Why Mental Illness is Nothing to be Ashamed of


If they answer not to thy call walk alone

If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,

O thou unlucky one,

open thy mind and speak out alone.


If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,

O thou unlucky one,

trample the thorns under thy tread,

and along the blood-lined track travel alone.


If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,

O thou unlucky one,

with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart,

and let it burn alone.

                                                                                                                                             — Gitabitan, Rabindranath Tagore


The question projected on the screen in the Media Resource Centre, Central Library, threw up interesting answers.

It’s about “not knowing what to do,” said someone. “Behaviour without a reason.”

It can be identified if someone is “anxious despite the absence of real threats,” said someone else. It’s about “over-exaggerating things,” chimed in another.

They “don’t interact much,” was another opinion offered. Even when they do, their behaviour is “not according to their age group,” felt someone else among the assembled. Also heard was the view that it’s all about “being impulsive,” and not being able to “identify and understand problems.”

“It’s not being yourself,” said one chap, in a rare moment of insight.

And then came the view I knew would be aired.

They “do not know the real value of something,” said someone.

This, at a Colloquium event, on 12th September 2014 at IIT Madras, a place where the young, talented, “cream” of India — people like me, I suppose — are said to be educated.

The question asked of them was: What is mental illness?

Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate'), by Vincent van Gogh, via Wikimedia Commons
Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), by Vincent van Gogh, via Wikimedia Commons

I presume that the “something” you were talking about, my friend, was an unconvincing euphemism for “life.” Sorry, you couldn’t be more wrong. I do not blame you — not you as an individual — for being wrong.

Why do I say you’re wrong, you ask? What gives me the authority to say I’m right and you’re wrong?

I’ve had clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder for a number of years now. So, yes, I know more about it than you do, though I wouldn’t claim I’m an expert; so varied are its manifestations. Yes, I’m perfectly well-qualified to comment on this. I’m not going to quietly listen to what you say anymore; I’m going to do the talking now.

Yes, I have a mental illness and I am not ashamed of it. Yet, I’m not identifying myself as the author, proud as I would be to do it, because my parents don’t want me to.

On the contrary, these labels — clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder — have become my badges of honour which I’ll wear with pride, giving me membership of a secret society in the exalted company of whose other members I find comfort.

When Robin Williams died in what was reported to be a suicide, I was saddened not just because he was no more, but because everybody who is anybody felt compelled to offer their mindless comments. One of those people was the self-proclaimed ulaganayagan Mr. Kamal Haasan, who said it was a “cop-out.”

“If the alleged story about his suicide is true then I dislike him for ending his life before his due date of expiry. That’s a cop-out that I don’t expect of an artist of his caliber.”

Now, Mr. Haasan is someone who professes to be an artist in a profession whose practitioners, one would expect, know a thing or two about human emotions. Evidently not. In saying Robin Williams was guilty of a “cop-out,” in implying that he had a weakness of will, in implying that he had betrayed his family and friends, Mr. Haasan displayed colossal ignorance and insensitivity, which, sadly, is by no means his exclusive possession. That one comment was an insult to the memory of Robin Williams. And equally, an insult to all those who, like him, like me, have suffered — and are suffering — greatly, whatever the reasons.

He was — rather, we are — weak of will, you say? Yeah?

I hold a passport which bears the stamp of entry to, but not yet one of exit from, an alien land. A land so terrifyingly alien and beyond ordinary imagination that people fear uttering its name. “Labels with scary names,” was the description I heard, of mental illnesses. Some are more scary than others, so they said.

Those of us whom you label with a mental illness, whom you look at patronizingly — believing that you are, in the absence of mental illness, superior of character and will — to whom you give out, often unsolicited, what you think is enlightened advice, saying “get over it,” “stop having negative thoughts” — scarcely pausing to think that if it were that easy, we would’ve done it long ago — whose desperate pleas for help you willfully dismiss as vain attention-seeking or sympathy-mongering, as just plain old sadness, just another passing phase in one’s life, to you I say: We have explored — and frequently conquered — a land that other men and women dare not enter. One which, fortunately or unfortunately, you may never enter.

I’ve been through experiences most people wouldn’t go through — clearly Mr. Haasan hasn’t — in their entire lifetime. I have charted the length and breadth of that land, explored, and deeply experienced, immersed myself in, every nook and cranny of it. I know it better than the back of my hand.

As a result, we are stronger than you.

If you know a friend whom you’re aware is struggling with life, seems burdened with the weight of the world, and is not himself or herself of late, stop reading this right now. Run to the room of your friend, hold his or her hand, look them in the eyes, and say “I care.” Then, still holding their hand, take them to the counsellor — available 12 pm to 7 pm except on Sundays — who sits in an annex at the far end of the reading hall, the one on the left after you’ve climbed the stairs, on the second floor of the Library. (Phone numbers: 9444249355, 9445418312, 9445418162. Be aware that I haven’t tried them myself.)

Better still, take them to one of the consultant psychiatrists at the Institute Hospital. That’s where I went directly.

Stop reading now, and go see your friend.

If you’re suffering greatly, and think you could use some help, but are not yet incapacitated by your pain, please go see the counsellor or the doctor as soon as you can.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, please read on. I’ve something to tell you. If you’re perfectly healthy, or even if you’re not, and would like to know more about mental illness, please read on. I’ve something to tell you, too.

However, because language is so utterly inadequate to express what I intend to say, or because others have expressed it — through words, or through music — with greater clarity and economy, I’ll take their help whenever I can.

Back to the Colloquium. All the varied answers unsurprisingly missed the point. Dr. Prabakar Thyagarajan, one of the consultant psychiatrists at the Institute Hospital, made the point I wanted to make.

He said he didn’t agree with the WHO definition of mental health, because it does not mention happiness. And it does not mention what is far and away the most important point to understand about those who are not mentally in perfect health.


That’s all very well, you say. It’s just sadness, only extreme, right? Wrong. The term “depression” is highly misleading. It is a lot more than just sadness. In fact, once you’ve fallen into the black hole, saying it’s “just” sadness misses the point by a few megaparsecs.


Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.


Okay. So you want to know what else it is — the symptoms. I can’t talk about other mental illnesses. Although I’ve observed at very close quarters what schizophrenia is, I haven’t been through it myself. Nor will I comment on bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any of the other varied disorders listed in the bible of psychiatry.

I can only talk about clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Here are some of the symptoms: insomnia; muscle pain all over the body; extreme fatigue; loss of appetite; a perpetually foggy mind; difficulty paying attention, say, in class, and staying focused on one thing; disinterest and lack of motivation in everything; depersonalization, which is an occasional, curiously detached feeling that you’re somehow observing your life from the outside; panic attacks; a complete loss of hope and self-esteem; and more.

Some people take mind-altering drugs, illegally, for fun. I do it thrice-a-day, legally. And it’s not nearly as much fun.

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