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This Mumbai-Based Podcast Is Helping Break Stigma Around Mental Health

  • IWB Post
  •  October 5, 2018

He said he hadn’t been able to get off the bed. Hadn’t even taken a shower; for over a week. I listened. She said she hadn’t slept for 3 days straight. Her eyes all puffy and droopy. I listened. She said she had been thinking of ending it all at once. Was getting too hard and pointless. I listened.

He seemed so happy to her cousin. She hadn’t been able to understand why he had chosen to end it. She wept to me all day. I listened. She went through her day as usual, smiling and cheerful. In the dark corners of night, she cried herself to sleep. Every single night. I listened. She woke up to use the toilet. Muffled sounds of rummaging through things filled the silent air of midnight. Holding my breath, I listened.

Listened to the silent sounds of suffocating violence within; a soul at war and a body ready to explode. 

A few years ago, by the lake, I remember talking to a friend about suicide. The Robin Williams news was just out and I was struggling to grasp the reality of it. I remember telling her, “What he has done, isn’t fair. He seemed happy and brave. And this isn’t the right way.” I was upset at him. She said to me, “just a moment of weakness, that did not pass.”

Welcome to the world of Mental Health. 

Being not okay is okay. But it needs our acknowledgment. And an effort to make it work. Where does one begin? By talking about it? Does it help? Does anyone care? Does this change? Get better? 

To gain a better understanding, I got into a conversation with the very lovely Avanti Malhotra and Zain Calcuttawala, who with their path-breaking podcast ‘Marbles Lost & Found‘ are trying to raise awareness about mental health and its importance in our day to day life. 

Marbles Lost & Found Intro

Marbles Lost & Found is a team looking to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in our day to day lives and challenge the stigma around it. How are we doing it? With a podcast, which we’re putting together with the help of the good people at IVM Podcasts.

Posted by Marbles Lost & Found on Thursday, 14 June 2018

They connected through a Facebook post. Zain, who is also a music producer, shared an honest and compelling post on his battle with depression. The post that gathered huge attention also pushed Avanti, who practices psychotherapy in Pune, to roll with the momentum generated, and with Zain, take the conversation further.

Congratulations on Marbles. Do you think a podcast has the reach you are looking for with a topic like Mental health? Especially in India, where radio and music stations rule.

Zain: Well, I think one has to start somewhere. That being said, it was clear that this podcast wasn’t an echo chamber in any way. The feedback we’ve received from a number of listeners has been immensely touching, and that’s the most important thing to us – that we can make a difference with even one person. Of course, there will always be ground to cover, and we’ll cross those bridges as we get to them.

How does one know they are struggling with mental health issues and it isn’t one of their passing mood swings? 

Avanti: Well, a passing mood swing is exactly that: passing. To be diagnosed with depression you need to fulfill a certain number of criteria and exhibit signs of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness for a minimum amount of time as stipulated by the DSM-5, a mental health manual. This diagnosis can only be made by a mental health professional, otherwise you could go around saying you’re depressed when you’re just feeling low because of a shitty situation.

Who needs to be made aware of mental health? Those who are struggling or those who watch them struggle without realising the hidden layers?

Avanti: We use the term “mental health” as if it is limited to a small population of sufferers with illness, but actually it is just the state of being mentally healthy and being able to manage emotions and situations without shutting down or lashing out, hurting oneself or others in the process. So becoming aware of the multiple layers that make up our reactions to situations and people should really be a universal teaching! We speak about “world peace” when so many of us barely find peace within ourselves… ordinary, daily peace.

Zain: To add to this – think of mental health in the same realm of physical health. If you’re down with a broken leg, for example, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to you if the people around you often (like family) knew a bit about what’s needed? Something as basic as not putting unnecessary pressure on the injured leg? Suppose they didn’t know what to do, but thought the solution was a literal “walk it off.” You’d probably be worse off. As Avanti said, it ought to be universal.

Do you think there’s an excessive noise about mental health currently? Brain is a fascinating thing.. an idea is the easiest thing to plant in it. What if I am not really depressed.. but with all the talk and quotations and endorsements on social media, I easily categorise myself into one.

Zain: I definitely do NOT believe that there is excessive noise around mental health. This “noise” is much needed and has been a long time coming. It isn’t a rich/privileged person’s issue and affects everyone across the board. There’s an argument (that typically comes from an older generation) that is along the lines of “In our day we didn’t have all these mental health issues. Life was tough and we carried on.” Sure, and that’s because we didn’t know better, did we? Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder up until 1974 — that’s less than 50 years ago! Lo and behold, less than a month ago was it decriminalised in India. So in my opinion, archaic blanket statements that begin with “Back in my day…” hold very little ground. The narrative was that one shouldn’t talk about their issues – well I wonder how much good that’s done us as a society. 

