Prioritizing Mental Health

By Shyama Parui

A couple of decades ago “paagal," “mental," and a gesture indicating a loose screw in the head, were used to describe people with mental illnesses. While such overtly rude terms are less in use today, the stigma associated with it has not reduced drastically. When the malaise is intangible and the patient suffers from unseen struggles, it is hard to empathize leading to fear and a lack of compassion. As a child, I remember being afraid of anyone who seemed partially or completely “mad" like the mumbling homeless man who was often spotted near our bus stop or the lady from our neighborhood who was rarely seen or heard as if she was trapped in an invisible cage. The average person probably held a sincere belief that any family member of theirs could not possibly face any psychological disorder and if such a problem were to arise, marrying them off would be the cure. Go figure!

This year, the Tokyo Olympics along with its display of athletic prowess, highlighted the urgency of an open discussion around mental health. We witnessed the world's most decorated gymnast stepping out of certain events when she experienced a case of the “twisties." From what I understand, it is a familiar term among gymnasts used to describe a mental block during which an athlete loses their spatial awareness during an intense routine.

I cannot even begin to imagine how terrifying that must be knowing that a wrong landing could lead to permanent paralysis. Champions such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps were brave in their moments of vulnerability despite being under constant scrutiny. My respect for them has grown exponentially. Successful athletes are usually role models for strength and perseverance, but the ability to humbly accept when to dial down performance goals for the sake of overall well-being, is rare. Fans err by placing their heroes on pedestals and then revel at knocking them down. Instead, they need to accept the human side of celebrities. After all, invincibility and infallibility are myths that we feed ourselves allowing the adulation to reach toxic levels.

Behavioral and psychological issues are not limited to athletes, and it should not be dismissed as a videshi problem. The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists approximately 297 disorders and simply put, it could happen to anybody. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated in 2017 that 3.2 million adolescents between the age of 12-17 had experienced at least one major depressive episode. How can that be? Aren't the teen years the best years of your life? If you ask any disillusioned teenager, they will point you to Olivia Rodrigo's song titled, “Brutal" to share their perspective. Here is a verse from the song says it all.

“They say these are the golden years
But I wish I could disappear
Ego crush is so severe
God, it's brutal out here"

In another part of the world, reports that one in every seventh person in India suffers from some form of mental illness. Similar rates probably existed before but our awareness was low. I have heard anecdotes about suicides among women in rural India that were a sad outcome of post-partum depression. In a society that glorifies motherhood, early symptoms were probably misunderstood or brushed aside.

Our flawed construction as humans leaves us hopelessly prone to maladies as exemplified by the prolonged COVID 19 pandemic. In addition to the physiological distress experienced by the infected, the uninfected were tormented with psychological difficulties. As if that were not enough, many COVID survivors have been affected by depression and anxiety. In my mind the coronavirus is like the ruthless terrorist who not only opened fire at innocent people, but also planted land mines and timed bombs that will set off multiple waves of destruction in the future. It is imperative that we prioritize mental health so that we can safeguard our families. Change is tough and whether it is large scale behavior change or legislative reforms, it can be excruciatingly slow. So, in this case I have decided to take the matter into my own hands.

Truth be told, its impact will be low and yet, it is worth a try. To begin with, I plan to continue educating myself on ailments of the mind and keep a cheat sheet handy so that I can identify signs of common mental disorders early and seek help early. I will give proactive therapy a serious consideration and check in frequently with family and friends for both our sakes. And I hope to do my part in ending the stigma associated with psychological therapy by tossing aside judgment and supporting individuals who've raised their hand to ask for help.

Prioritizing mental health for your own family is a baby step in the right direction. The long strides manifested as public health reform will need to follow soon. I propose an annual mental health screening for individuals of all age groups that is covered by health insurance. Investing in more counselors and therapists in schools and the workplace will be prudent. I would also recommend periodic follow up screening for gun owners to prevent guns from being in the possession of mentally unstable individuals. My last recommendation may stir up a hornet's nest, but I prefer to be an idealistic fool rather than an apathetic bystander.

Attempting to build our muscles just before competing in a big race or game is futile, but strength training over time through diligent exercise will bear fruit. Figuratively speaking, this makes a case for constructing a gym that teaches us techniques to be mentally strong and provides trapeze nets that will catch us in case we fall.


Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: