Grow Up, Or Don’t

When I was a kid, there were;

Purple skies and pink rivers,

Paper cranes and wooden toys.

The world was only as big as,

The candy shop around the corner.

The big blue ocean,

Fit itself into the sound of a seashell, 

And hide and seek was only a game. 

But today, I hide behind the solace of my words,

As the same big blue ocean threatens to sink me.

My skies and rivers are both blue, too. 

There are no cranes or toys. 

And my world hasn’t grown any bigger. 

It all fits into a tiny smartphone. 

I realise it’s all a hoax;

To grow up.

So today, maybe;

I didn’t walk around the puddle, 

I remembered to colour outside the lines, 

And all my little paper boats,

Slowly sailed back to me.

LonePack Conversations- Mindfulness and honing one’s craft ft. Krishna Trilok

While the word categorizes writers as people who seek loneliness and silence, it fails to see them as they truly are- a diverse group of individuals, who have mastery over the most powerful human sense, imagination.

 


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Pooja- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Pooja, your host. Today we have with us Krishna Trilok, master storyteller and best-selling author of the biography of our beloved composer, Mr. A.R. Rahman.  

Welcome to LonePack Conversations, Krishna. Having you here with us is an absolute pleasure. 

Krishna- Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here. Hello, everyone.

Pooja- Hi, so how’s it going during the quarantine?

Krishna- It’s going great. I mean, we need to be positive so I’m going to say that it’s going great. Yes, could things be better? Do I miss going out, seeing people doing all the things we took for granted? Yes, but I think this is a fantastic time to introspect and to value and appreciate what we have and look forward to when things go back and be very grateful when they do.

 

Pooja- That’s so nice. I wish I was as positive as you. So, let’s start off with a little perspective. What prompted you to write ‘Sharikrida’, your first book? I mean, how did a student of commerce become so interested in mythology?

 

Krishna- So, I actually grew up in a household of storytellers. I don’t mean that in the sense that coming from a family of storytellers, generally, but even the people who worked in the house, so on and so forth, they were great storytellers. My grandmother was a big influence, she used to tell me stories when I was a child. You know, stories from Indian mythology and Indian folk plays and I loved those. She used to go to the theatres and watch movies and I was too young to go and she would come back and tell me the stories. So, a lot of classic movies, actually, much before I actually saw them, I heard them as stories, so that was an informative experience. Then I actually had a cook in the house. She used to come and cook for us and she was a fantastic storyteller, in the sense that she would actually make it a series. She would tell a little bit of the story every day, so I guess she would prepare and then come and tell everyday. You would be waiting to hear what happened next. So, she would tell me a little bit of the story for fifteen minutes everyday and I would be waiting to hear what happened next. 

 

So, all of that, I think really got me into storytelling and Indian mythology in general and I was also a big fan of all your ‘Amarchitrakatha’ and the books on Greek mythology and so on and so forth. So, I always knew, I think when I was around thirteen, I decided that I wanted to tell stories. That’s what I wanted to do with my life and at that age, the only avenue available to explore this interest was pen and paper. We did not really have the camera technology and all of that, as it is available today. So, I just decided that I would go and start writing. I got a notebook from a nearby store and I started writing and that’s how it happened. I studied business on the side and all of that but I was always writing whenever I got the time and thankfully by the time I finished college, my undergrad, I managed to find an agent and then a publisher who would be interested in putting out my work. 

 

It was a long process, it did take time, it did not happen the way I thought it would happen. Like when you’re thirteen, you start writing, you think everything is going to go your way and everything is going to be perfect but it doesn’t happen and part of life is figuring out how to deal with things not going your way. When something doesn’t go your way, you learn to say “Okay now, this hasn’t happened, what do I do with the situation?” and it was a great learning experience as well. That’s how it started and I’m still on the journey, and it’s been fantastic. Everyday has been fantastic and I’m grateful for it.

 

Pooja- Okay, so can you share with us one of your mythological stories that had you so interested? A small type of story, maybe?  

 

Krishna- I think one of my favorite stories that I used to hear when I was a kid was not actually a mythological story but it was those folk tale stories, you know, of the crow and the snake and the old lady and the crow and then the fox. I think the one that I’m most fond of is the one where there’s a hungry fox and it sees the grapes and it tries to get them but then they’re too high up and then finally the fox just says “You know what? Those grapes are probably sour” and goes away. I mean, contrast that against the story of the crow, that is very thirsty and finds a jar of water but the water is too low and it goes on putting stones until the water level is higher and it can finally drink it. I think those two stories just taught me more about life than anything ever since. You can either say that a situation is not working out for you, blame the situation and walk away, or you can see the situation and see what you can do to make it better and make it work for you. So, those were two stories that really really shaped my looking at the World. 

Of course, I didn’t learn the lessons until I was much older but now I try to work and apply it in life in every way because I think you have to make mistakes. Unless you make mistakes, you don’t learn. So, definitely, I have walked away from a lot of situations which I could’ve handled differently and changed and so on and so forth but I’ve learnt over time. Including things like this quarantine, you know? I mean, we can either say that this is the worst time in our lives and we can’t wait for things to get better and we’re going to sit and crib about what governments are doing, what everybody is doing and how awful everything is or we can choose to take it as a gift and say that this is time that we have been given. 

Literally, we have been given time to not do anything and just enjoy ourselves, watch movies and all of that, if you have that privilege, which I do. I’m not going to lie about that. I know there are a lot of people who are struggling right now. They are struggling with lack of employment, they are struggling with uncertainty, they are struggling with a lot of issues but I think if you are a person who doesn’t need to worry about where your first meal is going to come from, you should count yourself as fortunate and use the time to be grateful and enjoy yourself rather than think about everything that’s not working out because trust me, there’s someone out there who is suffering way more than you are so it’s good to remember that.

 

Pooja- Very true, very true. It’s always about perspective? You look at yourself and you think you’re the worst person. Yeah. So, from what you’ve said so far, I take you to be kind of like a very inspiring person. May I say that? So, do you have any lessons from your life?

 

Krishna- I wouldn’t be as presumptuous or I wouldn’t use that. I think I make as many mistakes as anybody else and I don’t mean to be an inspiration to anybody or anything like that but I believe in one line which is, if you are going to spend time talking to me, if somebody is going to be with me, at the end of that experience, they need to walk away saying “Okay, I’m glad I did that. I feel better having talked to him and spent time with him”. If they’re going to walk away saying “Oh my God, now I feel even worse and I feel like now I am thinking about things and worrying about things which I wasn’t worrying about earlier”, then I’ve failed because you’re spending your time with me. You’re giving me your attention, your time. You’re investing in me so if that investment isn’t going to pay off for you, or if I’m not going to try and make that investment pay off for you then it’s a problem, the way I see it. So, I just try and make sure that anybody I’m with just has a good time there. If they can walk away feeling better about themselves or a situation, then I’m very happy about it.

 

Pooja- But a lot of people don’t admit that they make mistakes, right? Yeah, I understand it’s a learning curve but it takes a lot to own upto your mistakes and I can see that you’re doing that, so I’m very proud of you for that.

Krishna- It’s something that I think just frees you. Once you realise that you’ve made a mistake and admit to that and say sorry, say sorry to whoever that mistake has affected, including yourself, I think it frees you to see how you can move forward and make things better rather than try to cover it up or lie or hide or blame others. It just creates more problems. The laziest way to deal with something you’ve done wrong is to admit it, say sorry and move on and I’m a very lazy person so I just do that.

 

Pooja- Okay, that’s nice. As with any art form, writing is a way of expressing your feelings, right? And expressing your feelings is a very hard thing. How do you know that they are reciprocated?

 

Krishna- Exactly. I think even in a friendship or in a relationship or with your family, when something is not okay, the most difficult thing to do is sit down and tell the other person what you’re feeling. You know while you’re doing that, that the other person may have a completely different point of view or that they may have a different take on what you’re saying or you could be misunderstood. A hundred things could happen. I think creating a piece of art is doing that every single day, every single minute. You are trying to express yourself, which is a very very difficult thing to do. It’s because you need to understand things about yourself that you may not want to face, you have to sometimes say things that you’re embarrassed to say. You say those things and there’s no guarantee that those things are going to make the impact that you want. It’s just like that. Sitting down with your boyfriend or girlfriend at the end of a relationship which has not been going very well saying “Listen, this is what the problem is and this is what I think we should do to fix it”, it’s tough to do that, look the person in the eye and do that and knowing that the other person may just disagree with you. So, that’s what it’s like.

Pooja- Yes. Very true, very true. But talking about expressing your feelings, right? We’ve known that a lot of writers speak when they face mental illnesses, right? Like depression, anxiety, and like you said, it’s very hard to cope with. But on the other hand, writing can also help to maintain mental health. How do you think that dynamic works?

 

Krishna- Okay, let me give you a very simple analogy, I think it’s going to tie into my point about being as mentally strong as you can. There are two steps, I think- The first step, even more so than writers, the people who really face a lot of this problem where their creativity sort of gets out of hand are actors, comedians, you know. They really can lose sight of reality because of their craft and also because of the recognition that comes with it, and I think what you need to realise, first of all, is that you need to be in control of your craft, you can’t let your craft control you. So, this is something I do to make myself feel better and because it gives me joy. It’s not something I’m doing so that it can overwhelm me. 

 

So, I think having that distinction of making sure you’re the one in charge really really helps, and secondly- if things are going well, don’t get carried away by the praise. Like if someone tells you “Oh, you’re fantastic. You can do this, you can do that.. You were so amazing in this, you were so amazing in that.. This piece was amazing”, just nod your head, be gracious about it, politely smile but don’t let it get to you and don’t make yourself out to be anything more than you are, which is just a human being, with problems and failings and all of that. Similarly, when someone comes and tells you “Listen, this was absolute crap”, don’t take it to heart and say “I’m useless, I’m this, I’m that” and get overwhelmed and sad and all of that. Your art is not you. Keep it distant from you. In that distance, make sure that you are controlling it, and don’t let it overwhelm you. Those are the things I would definitely say would help make sure that you are getting the best out of your craft and not getting the worst out of it.

 

Pooja- So, what do you have to say to artists around the world who are struggling for inspiration?

 

Krishna- Understand what makes you excited. For example, I know that I see a lot of books, paintings, films, series, music- I hear a lot of music- and it’s very popular, it’s very acclaimed but just because it’s popular or acclaimed, I say “Okay, I’m going to do something like this”, it’s not going to work out. Rather, you can experience as much stuff as you can and say that “Okay, for some reason, this strikes a chord with me. There’s something about this that I relate very deeply to”. Sometimes, it could be something that’s not successful. It could be something that nobody knows about and some of the things that people actively dislike but you say there’s something about it that I can relate to, and from there your inspiration will come. 

