Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal work Illness as Metaphor (1978): “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Perhaps it is inhabiting that other place that brings out the most humane side of our existence — of learning to appreciate the perspective, the vulnerability that illness sometimes confronts us with.
As I took a good long look at a mental health-themed stall at the Durga Puja pandal in CR Park, a south Delhi colony, interactive games and surveys in full flow, these thoughts returned. The stall was set up by the Public Health Foundation of India (Knowledge to Action), as part of its PRIDE project to spread mental health awareness (and help suffering children), supported by Wellcome Trust/ DBT India Alliance. On the eve of World Mental Health Day (October 10), they came up with the idea of analysing how 75 per cent of the country’s youth (source: PHFI) are battling with mental illnesses everyday.
At first glance, a Durga Puja pandal might seem like an odd place for such a stall. But people flocked around the eager young PHFI folk all day. Who were these people asking pointed questions about their children’s mood swings and tantrums? Why were they looking like passengers without “good passports”, marooned at the airport of no return?
Sweta Pal, communication officer at PHFI, said: “The performances over the last two days generated a lot of positive feedback. People came to us with serious problems and what-to-do questions. Parents were worried about their kids’ stress levels. A lot of people brought back friends and spouses to “prove” to them that their anxieties and worries are “normal”. Mostly there was a lot of curiosity about why we weren’t selling anything.”
After a conversation with project coordinator Pattie Gonsalves, I got to participate in two jar games, which statistically explained how problems of stress, mental peace, fitness, food are interlinked. (One sought to locate the reason behind most stress-ridden situations, the other provides us with reasons that uplift moods). Towards the end of Navami (the ninth day of Durga Puja), it was discovered that the jar containing office/work-related stress was the fullest — a telling statement about the pressures related to our economic system.
Among the many sets of parents who visited the stall, there was one who wanted to know if their son waspaagal (insane). The only thing one can really say about this encounter is that it was good of the parents to ask this question in front of professionals; one hopes their misconceptions were swiftly dispelled.
It is rather troubling that the term ‘mental’ in mental health is understood as a pejorative. It shows that as a culture, we do not have the sensitive nomenclature for patients with mental illness.
It is necessary, therefore, for the relevant information to be disseminated in a thorough but wholly accessible manner. That’s where In the Life of Ravi and Asha comes in.
Ravi and Asha is a mini-comic that was distributed free at the PHFI stall. It’s about two people who have known each other since childhood, but are realising that their bond is turning into what is called a fair-weather friendship, with no outlet for the more disturbing aspects of their lives.
Once they realise this, they open up and tell each other everything. Asha’s father has a drinking problem, for instance, and there’s verbal abuse involved. Ravi has, of late, become listless and remains disinterested in everything, with no appetite, literal or metaphorical. His friends ignore his worries but we are shown that this is the onset of clinical depression. When the kids try to seek help from a teacher, he dismisses them summarily: “What do you have to worry about? You go to a good school and have a good home! Your generation is just lazy and ungrateful!”
Of course, this is a mini-comic, that too an instructional one, so the resolutions are neat and clean, no loose ends. But I feel that Ravi and Asha should be required reading, especially for the 11-15 age group. This is the age when children start being afraid of ridicule. Often, social ridicule is gendered to make matters worse. When I was in school, teachers would always reserve their rudest tones (and harshest punishments) for boisterous girls who had already attained puberty. For every out-of-the-box question they would ask, they would be disciplined by nasty remarks on their uniform, innerwear and so on. Even if their stress was genuine and had potentially serious repercussions, they were discouraged from talking about it.
Ravi and Asha is an attempt to change the way we address mental well-being. It does a good job in showing us some widespread myths about mental illness — and how we can counter them.
The efficacy of comics as an instructional medium has been well-documented. W Sones, in his famous 1944 essay ‘The comics and instructional method’, discusses how the medium of comics created a rare visual interest among students compared to textual learning. His studies also revealed that low- and average-IQ children found the graphic medium especially helpful.
Once we step into the shoes of the mentally ill, we realise the privilege that comes with being passengers from the kingdom of the well. From describing depression as a “character flaw” to tagging the sick as “psycho” and “dangerous”, we have been a rogue kingdom, it has to be said. One hopes that projects like this one will reach out to a large number of young people, and mental health truly becomes a priority for all of us. To quote from the comic itself, “There is no shame in asking for help. Mental health is, after all, as important, and must be taken as seriously as physical health.”
Rini Barman is a Delhi-based writer and researcher