For my university course on Mental Health, I dedicated the last two weeks to re-reading ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘Em and the Big Hoom’. It reminded me once again how we treat people who do not fit into the neat box of sanity and the thread of helplessness that runs through both the books. When you realize that the person you love is descending into “madness”, how do you save that person? You would have rushed them to the doctor without a single thought of whether their brains or bones were affected. But in this case you do not even know what has been affected, let alone think about a diagnosis.

Both Esther and Em suffered from unnamed “diseases”, which took them to psychiatric wards along with drug addicts and people seeking asylum to escape prison. They were helpless at the hands of what they were facing. The helplessness is perhaps heightened by the lack of a vocabulary, their experiences locked away in a world which language does not have access to. The only way they were seen was through the word “mad”.

Fast forward to today and the word “mad” is now under the umbrella of mental health. Yet despite the shift in vocabulary, do people still hear madness when we say mental health? The best way to ensure pin drop silence among a crowd of people is to let them know you have been visiting a counsellor. What did those people hear that left them speechless? The cloak of silence around, then madness and now mental health, is impenetrable as ever.

It is true that we have been able to attribute terminologies to certain conditions, which makes the process of identification and diagnosis much easier. But why are we still so hesitant to talk about it? Do we even know how to talk about it? We have created a culture of concretization – ‘What cannot be measured does not exist’. It is not enough to say you are feeling feverish; you need to rush, get a thermometer, and take your temperature and then it feels like you are having fever. How does an Em or Esther talk about their quest for those exact pills which will make the feeling of cutting themselves a little less? The act of trying to reduce such an experience to fit into our neat vocabulary is why the astounding silence exists. If the Ems and Esthers do not know how to talk about their experience, can passive viewers of this experience even begin to understand this?

It is not a hopeless situation, if not an extraordinarily sunny one either. If you find someone awake in the middle of the night and crying, ask them what is going on. You may not get straight answers or even understand what is going on but maybe they are not looking for understanding, but just a listener. You could play that role, sit there and quietly listen late into the night, just for that night help them fall asleep. You could take them to a counsellor or look for ways to get them professional help; but do not underestimate your role as a care giver. Once your presence becomes the one they can count on, the silence lessens (very slowly) and then the much needed conversations will start.

Priyanka Chakraborty is a student at Azim Premji University, pursuing her masters in Development Studies. She is a voracious reader and takes special interest in issues related to mental health.

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