 

When you find what is exciting you, you will find your inspiration because you will say “Okay, I understand a little bit more about who I am. This is making me understand who I am.” The more you understand about who you are, the more easily you will be able to create art that is unique to you and that you are excited about creating. As long as you are living the life of someone else or trying to be someone else, it’s going to be tough for you to try and come up with inspiration and create anything that truly resonates with who you are. When you realise who you are, and that comes from identifying the things you like, you are able to create a lot more content which is more original and which you are more interested in creating as well. 

 

Pooja- So, hats off to you! I understand why people loved ‘Notes of a Dream’. I have one last thing to ask you- if there is one word you would like to say to artists, artists all over the world, maybe writers, painters, sculptors, just one word- what would you say to them?

Krishna- Believe.

Pooja- Okay, any reason behind that?

 

Krishna- It’s because unless you’re going to believe in what you’re creating, it’s going to be hollow. I’ll give you an explanation about how it works for me. When I first started writing something, for a long time, I would just be like okay, I can’t show people this. I can’t show people this. It’s not yet ready. It’s not yet good enough. But suddenly comes a moment when that changes to “I can’t wait for people to see this”. I’m so excited to show people this. The moment that changes is when you start believing. 

When you start believing that your concept, your idea, your writing, your language, whatever you want to say, suddenly something happens that makes you believe that it is working for you and it resonates with who you are, that is when it is possible for you to take the next step. Trust me, there are a lot of times when I’ve said “Okay, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, I need more time” and I’ve never come to believe in it and I’ve never finished it. It didn’t happen because I’ve never fully believed in it. Of course, then again, I go back to it after some months or sometimes, after some years, and then I suddenly say “Okay, this is actually quite good” and I start believing in it and the story changes but until you believe in what you’re saying, don’t expect anybody else to believe in it. Also, until you can see something happening, again, how can the Universe or God make anything happen for you until you can see it clearly? And for you to see it clearly, you have to believe in it. 

Let’s move onto art. You see someone who you think is really attractive. You think they could be your boyfriend/girlfriend. Until you want them to be your boyfriend/girlfriend, until you believe that you are good enough to be with them, are you even going to start talking to them? Until you believe that the situation is possible, how can anything happen? You won’t even go and say “Hello”, you won’t even go and say “Listen, I feel this way about you” or if you’re applying for a job or you’re applying to a University, until you think you’re good enough, you’re not going to want to apply to it. 

I have been told this repeatedly in pitches, they have been like “Listen, we don’t know what you are seeing in your head right now..” I sold ‘Notes of a Dream ‘ on this. Before I had written a single word but I knew the concept, I believed in the concept, I went to them and said “Listen, this is what I want to do”. And they didn’t ask me for a sample or anything. They just said “Listen, you clearly believe in this concept. We can see that you’re passionate about it. Go ahead with it. We’ll support you”. So, I think until you can see yourself in a certain situation, the Universe cannot make it happen. So, when I say “believe,” all I’m saying is, see the situation that you’re dreaming of because dreams without belief cannot become reality. It’s dreams plus belief that equal reality. It’s very simple math. So, if you’re just going to believe in yourself without a dream, then nothing can happen. But again, if you have a dream without belief, it can’t happen either. So, it needs to be a balance of both.

 

Pooja- Wow, that was so nice. Thank you so much for your time, Krishna. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and I picked up a lot of lessons today, actually. I learnt about perspective, I learnt about how to believe in yourself, as we just discussed and I learnt about the struggles that one might face in life, not just about writing, not about just with an artist but general life, right? It was very enlightening for me. Thank you so much.

 

Krishna- Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you as well!

 

Pooja- All the best from LonePack for your journey forward and I’m sure it’s going to be a really

wonderful one. Especially your love for experimenting and your love for life, I can tell.


Krishna- Thank you.

Journeys of Hope: Part 3: Depression – Battling College Days

Trigger warning: Mentions of self-harm, depression and suicide

It was the first day of college, and I was freaking – a full-blown panic-attack. Was what I was wearing okay? Would I be asked to talk in front of everyone? Would everyone make fun of my figure? Would I even make any friends? A million different questions were zapping through my head at the speed of light, even as I stood there in front of the mirror, trying desperately to put on kajal without poking my eyes out. After a few (painful) attempts, I gave up on the act as tears started streaming down my eyes. Despair engulfed me as depression, my old friend, reared its ugly head.

College is a place to reinvent yourself, they say. You can find yourself, or create a whole new identity, they say. Well, I lost a little bit of myself every day for those three years. Each night that I went to sleep, I did not thank God, but prayed that I would not wake up the next morning. Each morning that I woke up was filled not with expectation or excitement, but with dread of what the following hours would bring.

To give you a little background, I studied at a wonderful place with extremely supportive staff and students, some of whom still check in with me from time to time, but it was not always joy and smiles. In fact, I can now reveal without any shame that most of my time at college was spent inside a bathroom stall while I desperately tried to control my tears.

So what, then, was my problem?

I didn’t understand it back when I was an extremely confused 18 year-old, and I’m not sure I understand it now. All I knew was that I was feeling sad and tired and so, so hopeless all the time, but I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t know whom to open up to, and even when I did, neither my friend nor my family took me seriously. That was, until they found me one day with a plastic cover tied over my head.

Of course, like the whole world thinks, my parents were of the opinion that therapy would ‘fix’ me, that it was a one-stop solution to all my problems. Of course, I love my family, and I could never, ever blame them for what happened to me, but they didn’t understand that sometimes, there’s nothing to fix.

My therapists throughout the years have had quite colorful adjectives to describe my ‘issues’. ‘Depressed’, ‘Hallucinates’, ‘Self-harms’, ‘Suicidal’, ‘Mercurial’, and ‘Unpredictable’ were some of the labels used on me. They poked and they prodded and they dug and they dug until there was nothing left of me. Did I experience any abuse? No. Did I lose someone close to me? No. Did I hate everyone? Absolutely not, I actually bent over backwards to please them all and be like them. So why was I like this? No one knew, so they sent me to the doctors, who put me on pills that made me sleepy 20 hours of the day and made me fail several tests.

College was a nightmare, because I could neither keep up with my peers nor hold a decent conversation without breaking down/having an anxiety attack. I looked at all the other girls, and was filled with self-loathing because I didn’t know how to be one of them. No amount of lipstick, perfume, or kajal could make me feel beautiful. I hated life, and I constantly searched for ways to escape my situation, most of which were unhealthy. While everyone I knew was out flirting and partying and having fun with their significant other, I was shut up in my room mooning over my unrequited love. While they were all engaging in extracurricular activities like singing and dancing and debates, I was writing depressive and frankly scary stuff and then tearing up the pages to destroy the evidence, all because I couldn’t bear to face it, to face myself.

But this is not a rant about how awful my life was, whatever impression I might have given you so far. This is an account to assure those who are suffering like I did, that it will all change. You will make it to the other side. The day will come when breathing won’t be so difficult, when your smiles will feel that much less forced. The day will come when you will no longer have to worry about the future and shed tears about it. And the key to effecting that change? Falling in love.

Falling in love with people, with all their imperfections and faults. Falling in love with life, with all its difficulties and trials. Falling in love with the world, with all its ugliness and wars.

And most importantly, falling in love with yourself, with all your bitterness and scars.

I’m not saying that everything will be fine and dandy one day as you wake up, and you will no longer feel bad. On the contrary, living with depression is like an obstacle race that never ends. You have to face insurmountable odds, and the ground will be smooth for a little while, but the difficulties will rise again, and the cycle will continue. What I’m asking you to do, is to look forward to landing on level ground, to living those relatively peaceful days. Live for today and hope for a better tomorrow, because what do we have left, if not hope?

Journeys of Hope – Part 2 – A Poem

Breaking Free

What is it like to be fourteen going twenty-five?

Put your life on pause and frozen alive.

You feel it rushing past you, sometimes through.

But at heart, you’re still a kid with issues.

 

You know the lines, have the script by heart,

Wear the smiles and play the part.

Impeccable performance and invisible pain,

Patch the holes and back up again.

 

What is it like to be fourteen going twenty-five?

Watched, as my teenage flew by.

I’m all smiles, laughter bursting at the seams,

Hoping to be someone’s teenage dream.

 

But life’s a bully, unforgiving and unkind.

It’s a test and unfair by design.

I played by its rules, or by ‘their’ rules,

And it played us all, for fools.

 

What is it like to be fourteen going twenty-five?

I realize, I need more than just survive,

I want to be happy and grow up to live my truth,

Strike out of this eerie vortex of youth.

 

I am terrified but alive, melted and moulded anew,

Imperfect but with a new point of view.

My vigour for life charges through like electricity,

To face the trials and cut out toxicity.

 

What is it like to be fourteen going twenty-five?

I knew once but am no longer that guy.

Stripped off self-made shackles, Breaking free,

Home again with my chosen family.

 

Fourteen in my heart, doe-eyed, brimming with hope.

Endless possibilities, a kaleidoscope.

Untainted by guilt or remorse, flawed but whole,

Forever young, growing old.

Journeys of Hope : Part 1 – An Open Letter

This is an open letter to all those who took a leap of courage and faith. Those who pried open their lips to push out words that asked for acceptance, help, and validity for all the feelings that they struggled to explain with simple words. This goes out to those who clutched onto hope thinking that they would receive kindness and empathy in return for the small step they took to force jagged syllables from behind their teeth. Those who then saw all that hope shatter when their words and feelings were dismissed, mocked, or shut down without so much as a thought their way. This goes out to all those who only wanted someone to understand but in the end, took to swallowing all that they wanted to say, because they knew there was no point in screaming out when no one would listen. 

 

I, too, was that person. 

 

Talking about feelings is difficult. Trying to talk about how you’re feeling when it comes to mental health issues is even more difficult. In a world where dialogue surrounding mental health is still considered a taboo in many countries and cultures, you risk harsh judgement and sometimes even shunning if you try talking about mental health issues. But what hurts the most is when you try speaking up about all that is bothering you to the ones you thought would understand and stand by you in solidarity, only for the same people to end up throwing your own words back at your face. 

 

About six years ago, I tried talking about issues that had been bothering me for quite a while, only for my own feelings to be used against me. I didn’t really know how to make sense of my feelings then, because I was a confused 16-year-old who had no inkling as to what mental health issues were – we were never even remotely taught anything related to mental health in school, were we? And so there I was, scouring the internet to try to make sense of my confusion and I was honestly scared. I thought something was wrong with me, that something physically might have gone wrong to cause all this. But most importantly, I thought that I was alone in feeling this because everyone I knew was normal, right? Then there definitely had to have been something that was wrong with just me. Because how else would you explain the crippling swooping felt inside my stomach that wrenched me and the waves of never-ending sadness that crashed over and over giving me no time to even breathe some days. How was I to explain any of this to anyone when I myself had no idea what was happening? Nothing had gone wrong, I hadn’t experienced events that could be considered traumatic. I had a supportive family, some good friends, and was doing well in school.  What was I to say, that I had suddenly incurred some sick twisted version of a manufacturing defect? Who would have even believed me when I didn’t believe in what I was feeling myself? 

