lot of this, unfortunately, stems from mental health issues still being labelled as taboo amongst Indians, and even considered a “Western concept” — something that just happens to white people who “need to take a pill for every little problem they face.”
An important part of resolving social issues or injustices is first cushioning them with the protection of the law. Thankfully, in this case, India has succeeded: the Mental Health Care Bill — which protects the rights of those seeking mental health treatment — was passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Parliament of India) last August. However, we know all too well that most of the time, mere laws are not enough. The crucial task remains of detoxifying a society’s mindset. The truth is India still spends only 0.06% of its health budget on mental health care, while the number of Indians struggling with mental health issues increases every day.
But how can we fix this problem when we refuse to even openly talk about it?
I like to say that one of the most effective social vehicles for anything in India is cinema — or the magical realm of Bollywood. Indians revere Bollywood; they are devoted to it. Some even consult it more than their own friends and family, such is its power. So it makes sense that one could wield it as a formidable tool for sending out an important social message.
Recently, there’s been a growing trend in the discussion of social issues and taboos within Bollywood films as a way of raising awareness and inciting activist efforts. LGBT issues are cropping up in films like Kapoor & Sons, while more and more empowering, female-centric movies like Queen and English Vinglish are being released and received with much praise and popularity.
The coming-of-age drama Dear Zindagi is one such film, that has been recently praised for providing an accurate and yet still uplifting, in that signature song-and-dance Bollywood style, portrayal of seeking therapy and mental health treatment. Both entertainment critics and psychologists, such as Hansika Kapoor in an article for First Post, have applauded its efforts at exposing and tackling an important taboo topic in India right now.
“A mainstream Hindi movie describing the key stages in psychotherapy, in a relatively non-clichéd manner, is novel and necessary in today’s mental health dialogue…Dear Zindagi has helped communicate that the therapist is a catalyst for the client, not an all-knowing solution-finder and-giver. Clients are helped to help themselves,” Kapoor writes. And what this does is give agency to the patient and empower them to overcome both present and future issues, as opposed to being left alone to suffer silently, and then possibly letting the situation deteriorate.
Dear Zindagi also helps to destigmatize the idea of going to see a therapist. Many Indians scoff at the mere concept of therapists and counselling, of what they see as an unnecessary, even bourgeois luxury of paying to sit on someone’s couch just to air out their “millennial angst”. But this film seeks to prove the process as completely normal: “It’s so easy for us to talk about our physical ailments, like oh, I had to go to the hospital because my kidneys failed. But when it comes to mental ailments, we get all hush-hush and quiet and start to whisper. Have we forgotten that the brain is a part of our physical body too? Taking care of the mind is just as important, just as valid.” – this is one of the key statements in the film.
As someone who has sought therapy before for my own mental health issues, it was so refreshing and even relieving to see a person, that too a young Indian woman like me, go through the same experience on-screen and find emotional release, catharsis and eventual joy from the process. In short, it gave me hope. Dear Zindagi, like any effective work of art I believe, despite some borderline maudlin musicality and occasionally syrupy sequences, created between it and its audience the shimmering thread of empathy. I can only hope that a good portion of Indians who see this film realise how important, how fortuitous and how okay it is to be able to go and talk to someone who is qualified to help them emotionally rebuild or declutter and simply, feel good again. Why should we stigmatise such a privilege?