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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The odd monopolies ruling our mental health discourse

When someone says, “Let’s talk about it," it usually means, “Let me talk about it." People who hold the megaphones are the ones who say, “Let us talk." That is what has happened to all the talk on mental health. Who exactly is talking?

In matters of physical health, the influential are physically fit. In matters of mental health, the influential are usually, by their own analysis, in poor mental health.

There are big differences between physical and mental health, so there is a limit to finding parallels between body and mind. Even so, the over-articulation of physical health should warn people about the over-articulation of mental health.

In all the creeds that promote physical health, the evangelists almost always have fit bodies that most people do not possess and may not ever be able to. Many aspects of yoga and calisthenics, for instance, are unattainable without a particular arrangement of muscles and bones. The entire inspiration industry is built on the megalomaniac’s rhetorical question: ‘Why can’t you be like me?’ The ‘talk’ about mental health contains the voices of genuine sufferers but it is monopolized by megalomaniacs who have discovered a new way of talking about themselves—what they are going through, their reasonless sorrows, their problems, their fights.

Some good has come from this, just like calisthenic videos have made people fitter in their failed pursuits of hand-stands. I know some people suffering from mental illness who have started talking about what they are going through and have derived this confidence from famous people. It comforts them to talk; they are not expecting a cure. Even so, the public articulation of mental-health has been taken over by celebrities whose afflictions appear mild, and this has its dangers. The famous cannot speak the whole truth.

In Asylum, a history of how India dealt with its mental health, author Daman Singh writes that G.F.W. Ewens, once superintendent of an asylum in Lahore, believed “in a case of acute mania… regular and ample feeding was essential—if necessary, by force. For a patient who did not take eggs and meat, he suggested plenty of milk, ghee, sago, tapioca, and rice. If also induced to perform some form of manual labour, certain patients became less violent and began to sleep better."

This might seem like a crude solution today, but it broadly represents the conventional view that nutrition and exercise have a major effect on mental health. And that is also the mainstream scientific opinion today. But in all the ‘talk’ about mental health, we hear very little of this. Sugar itself has become as sacred as mental health; you have to be careful what you say, people are fragile. In a mollycoddled world, nothing that gives you stress can be prescribed to you. If the prospect of a 5km jog every other day and a life without flour and sugar upsets you, the famous are not going to suggest that.

There is another danger of letting celebrities take control of a conversation. A legitimate way for the famous to make money is by talking about stuff. What if their words on health are funded by a business? If I ran a US pharmaceutical company with a monopoly drug for a psychiatric illness and wanted to expand my market to places like India where few took medicines for “melancholia", I would persuade Indian celebrities that they need to talk about what they are going through—no products, no endorsements, just talk about your feelings.

If the US Central Intelligence Agency could fund the globalization of Russian literature, why cannot a pharma company get behind “let’s talk about mental health"? Unless, this has already happened.

In the physical world, this happens in obvious ways. For instance, sportstars promote drinks filled with sugar as “rehydration", and shoe companies sponsor ‘conversations’ about amateur running.

Also, the more that ambassadors of mental health are feted, the more they are encouraged to offer healing tips. That brings to me the image of a large feeble man who has diabetes imparting his views on physical health. Eat like me, he says, work out like me, think like me, be me. This can never happen. Actually, this can happen because anything can happen these days, but he will never become a prophet of physical health. Yet, this might be what’s happening in mental health. The most influential ambassadors of mental health are in poor mental health. The articulation of mental health today is not only the testimonial of the ailing. It also has those who promise a path to something called “wellness". And many of these people who have solutions for poor mental health may not be sane at all. They are probably influential because they have deluded themselves into believing they have found a path to joy.

The ideal model of mental fitness would be a person who seeks happiness, and finds it in occupation and preoccupation, who gets bored now and then, but not so deeply that it becomes sorrow, whose sorrows are caused only by remarkable events and not by the mere gloom of twilight or the sight of a white car, who is not in an environment where the ideas of mentally-ill intellectuals are passed off as pursuits of a better world. To be precise, a banal person. Not only is such an unremarkable person of no interest to anyone, he or she is not allowed to comment on poor mental health because mental traumas are so sacred today that only people who have experienced its agony are allowed to talk publicly about it. In effect, it is like a world where diabetics have a monopoly over all conversations about physical health. What can go wrong?

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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