 

It took some time and a lot of research for the confusion to give way to clarity bit by bit. Slowly, over the course of the next 3 years, after reading through a multitude of forums and discussion groups, I realised I was battling depression and anxiety. And it took a lot more searching to realise that I might not be alone in feeling this way: resources were not abundant nor visible, even a few years ago. I understood that I was not “broken” or “defective”, that nothing was “wrong” with me. It took some time for me to believe it but time was a good friend. However, to say that my struggles stopped there would be a blasphemic lie. The first few times I tried to talk about my issues, I ended up being branded “the sad kid”. To my friends, I became the person who complained too much, was always sad (because of course, being sad is a choice isn’t it?), never participated in anything, didn’t like going out, didn’t like laughing, didn’t like socialising, was always alone, was “emo”, was seeking attention. There was no use in talking to them about this was there?

 

So I shut up. 

 

I bottled up everything that I wanted to say. I instead wrote them down for myself, weaving poetry out of emotions that found no home, found no place in this world. And that wasn’t liked, either. But by then I had stopped caring about what others thought of me. I had neither the energy nor the willpower to try to make the unwilling understand. But I promised myself one thing, that I would do everything in my capability to make sure that another confused and scared 16 year old wouldn’t have to go through what I did, alone. I did get better with time but there were only very few people who managed to understand what I had gone through and offered genuine support. 

 

Today, I don’t shy away from talking about my journey with my mental health issues but the reactions are still mixed. Some are supportive, some still think I exaggerate but regardless, I am in a better place where I can look back at my own journey and talk about it in hopes that it might help someone, somewhere. Only if we start dialogue can we expect change. It still is uncomfortable for me sometimes and I don’t expect everyone to talk about it but what I do hope for is that you, reading this, understand how difficult it is to speak up in the first place. For you to understand what it means to truly listen, to not mock or shun those who reach out to you for help. The topic of romanticization of mental health has already been addressed quite a bit (The Romanticization of Mental Health) and it is important to not let your views be skewed based on what you see on social media platforms. No two people’s journey is the same. Do not impulsively throw out words that you might not truly mean. Opening up your “DMs” to talk is a big responsibility and one that is not to be taken lightly. If you do not know how to talk to someone who reaches out to you for help, educate yourself. Guide them to better resources. But never, ever invalidate someone’s feeling because you personally do not relate to them.

 

If you, reading this, happen to be the person I was, I am so very proud of you for continuing the fight against your mental health battles. Mental health is a journey filled with trials and tribulations, disappointments and hope, good and bad days, and what a journey it is indeed. But you still made it this far, you’re fighting the good fight and always remember that you are never alone. Your feelings are valid, your emotions are valid and I hope that when things get tough, you do not feel the need to hesitate before reaching out for help. 

 

I still struggle with my issues, I still feel uncomfortable talking about them, and I still get mixed reactions even from good friends. But I hope these words resonate with you somehow. Even if it ends up making just an infinitesimal difference, that is enough. That is all I hope for. 

 

If you would like someone to listen to your worries, in a judgement-free, safe and inclusive environment, take a look at our LP Buddy program 

 

If you would like to know what it takes to be a good ally, here are a few resources 

How to be a mental health ally

How to Support Someone With a Mental Illness

What does it mean to be an ally to someone with a mental illness?

4 Simple Ways You Can Be an Ally to the Mental Health Community

 

LonePack Conversations- Healing from the Grief of Loss by Suicide ft. Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan

The grief of losing someone often leaves a lasting impact on one’s life. Life changes in ways we could never anticipate. When it feels like the rest of the world has just kept going, we may find ourselves to be broken and struggle in our attempts to “move on” from the loss. So how do we pick up our broken pieces and find the strength to move forward?

 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan. A suicide loss survivor herself, Dr. Sangeeta is a mental health activist and educator. Through her work, she endeavours to engage with as many people as she can, to work together to prevent young suicide through raising awareness and reducing stigma.

Welcome, Dr. Sangeeta.

Dr. Sangeeta-  Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Before we start, I would like to issue a trigger warning as this podcast delves into suicide and the process of dealing with loss due to suicide. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to stop listening, and do seek professional help in case you find yourself struggling to deal with mental health issues.

So Dr. Sangeeta, you’re a qualified trainer in youth mental health first aid and are passionate about shattering the stigma around mental health and suicide. Could you tell us what drove you to become an activist for mental health awareness and youth suicide prevention?

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes. Thank you very much, Valerie for doing this interview and thank you to LonePack for all the good work that it does. It’s really required in India and all over the world, actually that we raise the understanding of mental health illnesses. I came to it through a very personal tragedy. My beautiful son, Sagar, was only twenty and this was six years ago when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within ten days, he was gone. I had no idea, we lived in the same house. He had seen the doctor two days before that and I thought everything that could be done was being done for him but neither he nor the doctor, nobody said anything about suicide. 

I realised that it is such a taboo subject that even doctors don’t know how to talk about it, leave alone our society. You know, doctors are only people after all, right? And we are products of our society. If nobody is talking about it, then doctors are also not because they do not know how to, it’s not in the syllabus. Then I realised that it was down to people like me, who were directly affected by it, to talk about it because otherwise, it’s just going to be in silence forever and being bereaved by suicide is such a painful place to be and it is so hard to keep going back there and talking about it, but I don’t have anything else to do now. So, this is what I do and I hope that it will save lives and bring closeness between people and make this world a better place. 

 

Valerie- We are very sorry to hear about your loss and about Sagar but we’re also very thankful to you that you’ve taken that experience and you’ve decided that you want to change things and you want to bring about change. You help bereaved families but you also spread awareness so that something like this could be prevented in the future. That is a great initiative, you know? To come from darkness and to be able to want to spread light to the people around, to prevent a situation like this from happening else. 

So, when we talk about suicide, guilt is a major part of the grieving process, when it comes to friends and family. We have a lot of questions, a lot of ‘What Ifs’. What if we had paid more attention? What if we had noticed the signs? What if we could have saved them? because it’s difficult to fathom the circumstances that led up to it. In fact, as a suicide loss survivor myself, there were many instances where I often felt guilty about experiencing happiness after the loss – it felt wrong to me to feel happy anymore. Many others often struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves when the guilt gets overwhelming. Is this expected? How can we manage this overwhelming amount of guilt that we feel?

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s a very important question because losing someone to suicide does leave you with a mountain of guilt and you almost believe that it’s your fault that they died. I still believe, I have to tell myself that he was really ill, he was under the care of a doctor, you were not his doctor, you were just his mother. He was twenty years old and so it was up to him what he wanted to share and what he didn’t want to share, and these are very personal feelings, they’re very difficult to talk about because actually, we don’t know how to create space for these conversations. We don’t know how to be with someone’s angst and uncertainty and we’re not comfortable with this subject. And I think there is so much self blame associated with it, even with the individual who’s feeling suicidal. They may be ill, they may be on medication, they might be having very valid reasons for feeling suicidal but still, they blame themselves for feeling like that, which also stops them from talking about it. 

If somebody has diabetes or cancer, they don’t blame themselves, right? They just have it. Whereas with mental illnesses, there is a whole other dimension of “flawness”, that there’s something wrong with this person, almost something wrong with their character. Which is not true. But because that is how the society looks at it, that’s how they look at themselves, and that stops them from asking for help. So we have to break that shame and blame cycle and know that if they don’t tell you, you can’t know, right? We’re not mind readers. Our mind is constantly trying to find a reason, but there is no “one reason”. It’s a very complex issue, there are usually multiple reasons and they all come to a confluence at one point where the emotional pain that they suffer gets too much and if they can’t have a constructive, meaningful conversation or even be heard and understood at that point, especially in young people, it can be quite an impulsive decision, which is taken very quickly and in a very short time. So it’s a very time critical intervention that we need to make. Firstly, we need to increase our awareness and our ability to create spaces for these conversations, which is what you are doing today so good job, thank you.

 

Valerie- Thank you. But you know, we talked about guilt and obviously there are questions that we have and they have very complex answers, which is why it’s only natural for us to blame ourselves. But it takes you down such a downward spiral that you cannot get out of. One thing is telling yourself that you’re not at fault but it doesn’t really do much for you. So what would you say we can do to get out of this guilt that we make ourselves feel?

Dr. Sangeeta- So the first is to recognize it as guilt. To recognize that what I’m feeling is guilt. Very deep guilt. And then to know that yes, these are my thoughts but I don’t have to believe in them a hundred percent. Also to acknowledge that what you’re going through is possibly the most painful loss . Part of me still believes that it’s my fault that he’s no more. But I still have to be kind to myself, you know? I have to acknowledge that okay, it has happened. I didn’t do it, right? I am sure I could have done more, it’s true I could have done more but I cannot go back. What I can do is recognize it as a thought, let it not become a belief, and hold myself with kindness and know that if I could, he would live for a million years. If I could. If my love would be enough, he’d live for a million years. But I can’t reverse that. All I can do is honour his memory, keep loving him, keep doing some good work in his name and keep being kind to myself because I am also suffering and I have been through a lot. Acknowledge that. 

Valerie- I liked that you said that we have to validate our own feelings there. You say we should admit that it’s guilt but also find a space for yourself where you are kind to yourself and you don’t bog yourself down by that immense amount of guilt that you’re feeling.

Dr. Sangeeta- And sometimes, you just need to sit with it, you know? I think for me, meditation has really helped because I can just breathe through it. Just sit and breathe through it. Whatever it is, it shifts. It moves sideways a little bit, it gets less intense. And you know, we need to hold our poor little broken hearts like a little baby, you know? With gentleness, and just literally pat it lovingly and say “You’ve been through a lot”. Be our own best friends.

 

Valerie- So, when we talk about the processes of grieving, everyone has a different grieving process. A different method that helps them cope with the loss in the best way that they can. There are very different kinds of people. I was somebody who often found comfort in the pain, at a point. And I decided not to move on from the incident, you take it as a way of honoring the memory of the person. There are also people who decide to focus on what lies ahead and outwardly, they may seem to move on from the loss much faster. 

In addition to all of this, you have the aftermath of a loss due to suicide. You have survivors who are unable to openly share their grief because as you said, there is a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and judgement surrounding the topic, to a point where even doctors do not have conversations about it. Does the grieving process differ for suicide loss survivors? How can they be supported through their grieving process? 

