‘What happens when madness descends’

(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)

Is the growing discourse around mental health yet another social media fad, or does it reflect that our society has got rid of the stigma attached to mental illness? It is difficult to come up with a pat answer because it can only be based on perception, feeling and conjecture. On the one hand, users of mental health services are openly talking about their diagnoses on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. On the other hand, there are frequent reports about suicide cases involving young people, particularly from marginalized communities. What is going on?

Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health edited by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait is a book that you might want to pick up in order to explore these questions. Instead of privileging the expert opinion of academics or mental health practitioners, this anthology gives you direct access to the accounts of people who experience or have experienced mental health distress. There is a rawness to their narratives, which is lovingly presented by the editors who hatched a plan to create this book while speaking about their own journeys over a shared bowl of noodles and hot tea in paper cups after an open mic event on a winter evening in Delhi.

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(Source: Amazon)

Breckenridge had survived incarceration in a mental institution in the city, whereas Kathait had grown up with a mother who had severe schizophrenia. Their personal histories kindled a recognition of pain, and a desire to tell the stories they had kept hidden out of sheer shame. They set up a not-for-profit trust called Bhor Foundation, and began to actively scout for more submissions to this book. It is a moving compendium of writing by contributors from Kolkata, Srinagar, Meerut, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi, Tehran, and various other places.

Breckenridge writes, “Through the stories of survivors, writers, poets and artists, those who have suffered or those who have watched their loved ones suffer, we have tried to make sense of what happens when madness descends, why it descends and what we can do when it does. Is it the result of a chemical imbalance; is it a virus that attacks only a few? Why do some people seem more prone to depression, anxiety and other mental health distress? And can we do anything about it?”

This book challenges the idea of ‘normalcy’ against which society measures individuals. Those who do not fit in are often seen as inconvenient or embarrassing. Many of them are bullied, abused, discarded and gaslighted. Others are treated with kid gloves, sent to shamans, or given unsolicited advice that has no connection with their condition.

Huzaifa Pandit writes about a pir in Srinagar who pronounced that his mental health issues could be traced back to a pari who was besotted with him. The baba started beating him with a plastic rod to drive away the pari. When that did not help, he began to pull Pandit’s hair and also bore into his calf with a sharp instrument.

You might assume that people who visit psychologists for therapy or psychiatrists for medication are in a better place but the testimonies in this book show that the treatments prescribed by these professionals do not work for everyone. There are people who have benefited immensely from their support but there are also multiple instances of expert knowledge being used to invalidate lived realities.

Bharti Manoj was diagnosed with severe depression and borderline personality disorder at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. She writes, “I was given a cocktail of psychiatric drugs. I think I became a guinea pig for them — they constantly experimented with my medication. Sometimes I felt better, sometimes worse.” The person experiencing distress is pathologized, reduced to a label describing their condition, and is stripped of their autonomy and agency. What does recovery mean in a context wherein the medical-industrial complex determines the fate of a person struggling with mental health issues?

This book questions the construct of recovery as a return to ‘normalcy’. According to the editors, and several contributors, this ideal condition is nothing but a myth that is perpetuated by oppressive social structures. The individual who does not embody the norm is branded an outlier while the real problem lies with families that cannot accept diversity. The distress these individuals experience might never go away because of the society they live in but they devise ways to manage or reduce their distress.

There are people who choose community care over therapy or medication. They wish to heal through immersion in activities such as writing, gardening, quilting, painting, cooking or hiking. They have the right to decide what to do with their lives, without being subjected to what Breckenridge calls “the ableist lens of a capitalist society which decides on behalf of everyone else.” That is the central point of this book. It is made with remarkable conviction and consistency.

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