Until very recently, if you attempted to commit suicide in India and survived, like I did, you would be met with the news that you could spend up to a year in prison for your failed attempt at taking your own life.
I had overdosed on sleeping pills, fully intending to die. I imagined I'd drift off to sleep forever, and it would be a blessed escape from the reality of my life. "Most of all", I wrote in my suicide note to my mother, "I am now going to be free of pain." But I wasn't. I was found in time, and rushed to the hospital. I shall never forget that wild ride through the empty streets, the blare of the ambulance siren in the background. I was saved from a ghastly end, with very little choice in the matter.
As I lay in the hospital bed recovering, little did I know that my ordeal was far from over. I was about to be visited by a bunch of uniformed police officers.
They would attempt to threaten and intimidate me, barking questions like "why did you decide to take your own life?", "what is wrong with you?" and "why do you want to die?".
The last thing I wanted to deal with when I was already suffering so much trauma was a conversation with the police. I was told to get my life together and to never attempt suicide again, or I might find myself in prison.
Shaken, I asked the nurse how the police knew, and she said that the hospital had called it in. It was required by law. It was a crushing blow to discover that the people who had helped save my life were also responsible for this terrifying twist in my tale.
I promised that I would get my life together – I had no idea how, but I would have said anything to be free of the police at that point – and that I would never attempt suicide again. I never went to prison. But I couldn't help wondering how many survivors found themselves incarcerated, exacerbating their trauma.
The next time I tried to kill myself, I did it in another country.
Eleven years ago, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression, or major depressive disorder. The diagnosis actually came as a relief. The doctor told me that it was likely I'd been suffering from some form of depression since my teens. It's a relief to finally have a name for something that ails you. It felt like pieces of myself were being slotted back together, like a jigsaw puzzle.
Major depressive disorder is a state of depression with all the classic symptoms – lethargy and sleep disturbance and despondency and morbid thoughts and feelings of worthlessness and suicidal ideation. Aside from this, I also suffer from dissociative amnesia, a condition which develops as a side effect of grief or trauma. I referred to it as 'losing time', although, of course, it is so much more than that.
When I tell people that I suffer from depression, more often than not, people react in a manner that is neither supportive nor empathetic. I've been told to 'get over' my depression, even though this isn't possible. Depression is an illness, a condition that ails me. Asking me to 'get over' my depression is like asking a diabetic to stop being diabetic.
The Indian government's attitude towards my illness isn't that different from the average person's. I recently took a test administered by the Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (OCCPD) to determine whether I qualify for a disability certificate that would allow me to qualify for a measly package of benefits from the Indian government. I scored zero across the board.
Zero. No disability.
I wasn't particularly surprised. I'm what is known as a 'high-functioning' depressive. This isn't the first time that someone – or something – has tried to gaslight me.
I told my best friend about it, and she thought I was fooling around. She told me to take the test again, “and tell the truth this time.” I did tell the truth, I told her. As realisation dawned, she said it was ridiculous.
Ridiculous? Yes. But it's also inevitable, because this is India, and mental health disorders have always been more of a stigma here than they are in the rest of the world. There is so much that is not just unseen, but misunderstood. Take this test for instance. I was asked a series of questions that I responded to with a yes. Do you take care of yourself? Yes. Are you clean? Are you presentable? Yes. Do you take care of your environment? Yes. Do you eat a balanced diet? Are you able to cook yourself meals? Yes. Do you have a job? Can you support yourself? Yes. Are you able to keep other living things alive? Yes.
As most people with mental illnesses will tell you, these questions barely scratch the surface. There is so much more to mental illness that the OCCPD seems to miss. I wanted to see more relevant questions that would have made me feel like someone got it, that someone could see me. Questions like: Do you find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning? Yes. Do you feel worthless? Yes. Do you feel invisible? Yes. Do you think you deserve it when bad things happen to you? Yes. Do you want to die? Yes. Yes. Yes.
The OCCPD is not alone. For a long time, the definition of mental illness in India was defined as 'any mental disorder other than mental retardation'. The Mental Health Care Act of 2017 attempted to correct this with a broader and more inclusive definition. And while the existence of this new, improved law is proof that some progress has been made, it also leaves a lot to be desired.
The bill recognises the role that psychiatrists play in the treatment of mental illnesses, but fails to mention the role of therapists, counsellors, and psychologists. It focuses on the needs and requirements of patients in mental healthcare facilities – only a dozen government mental hospitals in India were deemed 'liveable' in 1999, and the 2011 report is almost identical – but it fails to take into consideration that not everyone diagnosed with a mental illness needs to be institutionalised. It is heavily reliant on medical treatment, and ignores treatments such as therapy; it mandates that insurance companies must now provide insurance for the mentally ill, but neglects to specify that counselling and therapy must be covered in the new insurance schemes.
For all its failings, the one big thing that the bill did get right was that it finally repealed the inhumane and cruel Section 309 of the Indian penal code, decriminalising attempted suicide once and for all.
I'm one of the lucky ones when it comes to mental illness. I have a loving, supportive mother, a circle of friends who encompass me with their love; I have education, awareness, and privilege on my side. I could have been one of the countless people in India whose families abandon them, or pay quacks or faith healers to 'treat' them. I could have been one of the patients at the asylum Erawadi in Tamil Nadu who died in a fire because they couldn't escape the heavy chains that bound them to their beds. I could have been Raj Patel, who was locked in a room by his own family for ten years, simply because they couldn't cope with his schizophrenia.
The understanding – and the treatment – of mental health in India has a long way to go, and Indian society, on the whole, is culpable. Change can only truly come about with compassion and kindness. It is imperative for people to realise that mental health is relevant and necessary, and that everyone deserves a chance to live with dignity and self-respect.