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, so I think everybody grieves completely differently, like you said. Even in the same family, if the father and the mother have lost the same child, they have lost a different relationship. He might have lost his cricket buddy and he might have lost her future grandchildren, you know? So, it’s very different for each one and it’s all okay. Just do whatever you need to do, is what I would say. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this. Just do whatever feeds your soul, whatever sustains you. There is no formula, there is no recipe. I would say spend time with people who cherished that person, who are not afraid to talk about him. Share their memories lovingly. When something like this happens, you really find out who your friends are and it’s really useful because then you don’t waste your time. You stick with people who understand your loss and who are not about gossiping and judging and making life more difficult for you. 

There are many many ways in which people can support somebody who has lost someone to suicide. By reaching out, not being afraid to name the person, celebrate them, talk about them in a way like they were a cherished part of our lives. Not get into why and how and why not. Nobody knows why. They probably did not know why. We don’t know. There’s no point going in “Why”s or “How”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this beautiful person has gone. So, we need to create space to listen to them. They might want to repeat the same story over and over and over again, which is okay. Create space for that, listen patiently. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t make platitudes like “Be strong”, “He’s in a better place” and all that is rubbish, really. It doesn’t help. 

I think there is no right or wrong, I would say. Just do whatever makes sense to you and don’t criticize the other person’s way of dealing with it because they are doing what works for them. But I think it does put a huge strain on relationships, on families. It completely shifts family dynamics, and that’s normal as well. There is no such thing as a perfect human being or a perfect relationship so I think if we have basic compassion for ourselves, then we can have compassion for other people. It’s very easy to get into the blame game with this- “you said” “she said”, you know? But actually, I think this is really a time to be kind to all those who are left behind because they are all suffering. 

 

Valerie- So, in addition to what we spoke about, about there being stigma and shame surrounding it and that being a reason to not talk about the person you lost, there is also this whole thing of, of course, it is a very personal loss for you but you also feel like you are the only one going through this and so nobody is going to understand what you’re talking about and nobody is going to get it at the same level of sensitivity that you have for that person. I rethink that also makes it very difficult conversation and I think it’s good that you are here with us, sitting and talking about your experience and we can discuss because there are a lot of people here who think they are alone in their suffering, who do not find it comfortable to talk to somebody who hasn’t lost a person because you feel like they’re not going to get what you’re saying. So I think that is another reason why people do often not talk about it and suffer in silence but I think it’s great that you’re coming out and the fact that you share your story with so many people is going to be very encouraging. 

Dr. Sangeeta- I find that it’s true that we don’t feel understood. It’s true. Imean, how can anybody else understand what it’s like unless you’ve been through it? I don’t blame other people for not understanding. I don’t expect them to understand and I hope they never have to understand what it feels like. But I would say that it’s very important for people who have had similar experiences to get together because there is an organization called SOBS here (in the UK), which is Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, where people meet. 

All the people who are there have lost some family member or friend to suicide and in that room, there is so much understanding because everybody has come with a similar experience, it’s peer support. There are no experts in that room, no therapists, nothing. But people find so much comfort there and I think that can only happen if people come forward and put their hand out to other people who have had similar experiences, get together. Now it’s possible to do it across towns and countries even. And I think, have a peer support group where people can come and be with other people who have had similar experiences. It’s really been helpful for me and many others. And of course, I also have a therapist and I’m very grateful that I can afford one. I’ve been seeing her every week for two years now and that’s a very healthy thing to have because it gives you an insight into yourself.

Valerie- I also liked that when we talked about how people can be supportive, you said do not ask too many questions, do not jump to conclusions, just bethere, be compassionate and listen. And I think that is extremely important when somebody is opening up to you and when they’re trying to share their grief with you.

Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah.

 

Valerie-  When we lose someone to suicide, like we talked about, there are a lot of unresolved questions and we are just left trying to make sense of it. It’s a common emotion for people to feel anger and unforgiveness towards the person we lost, for leaving us. But these emotions can come in the way of our path to healing. How would you say we should deal with these emotions? How do we pick up our broken pieces and find meaning after loss? How do we give ourselves the strength to move forward? 

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s very complex- grief- because of the undertones of severe judgement. Often, it’s not a voluntary act. It is a measure of someone’s emotional pain, that they are in so much pain that they cannot bear to stay on the planet. How much pain do you have to be in to do that? Because we, as human beings, are not designed to do that. We are designed to protect ourselves- we can’t touch hot things and immediately withdraw, we cannot tolerate the smallest cut on our hand. We are designed to defend ourselves if we go and do something like that. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to entertain the idea of staying alive? It’s beyond our comprehension if we haven’t felt that way. So, I feel great compassion for Sagar that he had so much pain, poor chap, you know? And he walked around hiding it because he thought nobody would understand. How terrible, isn’t it? for any to have that much pain. 

I grieve not just for his death, I grieve for his suffering. So, there is no place for anger. I think if we can have compassion for their suffering. There is no place for anger where there is compassion. I can only talk from my experience and so, there is no scope for judgement. If we drop all judgements, there is no right or wrong, it’s a death. That’s all it is. It is a death. All these undertones of judgement is what makes it unbearable. “How could he do this to me?” He didn’t do it to you. It was his life. He couldn’t bear it. So, it’s not about me now. It’s not about me. It’s about him, it’s about what he could not say that he should have been able to say. That as a society, we should have created space for. That his doctors should have known how to talk about. It’s about that. There is no right or wrong in this, you just have to face it for what it is and asee how we can help people who are in that position. So, yeah. What was your question? Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.

Valerie- Yeah, so I was asking how we should deal with these emotions because it’s only natural when you’re left with no answers, you do not know what is going on. You can feel unforgiveness and as you said, you have to look at it with compassion, you know? Replace that emotion with compassion because obviously, the person went through a lot of pain before they took the step that they did. My question is, how do we pick ourselves up after an experience like this? How do we find meaning after the loss and how do we give ourselves the strength to push forward and move on in life?

Dr. Sangeeta- Well, like I said earlier, there are no general answers. It has a lot to do with who you are and what you do. So, when Sagar passed, I started writing a blog on the day he passed, because I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit there and let this day come and go unmarked. It was the most shocking and painful day of my life, and his life, probably. I was struck by how many people don’t know this can happen to them or their loved ones. I started writing a blog and also, it was my way of really immortalizing him. I could not allow him to just go without anything, you know? The world has to change. It was my ego as well, that it was my son. My beautiful, darling son and how can this happen? It was a mixture of anger and everything, and I just put it into my writing. I wrote every day for a thousand days. That was my way. The blog is called ‘Kids are Gifts’. I still write it. Once every ten or twelve days, I write something on it. It was my way of spending time with Sagar, it was my way of venting my anger. It was where I wrote down all the things that I learnt along the way, where I wrote down how I felt. It was a friend, it was a bride that I hung my days on, you could write at the end of the day. It was my reward, it was my punishment, it was everything. I put my energy into my blog initially, just because it gave me something to do. 

It’ll be different things for different people. Slowly, I found that cycling really helped. It’s really meditative. The wheels go round and round and you could just empty your mind and just the repetitiveness of it and you can feel your breathing and your heart and you could just be in your body for a little while. Cycling helped, writing helped, then I found nature helped. I joined flower arranging lessons and I learnt to do Ikebana, which is a Japanese art of flower arranging- it’s very technical, it’s very minimalistic, beautiful floral art.  Then I started doing some mental health work, and when I was a little bit better, then my phone number was given to other people whose children were either ill or they’d lost somebody and I would spend lots of time on the phone with them. So, I think if you start using that love, guilt is only love basically, turned upside down. If you tell yourself “What I’m feeling is love” and I need to channel it into something and find whatever that something is for you. I think by using your hands and your body into something, doing something. 

Also, take it as learning. Let death be your lesson, let cause be your teacher. The guilt also was about things that I had done. I used to work really long hours and I always thought that when I came home, he’ll be there. I took him for granted. And one day he wasn’t. I really stopped and thought “What else am I taking for granted?”.  I’m taking my health for granted, I’m taking my parents for granted, I’m taking my husband for granted, I’m taking my cat for granted! So, it made me think about what I can do differently. How can I live differently now? This is almost like a second life for me. I’ve been given a second chance to live better. I can turn that guilt around and learn from it. This is what I didn’t do right. I didn’t know how to have those conversations. Now I know how to have those conversations. So, do whatever you can with it but take this as an opportunity to learn and to grow and to expand.

Valerie- Yeah, I think what you said is very important. Obviously, you’re suffering a lot, you’ve gone through a lot, you still are going through a lot. But you take that as an experience and you learn from it. You learn how to be more sensitive to the people around you, you learn how not to take things for granted, and you also try doing something about it. You take that one experience you had and if you can help people around you, then there can be nothing better. You can’t replace what you’ve lost but you can certainly try to help make this place better.

Dr. Sangeeta- And you know why I can do that? Because there’s not a bone in my body that is ashamed of anything. I am so proud of Sagar. I am so proud of him. I loved him before he was born and I will love him forever. He was an absolute star! I’m not ashamed of him at all. I know he tried his best. I know he tried his best.

Valerie- I think it’s important for everyone who has suffered a loss like this to understand that and not look at them any differently than they did before they passed away.

Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah. Like people fight with cancer, they say “battle with cancer”. This is also a battle but it’s invisible. We all have to develop eyes to see it. 

 

Valerie- On this World Suicide Prevention Day, what are some things that have happened over the past year or so that give you hope that things might be changing? Just like you said, we have to develop the eyes to see it, we need to create spaces for conversations like this. And what do you hope to see in the coming years? 

Dr. Sangeeta- I see hope in you! I think over the last few years, the conversation has grown. I know that through this COVID time as well, people have been thinking about each other’s mental well being. So I think overall, there is more openness. I know some celebrities in India like Deepika Padukone and all those people have come forward with their struggles. I was very very saddened to hear about the suicide of the young Bollywood actor, very very sad. The way the media and everybody has dealt with it has been so bad. Everything that should not be done had been done. It really saddened me to see that but I think the conversation has grown, definitely. 

For the future, my hope is that it will continue to grow and that all the judgements that are attached with mental illness and suicide will be taken away and people will treat mental illness just like a physical illness and not treat it as a character flaw because there is true suffering in that and I have seen it. So I do hope that people will understand that these are very complex issues, that the brain is a very delicate organ, that the adolescent years are very complex years. From the age of ten to twenty-five is adolescence and yet, medicine is split into pediatrics and adult medicine. There is no such thing as adult medicine. Those years need a lot of attention. Schools and colleges, parents, everybody needs to educate themselves about the delicacy of those years and how the brain works. 

