Mental health remains a taboo in many societies, shrouded in silence and misunderstanding. It is a silent battle that countless individuals face, often hidden behind smiles and seemingly “normal” lives. I found myself ensnared in a web of stigma while grappling with depression and suicidal ideation. Now it is my time to break free from the chains of stigma and fear that has gripped me, to open my heart and mind, and stand with others who have had similar experiences in their fight against this silent epidemic. Through my experience I hope to foster the need for empathy, understanding, and compassion. To create safe spaces for those struggling with their mental health which allows us to speak out without judgment.
Growing up in the enchanting landscapes of the North East of India, a region known for its beauty and vibrant cultures, I struggled to come to terms with my mental health challenges. I grew up in Assam and I come from a small town where my father held a managerial position in a Tea Estate. As a child I would mingle with the elite community. I adapted to their lifestyle and expectations. Although this meant conforming to certain standards, this experience was woven with the beauty of tea estates that enveloped us. Those idyllic days of my upbringing were marked by the lush greenery, the aroma of tea leaves, and a sense of unity in the close-knit community. Despite the pressure to match expectations, I cherished the privilege of growing up in such a captivating place, where nature’s tranquillity left an indelible mark on my heart. But when confronted by my internal struggle it was difficult to see the beauty that was outside.
This silent battle was hidden behind my smiles and laughter, making it challenging for those around me to comprehend the depth of my pain. As I grappled with depression and suicidal ideation, little did I know that I would soon face an additional burden – the weight of stigma from those I held close.
The Silent Struggles of Childhood
Growing up, I faced immense difficulty in expressing my emotions. At times, I was haunted by a profound sense of loneliness. Despite being surrounded by friends and family, I often felt like an outsider, unable to truly connect with those around me. The pressures of academics and societal expectations weighed heavily on me. I felt the weight of needing to excel in school and meet the high standards set by my parents and teachers. The fear of disappointing them or falling short of their expectations added an extra layer of anxiety to my young mind. Looking back now I also faced moments of emotional turmoil within my family. Being a child, I did not understand how to navigate the conflicts and challenges at home. All of this left me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. I experienced moments of intense despair, one day in class 4 or 5, I even wrote a secret suicide note to my mother.
At the time, I believed that my feelings were too complex to be understood. I wanted to talk to my parents and I was eager to share my struggles with them. I wanted them to understand my feeling of hopelessness and to recognise the burden of carrying these emotions in silence. I just wanted them to ask me “How I am?” But I kept my emotions locked away, hoping to shield those I loved from my inner turmoil.
Seeking Attention or Hidden Pain?
As I grew older, the weight of my emotional struggles became apparent. In high school, I resorted to self-harm as a desperate cry for help, seeking attention from parents, friends, and later, partners. However, instead of recognizing the seriousness of these acts, my cries for help were often dismissed as mere attempts to seek attention.
It wasn’t until I moved to Delhi for work that things took a drastic turn. I put on a facade of happiness and normalcy at the office, concealing the darkness that engulfed my mind. But outside the office, the urge to escape from life itself became unbearable. The terrace of my building seemed to call out to me, offering an escape from the pain within. Fearing for my life, I reached out to a colleague, who took me to Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health, Neuro and Allied Sciences, Delhi. (VIMHANS)
At VIMHANS, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and intense suicidal ideation. This diagnosis was both a relief and a terrifying realization. It provided a name for the turmoil I had been experiencing, yet it also meant confronting the gravity of my condition. With the support of my psychiatrist, I saw a glimmer of hope that healing was possible through proper treatment and support. Through therapy I understood my experience as a feeling of abandonment. In the midst of grappling with issues of abandonment and suicidal thoughts, I found myself at a crossroads. I had been working in a high-paying job in Delhi, but the emotional turmoil was too overwhelming, leading me to make a difficult decision. I felt compelled to return to my small hometown, seeking solace and support from my family during this challenging time.
As much as I longed for understanding and acceptance from my parents, I sensed their discomfort with my decision. The thought of facing questions from relatives and neighbours, about why their daughter had returned home, lay heavily on them. My parents worried that if I left my high-paying job and returned home, it would spark rumours, leading to speculation that I did something wrong in Delhi and so came back home. They feared that our family’s reputation would be tarnished, and the prospect of me finding a suitable partner through an arranged marriage would be compromised. In their eyes, it seemed easier to conceal my struggles and pretend that everything was alright, rather than openly addressing the issues at hand. The worries of my parents only added to the invalidation I felt all along.
