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Photo courtesy Ankit Banerjee
Photo courtesy Ankit Banerjee

Mental health and the power of stories

Through the Living Stories initiative, people share their experiences of dealing with mental health issues and the social pressures that come with them

Amid the green leafy palms, the shiny ferns and the beautiful birds of paradise, the cheery chatting of young people fills the air. The tables are brimming with food and drinks. It’s a typical Saturday afternoon at a swanky urban restaurant. 

But on one side, the tables are devoid of food and drinks. Instead there are papers, pens and pencils. People sit in pairs across each other, oblivious to the crowds and noise around them. They are immersed in deep conversation, one person sharing their story of struggles and courage and the other listening intently. 

They are part of Living Stories, a project started by Sanchana Krishnan, who has bipolar disorder, and Your Dost, an online platform that provides counselling and support.

Krishnan, the curator of the event, says, “The idea of treating human beings as ‘books’ who would tell their stories to a particular audience has existed for a while now. However, mental health and illnesses have been a topic that has particularly suffered the brunt of silence for the longest time."

In India, this silence is deafening. According to a recent report released by the World Health Organization, nearly 100 million Indians suffer from various mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Conversations around mental health are sadly lacking. The deadly cocktail of stigma, taboo and ignorance does not encourage people with mental health illness to share their struggles and any attempt is shoved the under the carpet. 

It was her own experience with the social pressures surrounding mental illness that set the ball rolling for Krishnan. “Living Stories sparked to life in a moment of extreme desperation when I was being told for the millionth time by loved ones not to consider my mental illness too seriously and not to allow the words ‘bipolar’ to weaken me. I was more than a word that some random doctors had slapped on to me," she says.

After years of confusion, social stigmatization and self-loathing, she finally came to an acceptance of sorts. But she realized that the kindness of family and friends could go a long way in coping with her illness. “(This) encouraged me to create a space filled with conversations and the sharing of knowledge, which would prompt people to be kinder to themselves and others around them, and seek help if and when needed."

She got in touch with Johnson Nishanth, a former associate and an old friend who has been with her through many a breakdown. Currently working as the culture manager at the restaurant Social in Bengaluru, he helped provide the venue for the event.

The response to the event demonstrates the need for such a space. When Living Stories was announced, over 50 people from Bengaluru alone volunteered to be “books".

Most of these “books" are people battling mental illnesses themselves. A few are mental health professionals. Some are both. 

Sitting in a far corner with blue and pink streaks in her hair is Shalaka Pai, one of the “books". At first glance, she seems reticent, staring down at her phone, almost as if she wants to avoid the crowd. But on approaching her, she is friendly and chatty. 

Pai, in her mid-20s, has borderline personality disorder. “I call it the Long Island iced tea of mental health issues," she says. 

Shalaka Pai (right) with a reader. 
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Shalaka Pai (right) with a reader. 

People with borderline personality disorder typically have anxiety, depression, trust issues, emotional dysregulation and narcissism. Pai suffers from emotional dysregulation. She has problems with romantic relationships and trust issues, “although I have good friends".

Pai, who was diagnosed last year, explains, “Borderline personality disorder is hard to understand because it is a lot of things. I’ve been told that many doctors are reluctant to treat patients with BPD as there is no guarantee that the patient will stick around." 

Like most people with mental health issues, she is still on the journey of discovering and understanding the nuances of her problems, which is why she participated in this event. “As I speak to people and I do not repeat the same thing to any two people, I hope it will help me understand myself a bit better. It is also cathartic," Pai says.

Krishnan adds, “For the books, my expectation is that they find catharsis in speaking about the issues that were once immensely painful to even mention. It is also a great feeling as a book to know that you can help someone who is so clearly suffering from the same illnesses as yours, or has a loved one on the same road. I was a book myself, and felt all of this. I know my other books did, too."

As for the readers, there were several types—people who suffer from mental illnesses, those who had friends or family struggling with some form of mental illness and a few who just want to understand more about mental health. 

Vrinda Dimri, a student of psychology, falls into this third category. Her interactions with the books were an eye opener for her. She says the stories she heard are very different from what she reads about in her textbooks. She now understands that mental health illness can come in so many forms and the symptoms and the mechanisms of coping can be so different for different people. 

Bharath Divakar, another book, found his coping mechanism through creative expression. Divakar, who has bipolar disorder, discovered spoken word poetry some years back where he performed a poem called Bully that he had written to address the bullies in his school. 

Many in the audience applauded him for the beautiful performance. One person in particular, someone he had never met before, apologized for having been a bully in school. That act, he says, felt immensely cathartic and reassuring. 

“After coming out as queer, then being diagnosed with bipolar... the third time I came out as a fabulous unicorn—something beautiful and to be loved," says Divakar.

Since then, his motto in life is “Not self-help, self-love." Every day, whether he is facing a depressive phase or a manic phase, he makes it a point to do one thing that reinforces this motto. He says that only when you love yourself can you truly love others too, and others will love you back.

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He is of the belief that we perceive society through ourselves and hopes that through his conversations, this unique platform can evoke empathy and compassion among the “readers". 

Krishnan agrees: “Honestly, I would be the happiest person if mental illness was not treated like a myth, and people could just be without being labelled abnormal or dysfunctional. That is unfortunately not the world we live in, so I hope events like this make it easier to talk about mental illness."

“It is easier to talk to strangers about one’s issues," says Sasha Ranganath, who doesn’t identify with any one gender and corrects me when I address them as “her". “My pronoun is they/them and not she/her, since I am genderqueer."

Ranganath’s articulate and cheerful persona belies not only this person’s age but also a traumatic past. Just after they had let go and made peace with an unhappy childhood, Ranganath began to explore their sexuality. For this, they was bullied and mocked in school, so they decided to homeschool themself.

Like Divakar, Ranganath too found solace in performance poetry. “I’ve always been a creative person. After I left school, I met so many different people through performance poetry, some who are here have become like family to me," the 17-year-old says.

In a world that attempts to pound square pegs into round holes, where diversity and tolerance are at threat, events such as these give voice to the square pegs and the marginalized are essential. 

Krishnan surmises, “This is only one venture and it is just a starting point... My biggest aim is to help build a world where people accept the multiple realities existing around them and learn to become kinder to others—and to themselves—when they are not okay mentally."

Living Stories is happening in Delhi on 26 August at Hauz Khaz antiSocial, and in Mumbai on 2 September at Khar antiSocial. To apply to be a book, head here, or contact sanchana.krishnan@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy Ankit Banerjee.

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