I’m hoping that your work and mine, last year, I was at a conference in India and we did a mental health workshop for seventy medical students, and they’ve all gone back to their respective medical schools from all over India and some of the foreign countries as well, from Asia and they’ve all gone back to their medical schools with more awareness and they;’re more connected with their communities. They’re watching out for warning signs, they’re growing these conversations, so yeah. There is hope. Just keep doing what we do.

 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m sure this has been a conversation that will help a lot of people because you have shared an experience. You’ve not just talked about the dos and don’ts of how to deal with grief but you shared an experience with us. It’s been very emotional for me to talk to you about this but I wanna thank you for agreeing to do this podcast with me and I hope that we can tell people to be more sensitive, to look out for warning signs, and to spread awareness about something like this. To keep conversations open. To know how to have conversations more importantly. I hope that we’ll be able to make a difference.

Dr. Sangeeta- Actually, we forget that one half of having a conversation is listening. At least one half. So I think we need to develop our listening skills more. That’s when we can find out a lot about the other person and have them feel understood.

Valerie- And I hope for everyone who has suffered a loss, that we learn how to pick ourselves up and we learn how to take that experience and change that into something positive for the people around us and for ourselves. 

Dr. Sangeeta- And I would just say to anyone who is in a similar situation to me, know that you’re not alone. There are many other people. I think, if you were to start connecting with other people who are in your position, I think that might be a very rewarding thing to do.

Valerie- Thank you so much, Dr. Sangeeta.

Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you very much, Valerie. I wish you luck in everything you do.

Valerie- Thank you. 

To read Dr. Sangeeta’s blog posts, visit: www.kidsaregifts.org

Lessons from Taare Zameen Par

Gyan Toh Gyan Hota Hai, Chahe Woh Zabaani Ho Ya Likhit…

I would be the first to admit that my Hindi vocabulary is extremely limited, so if you had randomly approached me for a translation of the above quote, I would have had to blink and stammer.

However, it so happens that this particular sentence has appeared in a movie, one I have watched over, and fallen in love with over, again. So let me tell you what it means.

‘Knowledge is knowledge, whether it is spoken or written.’

Let me ask you a question. When you hear or read the word knowledge, what or who is the first image appearing in your mind’s eye? For me, it’s Mrs. Vimala, my 9th grade English teacher. Having been one of the most influential people in my life, I will forever remember her playful smirk and chastising tone.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually rather interesting how we remember only particular teachers/professors and conveniently forget the rest. The ones you do remember, it’s because they’ve either made a huge positive impact on your life, or they’ve given you memories so bitter that you can’t forget!

I mean, don’t you remember that playschool teacher who looked so like a popular actress that it was funny?

Don’t you remember that high school teacher who gave you the chills when she so much as called your name?

Don’t you remember that college professor who helped you see the world clearly even through the lens of your depression?

Whatever they’ve meant to you and at whichever points of time you’ve met them, the fact remains that every teacher you’ve had in your life has shaped and changed you irrevocably.

On that note, let me get back to the movie that I have watched numerous times: Taare Zameen Par.

When I first watched the movie 8 years ago, I was impressed. When I watched the movie yesterday to prepare myself for this review, I was emotional. I mean, hats off to the entire team, man!

From Darsheel Safari’s perfect portrayal of an innocent 9-year old, to Shankar Mahadevan’s soulful voice singing ‘Meri Maa’.  Just beautiful.

And don’t even get me started on Aamir Khan or I will gush. For now, I’ll just say one word.

Inspirational.

But then again, I guess all teachers have that effect on people. Teachers inspire you to introspect, innovate, and improve yourselves; they make you want to be a better person. And this part has been played amazingly well by Aamir.

Would it have been more realistic if the character had been a little older? I would say ‘Yes’, because Nikumbh’s wisdom seems a little uncharacteristic of a youngster. But one part of what makes the movie so unique is its turning of prejudices and stereotypes on their head. The other part is its relatability. Like I mentioned earlier, all of us have had teachers like Tiwari Sir and George Sir, and all of us have been misunderstood kids at one point of our lives, and it is this nostalgia that the movie captures accurately.

With the growing need to pay attention to the delicate psychological and emotional health of a child, the responsibility has fallen on our very own lighthouses of knowledge – our teachers, to guide us through the rocky seas of life.

If there is one thing that TZP brought out very well, it is the importance of a strong support system for children and adults suffering from various disabilities. Emotional and moral support can come from your family, friends, and even your pets but teachers, being those we are most in contact with during our initial years, are the first to note and care for you, and form the best support system one can have.

Think about Ishaan’s attitude when he is in a situation where his teachers misunderstand him and compare the difference we see in him at the end of the movie. Drastic development, don’t you think? But that’s the truth; a misinformed teacher has the ability to break a child’s spirit, where a compassionate teacher can kindle happiness and motivation in the same child, as wonderfully shown in the movie.  

Yes, to some children, school is a nightmare and teachers are downright scary, but to some others, going to school and interacting with friends and teachers is a form of therapeutic release. I have experienced this, myself; those 8 hours I spent at school everyday served to save me from being alone with my thoughts. Apart from the purpose of education, going to school also establishes a very dependable long-term routine, which helps to ground yourself and feel secure. 

Your daily lessons also serve as a distraction when you need one, and the sports and extracurricular activities at school act as excellent stressbusters. And who is at the centre of all this? Our teachers.

But let’s face it, teachers don’t have it easy. Theirs is one of the most unwanted positions in terms of employment, because it takes herculean effort and endless patience to handle the job. And that’s what makes the difference between people who view teaching as a profession, and those who view it as a calling. And imagine this: in a world where you might be distracted from caring for your own family, teachers volunteer to come forward and take care of 30+ troublesome little people!

Jokes apart, I strongly believe that every child or young adult deserves an inspiration in the early years of their lives, be it someone like Ram Shankar Nikumbh who has gone through similar struggles, or someone like Mrs. Vimala who can simply be there through your bad days. And the most important thing that linked both Nikumbh and Mrs. Vimala? They both believed in their children.

Team LonePack salutes all the love, care and effort that teachers provide!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hack your brain’s chemistry for a better mental health

In order to be physically fit, doctors recommend that we take the right nutrition, watch out for bad habits, proactively get health check-ups and exercise. It is uncanny how every one of them is completely applicable for being mentally healthy as well. While being mindful and in tune with yourself is very important, it is also crucial to learn and educate yourself about general mental health. If there was a short cut, or a smarter way to get yourself into a better place, that hack is worth learning.

Even today, with all the advanced researching capabilities, much about our brains and the complexity of its functioning evades us. However, with the current knowledge, we can appreciate that the body is dynamic and constantly changing. One of the systems that plays a key role in our brain and nervous functioning is the endocrine system.

The 5 Key Hormones

The endocrine system is a network of glands in your body that makes hormones that help cells talk to each other. They’re responsible for almost every cell, organ and function in your body. There is a long list of hormones that your body produces to keep it functioning properly and an imbalance in the hormone levels can have a direct and acute impact on the mental state. Prolonged imbalance can lead to chronic effects like depression, weight gain and other major health disorders.

As much as the endocrine system affects our mental health, it is also a feedback system. The production of these hormones is in response to external stimuli. But artificially creating the right conditions can also result in these hormones to be released or curtailed resulting in a better and desired mental state. Here are 5 important hormones and how you can hack them for a better mental health.

Cortisol

Cortisol has received a bad rep for itself nowadays as the stress hormone. Cortisol much like Adrenaline is a hormone that helps in generating the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to a stressful scenario. It helps in quickly ramping up the blood pressure, regulates inflammation and controls your sleep/wake cycle. However, being in a state of constant stress can lead to hormonal imbalance and lead to adverse effects such as high blood pressure and increased chance of stroke.

How to Hack?

It is not an easy solution for this one. One cannot simply say, relax and de-stress. One hack would be to take a relaxing bath/shower, to mandatorily take a break so as to keep down that elevated and continuous stress level. This post from our Instagram shows simple breathing techniques that you could incorporate into your fast-paced routine.

Serotonin

In all its effects, Serotonin is almost opposite to Cortisol. Out of the 40 million brain cells, almost all are thought to be influenced by Serotonin directly or indirectly. It is a crucial neurotransmitter that influences mood, sexual desire and function, sleep, memory and learning among many others. It helps you be more calmer, happier, more focussed and less anxious and more emotionally stable.

How to Hack?

The hack for Cortisol suppression works just as effectively in boosting Serotonin. It is almost a no-brainer that being happy positively correlates with increased levels of Serotonin but did you know that you can simulate being happy by simply smiling? Even forced laughter or smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re happy and releasing endorphins and Serotonin. Exposure to bright light has also been linked to increasing Serotonin. So open those curtains in the morning and flood your room with that Vitamin D!

Endorphins

The word endorphin comes from putting together the words “endogenous” meaning from within the body, and “morphine” which is an opiate pain reliever. In other words, endorphins got their name because they are natural pain relievers. Endorphins are released as a reward for important activities such as eating, drinking, physical fitness and sexual intercourse. They help in minimizing stress and maximizing pleasure.

How to Hack?

Exercise. There is no activity that is more effective or has a longer-term impact on the health of your brain than exercise. In this TED-Ed video, neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki goes into great detail on the effect of exercise on your brain. Doing a simple thirty-minute workout can flood your system with endorphins and start making you feel better almost immediately.

Dopamine

Dopamine is central to your brain’s reward system. Dopamine is released when we accomplish something or complete a task. It’s release reinforces pathways in the brain building confidence and motivation. In extreme cases, the imbalance of this hormone has been linked to severe disorders such as Schizophrenia and ADHD.

How to Hack?

Break down your goal into small sizable tasks and complete the easy one first. We often procrastinate as a way to avoid negative feelings. As we get closer and closer to the deadline, we stress over it and complete it at the very last minute and end up feeling we aren’t good at what we do. A simple step you can take in tricking yourself to feel better and also get work done is to start with the smallest and easiest task on a project. With the positive reinforcement from the dopamine flooding your system, that hill to complete the project might feel just a little less steep.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ or ‘love hormone’ because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. Oxytocin is an important hormone especially in new mothers and helps in mother-child bonding. It enhances the grasping of social information and consequently links sensory information to the brain’s reward system.

How to Hack?

It is as simple as a hug. The physical contact with another social being, even a pet, can lead to higher Oxytocin levels in yourself and also the pet animal. So, next time you get a chance to give a belly rub to your dog, know that it is doing you good as much as it is for the dog. Give your friend a proper hug, none of that pat on the back stuff.