I went home nonetheless. Back in Assam, I embarked on my journey through therapy and medication. Initially, progress was visible, and I felt like I was finally on the path to recovery. But I underestimated the importance of patience and the need for consistent care. As I began to open up to my friends about my struggles, I hoped for empathy and understanding. However, what I encountered was quite the opposite. Some of them dismissed my feelings as exaggerations, believing that I was merely seeking attention. “Everyone goes through ups and downs; it’s just a phase!” they would say. I began to question my emotions, in moments I too believed that I was over-exaggerating my emotions.
Even within the confines of my extended family, the stigma of mental health cast its dark shadow. When news of my struggles reached their ears, they responded with hushed whispers and hidden glances, as if discussing my mental health was a shameful secret that must never be uttered aloud. My relatives believed that my condition was a reflection of some personal flaw or lack of willpower, failing to recognize the complexities of mental health. I began to feel they looked at me with sympathy and so I avoided going to family gatherings.
The sting of judgment and misunderstanding intensified at an incident at the local pharmacist where I would go to pick up my prescribed medications. The way the man at the counter handed over the medication, almost tossing it towards me, made me feel like I was somehow less deserving of respect. That incident made me feel like he regarded me with disdain only on account of diagnosis and the medication I was prescribed. As if the diagnosis, the medication and the struggle was something to be ashamed of.
As the whispers spread, I felt a growing sense of isolation. The stigma became a burden that weighed me down, making me question my self-worth and reinforcing the idea that my struggles were not valid. The judgment from society didn’t bother me as much as the pain I experienced when my parents expressed their worries about being judged. I began to question my decision to share my struggles with my parents. My parents frequently minimized my experiences by comparing them to “bigger problems,” this led to further self-doubt and a sense of guilt for seeking help.
The Road to Recovery
A few months later I took up a new job in another city in the North East. I loved the cool temperatures in the north east, which was not possible in the metro cities. There I met my husband and we got married. Things became a bit better thereafter. In a bid to reclaim my old life, a life without medicines, I prematurely stopped my medication and therapy. The medicines used to make me a bit weak and slow and I longed for a life without them. This led to a relapse. As I struggled to find my footing again, fate dealt me a cruel blow. A close friend, lost her life to suicide. The guilt of not being able to respond to her and grief of her passing descended upon me. I blamed myself for her tragic end. Haunted by guilt and burdened with sorrow, I knew I needed to take drastic measures to confront my mental health challenges. I checked myself into NIMHANS, Bangalore, where I received a comprehensive diagnosis of Cluster B traits, Depression, and Somatic Symptom Disorder. I used to feel extreme pain, at times I would take the pain to the extreme, like I wanted to feel the pain. With intensive therapy and medication, I began my arduous journey towards healing.
The road to recovery has not been easy. The anxiety of being abandoned that once consumed me still lurks at the edges of my mind, and the thought of death sometimes lingers. However, my husband’s unconditional love and support have made me feel valued and cherished, even in the darkest moments. His willingness to learn about mental health and grow alongside me has strengthened our bond and created a foundation of trust and resilience. My psychiatrist’s expertise and compassion have provided me with hope and practical tools to navigate through my mental health challenges. His guidance has been instrumental in helping me uncover the strength within me and to keep moving forward towards healing. Therapy has worked for me. I took a job which required me to travel a lot and communicate with people and I enjoy being in the field as a social worker. My journey towards overcoming depression and suicidal ideation has been a gruelling one, this journey has taught me that mental health needs time, patience, and unwavering support.
Slowly but surely, I began to reclaim my narrative, dismantling the stigma that had taken root in my life.
As a response to stigma from people around, I started disconnecting from people who didn’t understand me or my problem. I realised they were not helping me in my journey and so I made a firm decision to not have any connection or communication with them. As I look back on my journey, I know that I am not defined by the stigma I faced. Instead, I am defined by my resilience, courage, and the unwavering belief that together, we can eradicate the shadows of stigma and embrace mental health with empathy and understanding.
While I may be from Northeast India, my story transcends borders and cultures. My story is a testament to the importance of destigmatizing mental health worldwide, fostering understanding, and creating a compassionate society that embraces those battling their inner demons. As I continue to walk this path towards healing, I hope my story can inspire others to seek help, find their strength, and embrace life with unwavering determination. The journey towards healing is ongoing, but with the love, understanding, and guidance of my husband, my parents and my present psychiatrist; I know that I am not alone in this fight against the stigma of mental health.
Anamika Deb is a social worker living in India. She has been working within the development sector for the last six years. She has an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of those less privileged and aspires to work towards a more equitable and just society. Anamika is a survivor in the battle with mental health, with the knowledge that for her the battle never ends.