As I grapple with the unforeseen changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel both elated and weighed down. Elated, because my creativity keeps me buoyant despite the gloom around me. Weighed down, because my inner reserves of patience do need some time to get replenished. I am happy to see more reportage about the mental health implications of this global crisis but I also feel worried about the alarmist tone often used to sensationalise such a crucial subject.
The desire to locate a friendly resource introducing the subject of mental health led me to the book Young Mental Health, published by Simon & Schuster India. Apart from the fact that it was released on my birthday, what appealed to me was its intention to support adults keen on having conversations about mental health with children and adolescents. Indian families often struggle with talking openly about mental health issues, especially when relationships are determined by patriarchal hierarchies.
The book is co-edited by Amrita Tripathi and Meera Haran Alva. Tripathi has several years of experience as a journalist and is now the founder-editor of an online portal dedicated to people’s stories of mental health called The Health Collective. Alva is trained in clinical psychology, family therapy and the management of learning disabilities. She has previously worked as a consultant with schools and now has an independent practice. Her expertise lies in individual psychotherapy, couples therapy, parenting work, and child and family therapy.
It took me a few weeks to read ‘Young Mental Health‘. This seems a bit unusual because it is not densely packed with scholarly material that might need a dictionary or expert knowledge to process. However, it made me review my expectations of what a book must do and be. It is uniquely structured with a mix of interviews, personal essays, comics, affirmations, case studies and photographs. If you are seeking some kind of coherence, that might be difficult to find. It could appear almost like a bunch of blog posts strung together. However, if you approach each fragment as a stand-alone offering and examine how it resonates with you, the reading experience could be different.
In her introduction to the book, Tripathi writes,
We want to share stories and learnings and talk to experts, all the while understanding that there is an increasing push to focus on the psychosocial aspect of mental illness, that there is no one-size-fits-all model of diagnosis and care, and that the narrative needs to be centred around and led by those of us living with a given condition or diagnosis, who are as much the experts on their lives, as the psychologists and psychiatrists who have made it their life’s work.
This book has 18 chapters. I was deeply moved by the chapter ‘Learning to Heal’, a comic made by mental health advocate and illustrator Ishita Mehra. It honours the feelings that one goes through after going off medication for clinical depression. The protagonist in this comic shares, “My partner was always there, reminding me that withdrawals are only temporary. I had trouble sleeping, unusual dreams, tremors, restless legs, irritable moods, suicidal thoughts and many breakdowns…My daily meditations helped me get back to my internal calm…I realised that healing was never a brief phase but an eternal and life-long experience.”
I also enjoyed the chapter on understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) written by Dr Amit Sen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Based on his own lived experience with ADHD, he explains why tasks assigned at school can be challenging for children with ADHD. What teachers perceive as lack of interest or rebellion might come from a difficulty to sit down and concentrate on academic work. As a former school teacher, it helped me realise how children are labelled as inadequate or deviant when what needs to be looked at more closely is the pedagogical approach itself, and how it might favour neurotypicality and promote ableism.
Dr Sen writes about the frequent remarks of ‘Homework not done …’ mentioned by teachers in his school diary. They did not provide the kind of support he needed to flourish in the classroom. His mother was disappointed in him, and her growing indignation was expressed through harsh methods of discipline. He, in turn, became passive-aggressive, rude and defiant. The teasing from friends was also a source of despair but what kept him going, despite all this, was an unshakeable faith in himself.
I have often wondered where it came from – perhaps from the early years of absolute love and nurturance, but much more from the unflinching faith that my father had in me and my abilities. Not in academics, but in every other activity of interest, including football, theatre, music, food, travel and adventure, or any other novel experience that excited me. He had this naïve curiosity about whatever we (me, my brother and sister) did or brought to him, and would rejoice at every little success or discovery.
His testimony works as a strong appeal to parents to make concerted efforts to understand the obstacles their children face and how they can act as a source of guidance and support.
The other two narratives that struck a chord with me were IIT graduate Anwesh Pokkuluri’s autobiographical essay ‘Battling Fear, Depression and the Pressure to Always be Good’, and Tripathi’s interview with Paras Sharma who runs a mental health organisation that provides individual counselling as well as group therapy. They speak of mental health in the context of socio-political structures. Pokkuluri writes about benefiting from therapy after growing up gay in a small town without role models and access to resources. Sharma demystifies his approach to post-modern, intersectional, feminist and existential therapy.
What teachers perceive as lack of interest or rebellion might come from a difficulty to sit down and concentrate on academic work. As a former school teacher, it helped me realise how children are labelled as inadequate or deviant when what needs to be looked at more closely is the pedagogical approach itself, and how it might favour neurotypicality and promote ableism.
The book also engages with topics such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bullying, child sexual abuse, eating disorders and self-harm. In addition, it provides information on mental health helplines. Understandably, this book is not intended as a substitute for professional help, stating that is indeed a responsible thing to do. However, the page-long legal disclaimer issued by the co-editors could be quite discouraging for someone who approaches this book looking for reliable guidance.
The Health Collective, the publishers of this book and the authors do not make any recommendation or guarantee service or quality of any professional or helpline number or website listed herein. The Health Collective does not make any representations, warranties or guarantees as to, and is in no manner responsible for, the services provided by the professionals or their websites or the helpline services…The Health Collective does not claim copyright or endorse or recommend or represent on the veracity of the advice contained in the articles or stories (including the comics) on this website or reproduced in this book.
How does this make you feel as a reader? It gives me the impression that it can be beneficial to learn about other people’s journeys; however, they are not meant as templates to follow. What may be healing for one person may not work for someone else. Experts make subjective assessments. Therapists have their political leanings, preferences for certain kinds of therapies over others, and their childhood conditioning, which they bring to the therapy room. Despite the theoretical frameworks and years of training at their disposal, they may not necessarily get to the heart of what a person seeking help is going through. Eventually, self-acceptance might be the only reliable form of refuge.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who loves hugging trees, contemplating the teachings of the Buddha, and working towards a queer affirmative world sustained by poetry.