While it is important to get out of the funk when it is getting you down for a long period of time, it is also vital to realise that feeling down, stressed, angry, or happy are a natural part of being human. We shouldn’t associate negativity to any emotions and must allow ourselves to feel the range of complex and inexplicable emotions that we are capable of. Similarly, we mustn’t misuse these hacks to immediately get out of a mental state when that state is perfectly reasonable. However, if for some reason you are constantly feeling down or for unexplainable reasons, then with this chemical key to your brain’s inner workings, you can hack yourself into a better place.

These hacks are not for adverse health disorders and it is recommended that you visit a certified health professional for a diagnosis. If you’re feeling down, chat with our listeners on LP Buddy in a non-judgemental fashion.

LonePack Conversations- The Role of the Media in Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention ft. Tanmoy Goswami

During the lockdown, we’re all confined to our homes, with the news and media being the only thing that keeps us company. However, recent developments have highlighted the responsibility that rests on our media when it comes to covering sensitive or taboo topics, such as mental health.

 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Tanmoy Goswami. He works at ‘The Correspondent’ as a Sanity Correspondent. He worked in business journalism across India before pivoting to writing about the global mental-health movement. He regularly speaks on the media’s role in suicide prevention and aims to help shape a world where talking about mental illness is no longer taboo, but is recognized as a human condition that connects us all.  

Welcome, Tanmoy.

Tanmoy- Hi, Valerie. Thank you, thank you for inviting me.

Valerie- Thank you for being here with us today to talk about something very important. 

Tanmoy- Yeah, I look forward to the conversation.

Valerie- So, your journey advocating for and writing about mental health stems from your own personal experience battling depression and anxiety disorders. You’ve also written about your experience with suicidal thoughts. Could you tell us a little bit more about your personal journey with mental health issues?

Tanmoy- Sure, sure. Thank you for asking me that question.

Before I launch into my story, I think it’s always useful to issue a trigger warning. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to switch off, and do seek professional help in case you are struggling with mental health problems. There are online resources available. If you reach out to me on Twitter, I can also help you find them. 

Right, yes. Like Valerie said, my journey into mental health journalism is very much a result of my personal experiences with depression and anxiety and self-harm for almost my entire adult life. I think my first diagnosis was when I was in college, I think my first or second year of college, when somebody dragged me to the college therapist. Back then, we had this system in Delhi University, I think all colleges were required to host a therapist on campus. I was very very fortunate that we had an excellent therapist in college and I was becoming increasingly dysfunctional, I think. 

Dysfunctional not in the sense of lagging behind in studies or anything like that. I was a very good student, I was very active in college clubs and societies, and I was in the company of some really really smart, intelligent and wonderful people. But I was becoming dysfunctional in my personal life. I was becoming extremely unmindful, inattentive, accident-prone and of course, I was hurting myself regularly. A friend of mine noticed this. There was a distinct change in my physical appearance and I was all over the place. I know that these are all very very common stereotypes that are associated with mental illness, so it’s not my intention to perpetuate those stereotypes, I’m just communicating what my inner experience was back then. So, I went and saw this therapist and I really used to enjoy talking to him because we mostly used to discuss literature and art and movies, and it didn’t really feel like somebody was trying to analyse me and you know, find out whether I have a mental illness. 

But after about five or six sessions, I was told that I am depressed. I have depression. And this came as a very big jolt because I’m talking about twenty years ago, when these conversations were not only uncommon but there was a humongous stigma attached to it. So, I think when he said that I have depression, I was quite dumb-founded because for me, I didn’t even know what to make of the word ‘depression’. I remember thinking that depression is a weather condition. And although I sort of vaguely knew that there is an illness called depression, you always tend to think that things like this happen to other people, they can never happen to you. And so although the signs were always there and my mother was a nurse- I grew up in a medically literate environment and I still couldn’t digest the fact that at nineteen or eighteen, somebody was telling me that I have depression. 

He told me that I might have to start medicating myself and at that point, I just stopped going to him because I got really frightened. I just didn’t want to take medication. I thought if my parents got to know, they would think that their son is going mad, and they might take me out of college because my parents live in a small town in Bengal. So, that’s when I aborted therapy. After that, my condition, I think, worsened. I was really really struggling. But it was difficult for other people, even my family members or my close friends to really get a sense that things were getting worse because I was fairly high functioning even back then. My grades were very good and I was active.

And so, I think the next many many years of my life, I started working, I’ve lived in every major Indian city, and I think for many many years, I just did not pay attention to this although my problems were always there. I would always be very prone to frequent crying bouts and a lot of physical manifestations- random palpitations and panic attacks. These things, now in hindsight, I know were all symptoms and then you know, I got married and I had a child. And just as we were expecting our child about three and a half years ago, my symptoms turned really bad. 

At that time I was a very senior editor in the Indian diction of one of the World’s most respected magazines, and I quit my job. I quit my job because I was unable to perform even the simplest of day to day activities. I had a virtual breakdown, I was mostly confined to my room, crying, and just did not have the energy to get out of bed to even brush my teeth. I think it was a particularly difficult time because we were expecting a child and it’s the last thing you want to experience when you are anticipating fatherhood. 

So yeah, but thankfully I managed to go see a doctor, one of the best psychiatrists in the country, Dr. Alok Sarin, and I was under his care for a long time. With his help and I went back to therapy, I’m still under therapy. I attend therapy twice a week and take medication everyday, and so my symptoms are well under control. Then last year, this wonderful chapter in my life began when I ended my long stick with business journalism and I became the World’s first Sanity Correspondent, writing about mental health for ‘The Correspondent’, which is headquartered in Amsterdam.

So, yeah. My life has completely revolved around these conditions and they have been shaped by these conditions and I think I’m enormously privileged that the net impact of these experiences in my life has been positive. I’m here, I’m talking to you. So, yeah.

Valerie- I think it’s really wonderful, you know, that you’ve been through so much and you’ve taken that and you’ve turned it into something so positive. You’ve started writing about mental health and you’ve started writing about mental issues, and you put up tweets about your own experiences so that people going through that can connect to it and can possibly get the help that they need. I think that’s wonderful.

Tanmoy- Yeah, I started a thread on Twitter in 2017 and I thought maybe I’d just do this for a few months but I did not have intentions of doing it for three years. To be honest, it’s not like I did this to help other people. I did that to primarily help myself because for me, writing was very very therapeutic. And the thing about depression is that it really messes with your memory. Among many other things that it does, it can also mess with the processing of day to day things that happen in your life. And I realized that one of the ways in which I can really counter-attack, if I may use that word, is by refusing to forget.

I want to remember who I was before this happened to me. I want to remember what this illness made me into and I want to document all of this. I don’t want to live in a state where five years later, I’m left wondering “Hey, what happened to me during that period? I don’t remember”. So, I started it as a very selfish process of documenting and remembering and then along the way, of course, back then or even now, it’s not like I have millions of followers on Twitter, no. I have a small little Twitter family but over the years I was amazed by the feedback that I got. 

Even before Twitter, I had written two or three posts on LinkedIn, which is the last place that you would expect somebody to write about their depression and suicidal thoughts or whatever but those posts were published on the India homepage and they went viral, and I started getting messages from people in the US, Australia, from all over India and it hit me that even in 2017-18, there’s just so much loneliness and so much desperation in people to somehow communicate and to somehow be understood. And I think when somebody else confides their worst secrets in you, you feel emboldened to also trust them with your secrets. 

So, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t do it for any sort of altruistic motivation back then. Of course, now I see communicating as a responsibility because I’m also professionally writing about it. All the mentors or allies or kindred spirits that I have met in the mental health ecosystem, have all been mostly because of Twitter. Eighty percent of those people are people I’ve never met in my real life. I mean it’s not as though Twitter isn’t a part of my real life but it’s as a matter of speaking. So, yeah. It’s really been something. 

Valerie- Yeah.

So, you’ve worked in the field of journalism and you’ve talked extensively about the role media plays when it comes to suicide prevention. From what I see, although things may have become a little bit better in the recent past, there’s still a lot of stigma that surrounds suicide. A lot of cases are not talked about or reported, and cases in which they are reported, you can see a major lack of sensitivity when people are talking about it. It’s often described as a crime that has been committed and it’s termed “disgraceful”. It’s called a matter of shame. Even the family and friends, they’re not given their own space to grieve but you can just see them being ambushed and harassed. So, what do you have to say about this?

Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely. I wish I could paint a rosy picture of things and you’re right, things have improved. I’ve also recently written about exactly how things have improved, primarily because now a lot of people who have no affiliation with the mental health space or with suicide prevention, even they have become very aware of these sensitivities and they’re calling out the media whenever they see a bad report on TV or in digital. They’re calling out these platforms and demanding better standards. 

But that said, I agree with you that by and large, I think the treatment of suicide in the media continues to be very disgraceful. I think the first thing that we need to remember is that there is this myth that all suicides are mental illness related, which is not true. In India, in about fifty percent of suicides, there’s a history of mental illness. The other fifty percent are caused by something else altogether. These could be stressors in your personal life. In the case of farmers, it could be debt. In the case of students, it could be exam results. 

And so, this mischaracterization of all suicides as the outcome of mental illness, that is the worst or the most damaging fallouts of the way the media handles suicide because there is always this insinuation that if somebody dies by suicide, that they were depressed. And what that does is that it basically tells people that if you are depressed then suicide is a legitimate means to get out of that sandwich. So it legitimizes suicide. It legitimizes self harm, which is dangerous. It can trigger a lot of vulnerable people.

The second thing, as you mentioned, is association of suicide with crime. This is an old shameful legacy because suicide was indeed a crime according to the penal code and it continues to be a crime in many countries. In India, it has been recently decriminalized. As a direct consequence of that history, you see the phrasing “committing suicide” being used all the time because you commit crimes and so you’ve committed suicide. There are still a lot of people, although a few of us are constantly trying to educate people on social media through training workshops. I am now part of this regular workshop that we conduct for journalists. We’ve already done two, we’re going to do the third very shortly. 

We still see that among editors and reporters of a certain vintage, there is a lot of resistance. They don’t understand why it is a problem. They feel like this is some sort of censorship, that over enthusiastic activists are trying to muzzle their freedom of speech. We keep telling them that that is not true of all. There is a tonne of evidence and scientific research that proves how media reports on suicide have a very significant impact on suicidal behavior. Especially celebrity suicides. 

So, when Marilyn Monroe died by suicide in the ‘60s, in the following month, there was a massive spike in suicides in the US. When Robin Williams died, the same thing happened again. So, time and again it has been proven that media reporting on celebrity suicide has a very big impact on what is called “imitative suicides” or “copycat suicides”. There’s a very famous case study from Vienna- there was a string of suicides in the subway system of Vienna and when the newspaper editor sat down with the subway company and decided that they would no longer report on suicides, there was almost a magical decrease in the instances of suicides since. So, there is so much evidence that the way media reports suicide has a direct bearing on suicides. According to some researchers, there could be a variation of as much as one to two percent, which is you know, tens of thousands of lives that we’re perpetually talking about. 

So, these are the facts and figures with which we’ve been trying to appeal to media journalists through workshops, in which I am also a part- that this is not a crime. This is a public health issue. As far as the privacy and dignity of the family and the bereaved, I think it should just be common sense. We don’t really have to throw a rule book at people to make them respect those boundaries, right? But unfortunately because we are in an age where traffic and clicks and TRP are supreme, every incremental little development- what color clothing the person was wearing before they died, what did they browse before they died, etc. All these things and constantly heckling family members. We don’t really stop and ask ourselves “What public interest are we really serving?” by disclosing so many details, so much information that serves no other purpose than to just speculate.

Having said that, I would like to end this answer on a positive note by saying that I see a lot of new things to be optimistic. In the general public, there is a much much greater entry now that has been paved towards these issues. More vigilance always results in greater accountability. We have seen many major newspapers and TV channels coming on Twitter and apologizing and saying that they understand that this is a problem and that they will do better, which is unprecedented. I think we are making small improvements but there’s still a long way to go.

Valerie- Yeah. So, following up on what you just said, recently, what we’ve seen is that when it comes to reporting such news, there are a lot of disturbing images and videos that have been widely circulated on social media and they’re even splashed on the national news. So, what kind of guidelines and ethics should media houses and public figures keep in mind while reporting/discussing suicide? 

Tanmoy- You know, it’s actually very simple. The World Health Organization has published very detailed guidelines on suicide reporting in India. It essentially boils down to just a few things- don’t disclose the method of suicide in the headline or in the story, don’t detail the method. Don’t present suicide as a legitimate means to escape from a difficult life situation. Don’t speculate too many personal details. Don’t disclose where the person lived and what they did. Sometimes you see that the person is not named but every other  detail about their life is disclosed and so it’s very easy for people to just join the dots and know whom you’re talking about. 

This point about not speculating about mental illness, that is hugely important because like I said, if the media keep attributing all suicides to mental illness, what essentially happens apart from passing on a very distorted image of mental illnesses per say because it’s not like every person with a mental illness dies by suicide, but apart from that, there is a deleterious impact that is had which is that it completely takes away accountability from society, from the government, from administrations because a lot of psycho-social problems are a direct result of failing socio-economic support systems. For instance, farmer distress. Many of these suicides are the result of debt, the result of some system failing the farmers somewhere and we say that “Oh, this is just the result of psychological distress”, it’s an oversimplification and it allows those who are responsible to make these systems work, escape responsibility and accountability. 

So I think these are some very very simple guidelines. You don’t have to go into excruciating detail of what happened before and what happened after. I mean this whole culture of creating a story out of suicides and presenting it like a very sensational.. And another thing that they say is a good practice, is to talk about, if you’re talking about a celebrity suicide, talk about the impact that that person had through his work. Talk about the positive legacy that the person has lived with. Celebrate that person’s life. Don’t sensationalise their death, you know? So, these are some of the standard guidelines. I can share the WHO guidelines with anybody who pings w=me on Twitter.

Valerie- Alright, thank you for elaborating on this for us. So, we’ve seen that the pandemic that we’re in currently and other recent events,  they’ve seen an increased rate in the number of suicides, and also the rate at which people are showing symptoms of depression has almost doubled. What are your thoughts on this?

Tanmoy- Yes, of course psychological distress is on the rise, which is commonsensical, right? We’re living through an extremely stressful period and like I keep telling my mother, it would be surprising if you did not feel some amount of distress. So, I think it’s very important to normalize that feeling of distress. Every feeling of distress is not necessarily depression. Depression, as it is understood clinically, is an accumulation of a certain set of symptoms over a certain period of time. Something like a global pandemic is of course going to make all of us feel a little bit on edge. And so I think we need to nuance this conversation by making that point upfront. 

After that, what I have to say is that mental health is such an intersectional issue. Everything about your life has a bearing on your mental health. Your case identity, your gender identity, your employment, your sexuality, how society treats you as a person. All of that has a bearing. What we’re seeing during the pandemic also, if you look at which communities are struggling with a disproportionate burden of psychological distress, these are your traditionally disenfranchised, marginalized communities. So, these are the Blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities in Britain, African-Americans in the US, in India the poorest of the poor. We’ve all seen the shocking scenes involving our workers in our states. So, the most gut wrenching toll of the pandemic has really been on those communities that are anyway vulnerable, and the pandemic has once again exposed these deep social inequalities.

 It should come as no surprise to anybody that at a time where the global economy is on its knees and jobs are being shed at a frightening rate, that these are the communities that are bearing the worst brunt of the pandemic. Whether it is in terms of mortality, once again, minorities in the US and UK are at a heightened risk of dying from COVID-19, naturally there is greater anxiety in those communities and because mental illnesses often have comorbidities with other problems like diabetes, etc. That also makes people very vulnerable, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored or neglected by healthcare systems, which are the communities that are traditionally ignored by formal employment, which are the communities that are generally left to their own means? These are the communities and so it’s no surprise that they are suffering the most, even during the pandemic.

Valerie- Yeah. I liked what you said because we are in unprecedented times, so normalizing the feeling of distress is something that can help us get through this time. I mean, when you talk about adjusting to the normal, I guess this is also something that comes under those things.

Tanmoy- Yeah, absolutely! I mean, I think it’s important for all of us to take a step back and pat ourselves on the back because it’s really a miracle that we’re all still functioning. I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the fact that we’re still talking, we still have podcasts and webinars and we’re still being productive. Of course, there’s that race for productivity and picking up new skills and new hobbies, as if this lockdown is some kind of an extended vacation, which it isn’t. 

I don’t want to glorify the whole work from home situation because for so many people, being at home is not at all a safe experience because there is so much domestic violence and many other stressors. I think given all of that, I think humanity has tried its best to hold it all together during this period and I think we really need to commend ourselves for that. And it’s completely alright. Like I said, it would be shocking if we didn’t all feel a bit off-kilter from time to time. So, yeah.

Valerie- So finally, I would like to ask you- what can we, as individuals, do to help during this situation of uncertainty because it’s definitely a time which has proven to take an amplified toll on our mental health. So, what can we do to help?

Tanmoy- I’d say first, we need to help ourselves to begin with. To allow ourselves to feel raw and vulnerable from time to time, articulated with people that you trust. Talk to people that you trust. When it comes to other people and how we can help other people, that’s a very complicated question because right now, because of physical distancing, etc., we are not really able to sort of physically be there with a lot of people. But simple things, I think, really validating other people’s experiences. Not questioning what anybody is going through or not spreading what is called ‘positive toxicity’, which is this posturing that everything is going to be alright and that everything is going to be fine. 

Yes, in all likelihood we look at this a year later and maybe laugh, if we are privileged enough. But for the time being, it’s important to not make people feel like they’re making a big deal out of nothing by saying things like “Look, there is so much misery in the World, what do you have to complain about? Cheer up, snap out of it, be happy”. I think we should banish this kind of language from our vocabulary. That would be a real favour we’d be doing to our family and friends. I think anybody who is feeling distressed, mirror their distress, validate it and say it’s alright to feel distressed. Ask them what you can to help. Don’t assume that they need your help, don’t lecture them on how they should live their lives, don’t make it about yourselves, when somebody comes to you asking for help.

Just validate, legitimize the feeling that we’re all feeling and generally just be compassionate and be there. Emotionally make yourself available as much as you can, without completely burning yourself out. Because this is a marathon, we’re in for a long grind, this is not a hundred meter race. So I think all of us just need to conserve our energies, prioritize, focus on the right things and just be compassionate.

Valerie- I think that was very wonderfully put. To help ourselves first and think about our needs, and when it comes to other people, to validate experiences. Not to assume but to just be there for other people, and understand and at least tell them that what we’re going through is okay as opposed to what you called positive toxicity. I thought that was wonderful. Yeah, so thank you so much for having this conversation with us today because it’s truly been an eye opener on a lot of fronts for me and I’m sure it will be for our listeners as well. There was so much that I got to learn from you so thank you!

Tanmoy- Thank you. Thank you, Valerie. It was wonderful talking to you. All the best.

 

LonePack Conversations- From battling Schizophrenia to uplifting communities- A timeless journey ft. Charlene Sunkel

People with lived experiences of mental health issues work hard towards managing their everyday lives, coping with symptoms, and more significantly, dealing with stigma. It’s inspiring to see how people use that experience, believe in themselves and work towards making a difference, which in turn empowers others around them.

 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie

Today, we have with us Charlene Sunkel, founder and CEO of the Global Mental Health Peer Network. She was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1991 and her journey since then has exposed her to various challenges experienced by people with mental disorders, within and outside of the mental health sector. This encouraged her to commit herself to fighting the cause for mental health and human rights. She has actively been involved in the field of mental health advocacy and awareness. She has also written and produced theatre plays and a short feature film on mental disorders to raise public awareness. 

Welcome, Charlene

Charlene- Thank you very much for having me to talk about this important topic.

 

Valerie- Yes! So, in the introduction, I said that you were diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1991 which was a time when this illness was probably not widely known or talked about. Your initial journey would have exposed you to several challenges around mental and physical health. What was it like to realize and combat these challenges?

Charlene- Yeah, I think in the 1990s, the level of stigma was extremely high, as you can imagine. I distinctly remember that when I received the diagnosis for Schizophrenia, I was not aware what that word meant. I never heard it before but in actual fact, even broadly, mental health issues or mental health conditions, I had absolutely no knowledge of it. The only thing I kind of knew at the time was that people had nervous breakdowns but I didn’t even quite know what that meant. So, what was difficult for me was that no one explained to be what my diagnosis meant. 

I was just prescribed medication and nobody explained even why I was taking the medication. So, unfortunately, during those days, we didn’t have access, we didn’t have Google or the Internet connection or access to information online. So, I physically had to go to a library to read up on Schizophrenia so I could inform myself because I needed to understand what the link was between Schizophrenia and my experiences or symptoms. Even in a library, I had to do it secretly so that nobody sees I was researching on Schizophrenia because of the enormous shame. 

So, at one point even a psychiatrist told me that I would never be able to work again, live on my own, make decisions, manage my own finances. It was a very daunting prognosis for me and I didn’t see much hope. So for me, if I look back, I think to combat stigma, I think it’s very important that people have access to information, both on an individual or personal level like in terms of your diagnosis, there should be a proper relationship with your treating psychiatrist or treating team and the stigma at that level needs to be broken down so that you are actively involved in your treatment, and at a community level—I think people need to come out more. 

That is why I came out to speak about Schizophrenia, about my experiences, to break it down. I find that that actually helps people to see the human behind the label of Schizophrenia. People had really terrible reactions when I went into advocacy work because I did public awareness, I spoke about my diagnosis and experiences and I often got the same response where people said “But it doesn’t look like you have Schizophrenia”, “Well, it doesn’t sound like you have Schizophrenia”. So then it kind of just showed me the high level of stigma that people don’t accept you as human. So, I think speaking out about it, that was the first step.

 

Valerie- Yeah, so I liked that access to information was just that important because you needed to go and figure out what it was that was affecting you so that you could know how to deal with it. And the importance of talking about your personal experience so people see the human side to the illness and they look at you differently, right? Not just with stigma.

Charlene- Absolutely. I had really funny reactions. You know, you can sense people’s attitude kind of change towards you when they learn that you have a diagnosis. It’s almost like they’re scared of you and they’re kind of distancing themselves from you and I think it’s helpful when you share, especially when you actually achieve in life, while you have a diagnosis. I think that’s a very difficult thing for people to try and understand, they say “You have Schizophrenia, how can you achieve success in life?”. So, that in itself, being kind of a role model, that helps breaking down stigma.

 

Valerie- That’s great! So, we know that Schizophrenia affects about 20 million people worldwide. Despite this being a significant number, just as you said, there’s so much stigma associated with the mental illness and that often prevents many people from seeking help and there are challenges that one faces while trying to find effective treatment. Having gone through this personally, how do you view the situation?

Charlene- I think although I must say I do see a kind of reduction in stigma, since I was first diagnosed up to now, I think what I see, where the change is, has been in the media. In the past, the media would either not report on mental health conditions at all or they would sensationalize it. You see, so if someone with Schizophrenia for example, has been involved in a violent act or anything, they sensationalize it and that kind of creates further stigma. It’s the same with movies. You know, portraying Schizophrenia wrongly or as people being violent and aggressive and that they just can’t function properly, I think the media and movies can cause a lot of damage in terms of stigma. So, there are still a lot of myths and misinformation like people are dangerous. 

Funnily enough, when people say that “People with Schizophrenia are dangerous and violent”, it’s funny enough that research shows that people are more prone to be victims of violence than to actually commit violence and that people would rather harm themselves than they would someone else. I think in terms of services also, I think we are progressing in terms of services and access to services now. The more people come out to talk about it, the more we create access. Also with people with less experience, to say that “I need more services and support structures than just medication and hospitalization”. 

So, I think globally we still fought, many countries still fought to kind of have a more person-centered approach to mental health services where you look at the person holistically because stigma in itself is actually more disabling than the symptoms of mental illness and that creates problems in accessing  healthcare and so, actually just to conclude on that question, I would say it’s up to us to speak out and to make people see that we are human and that we have the same health and mental health needs and that we can openly speak about it. I mean, if you look at cancer and HIV, higher stigma was around that years ago and now people are openly speaking about it and I often ask my question “Why is mental health conditions or Schizophrenia, specifically still such a difficult topic to discuss and why is there still so much stigma?”

 

Valerie- Right. I understand that because people look at it very differently. I think it’s only recently that people started taking mental health problems to be the real deal, you know? Up until then, you’d only look at a physical ailment and you would say “Oh, this is real”. I think perceptions are changing but they’re changing slowly. I did like that you said that you’re supposed to look at a person holistically. You look at them as a person and not relate it to the illness only.

Charlene- Absolutely. Yes, you must see the person because mental health impacts every aspect of your life. If I look at my experience, it had broken my relationships with friends and my family. So, you need something to kind of restore that relationship. I lost my job. There was no service that helped me to retain my job and kind of helped me with reasonable accommodation in the workplace so that I can continue working. Things like that.

 

Valerie- But that has changed now, right? I mean, people with mental illnesses still keep their jobs?

Charlene- Yes. I think it is starting to change. I think more in developed countries, there are a lot more advancements in terms of that. But I think in low and middle income countries, there’s still stigma attached even though I find, from experience in South Africa, that even though they say mental health conditions are considered a disability so companies should give you employment and opportunities of employment, but with mental health conditions, the stigma is still there. It is very difficult to prove that someone denied you a job opportunity because of your mental health condition because they are not going to come out and say it. There is still that stigma.

 

Valerie- So you’ve said that “If more people can believe in people with mental health conditions, they can achieve so much more”.  While fighting for the causes we observe and believe in, the road to success certainly wouldn’t have been easy. You just talked about how it’s so difficult for people with mental health conditions to actually become successful because the people around are not supportive and would just search for chances to pull you down. What was it like to overcome this and create the Global Mental Health Peer Network, which is a platform that empowers voices of people with lived experiences of mental illness?

Charlene- Yeah, I think that this whole thing is built on the presumption of a person with Schizophrenia’s inability, or anyone with a mental health condition. There’s so much focus on what you can’t do and just the presumption that you cannot do certain things. The focus should not be so much on the inability. Yes, I do have things that I still can’t do or won’t be able to do as good as I want to but I have a lot of abilities. I think people should focus a lot on the person’s ability and to give that person equal opportunities to achieve and to succeed in whatever they want. I’m not talking about huge things. A person can achieve the smallest thing possible and I think that should be recognized as well and motivate someone to achieve even more. So, I think it’s making people realize their potential. 

That’s what the Peer Network also wants to do, is to create mental health leadership. There are some people with mental health conditions, with unique expertise from their own lived experience and a lot of them are actually professionals in various aspects but just because of their mental illness, they could never really go very far and they got this leadership potential and can do so much. So, the Peer Network aims at developing leadership and looking at those with potential to become global leaders and empower them and so we strengthen the voices of people with lived experiences globally.

I think what’s also important is diversity in strengthening our voices. As you know, countries and even within countries, there’s huge variation and even a huge variation in the level of stigma, the level of specific needs and challenges, and I think those diverse voices, that I believe, can really change the World around mental health and give people that recognition of being a valuable human being.

 

Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you talked about the fact that people need to be given equal opportunities to succeed and that you must encourage and validate even the smallest steps towards success, which is eventually what will help them become successful.

Charlene- Absolutely. For example, if I have suffered from some anxiety to go out and socialize, and I really work hard and I actually manage to go out and socialize, that achievement should be recognized as big as someone who got a top job! For that person, that achievement is as huge as that. 

 

Valerie- Yeah. So what was the reaction like when it came to you starting the Global Mental Health Peer Network? On one hand, you were doing it to empower the voices of people with lived experiences but like we talked about, the entire stigma and people pulling you down and not being supportive, what was that aspect of it like?

Charlene- I think actually starting the Peer Network has been really rewarding. Through the people that we appointed on the executive committee who are now global leaders and especially, most of them are from middle income countries and just to see from them speaking out about their own experiences through the Peer Network, how it has changed the perception of people even in their local community. They are now becoming more involved at a local level. Whether it’s like influencing local policies around mental health or kind of getting the conversation going, locally through media, they just become role models. I think that in itself breaks down the stigma, specifically with them being at leadership positions within the Peer Network. 

 

Valerie- Yeah. I think it’s wonderful that you just said that because people are willing to speak up about the fact that they’ve had lived experiences has actually shattered stigma in people around their community as well and I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

Charlene- Yes, definitely. I think recovery stories, as you call it, are kind of powerful. Extremely powerful.

 

Valerie- Yeah. So personally, you’ve talked about your friends being there for you and their ability to often identify a relapse emerging even when you don’t. What role would you say a support system plays in the lives of people battling mental health issues?

Charlene- I think a support system is absolutely critical. I know maybe a lot of the focus of treating mental health conditions is at a more clinical level, if I can put it that way. If you look at the typical example, you get diagnosed, you get put on medication, sometimes you go to hospital. The big problem often lies here, now you’re discharged from hospital, you go back to your community, you get absolutely no support. That in itself, you probably had a revolving door syndrome where someone relapses, that just can’t cope and then they’re back in the system and so goes on. So, that community based support system is, I would even say, is probably the most important part of treatment and recovery of a person with a mental health condition. 

One thing that the Peer Network promotes a lot is peer-to-peer support. I do know that peer-to-peer support is mainly a thing in developed countries and has been for several years and I think it was lacking a bit in lower and middle income families. I know India is doing wonderful work in terms of peer-to-peer support. Even when you look at the research, there are a lot of benefits to peer-to-peer support. I mean there’s outcomes that show the person in much better mental health and general health. They are able to manage their condition better. They don’t feel isolated. They kind of relate to someone else who has also been through the same thing. There’s a reduction in hospitalization. Some even reduce dosages of medication. So the evidence is out there that peer-to-peer support in itself can serve a valuable role and it’s equally beneficial from services received from professionals. 

That was also indicated through research. Unfortunately, we see a lot of peer support groups all over, that seems to be quite common and acceptable but we still need to amplify the benefits of peer-to-peer support where people with lived experiences seek peer support training, so that it can be acknowledged that peer-to-peer support works and is acknowledged as a fundamental discipline in the mental health system, and with in service delivery. In a lot of countries, you do have a multi-disciplinary team that is involved in the person’s treatment or recovery plan. For me, any access like that, peer-to-peer support must be part of that team.

 

Valerie- Alright. So peer-to-peer support is one of the most important things we’ve talked about, that it helps people not feel isolated but also, you talked about it in the frame of one person with a lived experience talking to somebody else with a lived experience, right?

Charlene- Correct, yes.

 

Valerie- Supposing you don’t have a lived experience but you if somebody is going through something, how do you be a support system to them?

Charlene- I think we show that kind of peer support, I know people call it “informal” and you have “formal” but informal is just to support someone else going through a difficult time and I think that is just as valuable. For me, if I look at support, the key to that is knowing someone is there for you. You don’t necessarily need their help but just the knowledge of having someone there, that is there for you when you need them, that is just such a key component to mental health security that you can have. 

I think that human connection, for someone else that even if they don’t have a mental health condition, to support someone who does or go through difficult times in terms of mental health, just for that person to really make sure they are there, to listen non-judgmentally. You may not always understand but you acknowledge what the person is saying, acknowledge their feelings and their emotions and give them that secure space to speak out and know that you are there and that they can contact you. You can also play a very important role in facilitating access to services for that person.

 

Valerie- So talking about letting someone know that you are there for them, if they choose to speak up even if they don’t want to right now, I think that plays an important role especially now, when we are all locked up in our own homes and you might be going through something and you don’t really have somebody to talk to so I think it’s important, as you said, peer support and letting people know that you’re there for them even when they want to talk. 

So, thank you so much for having this conversation with us. It’s been absolutely wonderful listening to you and learning so much from you about how you view a person who’s battling a mental illness and how you look at them holistically, you talk about equal opportunities. There’s so much we got to learn from you today. Thank you so much, Charlene.

Charlene- Thank you very much and all the best with your podcast.

Valerie- Thank you.