Centuries and ages have passed with people struggling with their ’emotions’ and ‘feelings’. All the previous generations have lived with it, like you said. Yet, the term depression is blasphemous! I recently watched Pardes and I kid you not.. you had to listen to the old lady dole out advice to the young daughter-in-law – ‘Beta, har kisi ke saath aisa hi hota hai. Learn to live with it.’ Who do we listen to?

Avanti: Listen to yourself. All the previous generations have also lived with honour killings, marital rape, abusive in-laws, dowry and female infanticide (to name a few). Just because you’ve suffered doesn’t mean the next generation has to put up with that same suffering in the same way – there’s a term for that and it’s called “shitty parenting”. Sure, nobody is saying you have to be overly indulgent and use your feelings as an excuse to not be kind, not go to work, not show up to life – but if you aren’t able to show up to life maybe it’s worth asking yourself what’s going on internally, pay some attention to those feelings and ask for help if you require it. Indians are masters of pretending to have everything under control when we are actually terrified and confused; we would rather hold our suffering alone and feel isolated, bitter and misunderstood than risk our pride and ask for help! YES, they’re only feelings. YES, that’s life. And YES, we can improve the quality of our lives if we give our feelings the attention they need. They exist because they’re telling us something!

Avanti Malhotra

Zain: The bullshit will manifest itself in other ways – anger issues, difficulty with confrontation, lying, commitment issues (in any context), over-dependency, self-esteem issues, and irrational insecurities, phobias, and even physical concerns – heart issues, digestion concerns (plenty of research out on this), chronic headaches, the list could go on.

As far as self-diagnosis is concerned, that isn’t exclusive to mental health. The old joke of logging onto WebMD because you have a cough and finding out you’ll die in 7 days is along the same lines. This is why doctors exist, be it for physical or mental health. We come to them with what’s troubling us and they tell us what the possible issue is. And yes, some doctors aren’t good at what they do. Since mental health is still taboo in our country it can be difficult to get a reference for a trustworthy professional, but like with physical health, one is entitled to a second opinion.

How do we really know what we are feeling?

Avanti: To know how we are really feeling we have to take the time and energy to check in with ourselves and not push away our emotions and downplay situations that bother us. If something is bothering us and we’ve tried various methods to work it through – talking to friends/family, ignoring it, writing about it – and we are still left with residual feelings that won’t go away and are clouding our ability to thrive, then maybe something is up and talking to a professional might help clear the way. I wouldn’t say there is excessive noise in the country about mental health but that the country has finally woken up to the fact that for centuries we have suppressed emotions and not communicated feelings and that people don’t have to feel isolated, worthless, ashamed, guilty or judged when they could actually just… talk about what’s going on.

Has the word depressed become a generic/slang term? And is its misuse and common use diverting the attention from those that are a real concern?

Zain: I’m not sure about this and I’m not sure if we’re the best people to have a definite answer. Nevertheless, I think that the awareness drives around it are helping people become more mindful and in turn making it less generic. In fact, I reckon it’s possible it was used more as a generic term earlier. Think of how people use terms (till date) like “Oh man, I’m so OCD, I can’t deal with mismatched socks” or “Dude, first you wanted to go out but now you don’t, you’re so bipolar” or “She’s nice to me to my face but is bitching about me to everyone else; she’s such a schizo.” All used as slang, all grossly misrepresented. And these are illnesses that are generally much less understood than depression and anxiety.

Do you think Marbles is causing a difference? To whom? And how?

Zain: We hope so, we believe so. We may be a drop in the ocean, but like I said initially we need to start somewhere. As a team, we agreed unanimously that even if we’re able to have one person turn around and say “thank you so much for helping me believe that I’m not alone,” then we’ve done what we needed to. Thankfully there have been a number of people who have written in either to say thank you, to say they feel empowered to seek help, or to ask for referrals. According to our stats, our listener base is quite good keeping in mind general podcast audiences in India. Marbles has been featured in a number of press articles, and all of this is really heartwarming to us because it’s reaffirmation that we’re doing something right and what we’re talking about is resonating with people, because at the end of the day, we’re all human.

IWB: What has been the most exciting experience of hosting Marbles?

Zain: I think the listener response more than anything. It’s been very emotional for us. Some of the messages we’ve received are truly touching (we’ve posted some of them on our Facebook page). Plus the process of ideating and putting the podcast together (over a year and a half) have brought the team closer together and taught each of us more about ourselves and how to deal with our own respective issues. Overall, it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe; it’s not as simple as an accomplishment, but is better encapsulated with the phrase “Wow, we’ve made a difference.”

Where does one go for help? Can mental health professionals be trusted?

Avanti: That’s a good question. There are plenty of counselors out there who aren’t qualified, so it’s best to do some homework. Seek a counselor who comes with a reference, read reviews online, ask your counselor questions about their work and experience. Finding the right counselor is a question of fit – one might work for me but not for you. It’s like any relationship. If you don’t like a counselor, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself if you can bring this up with the counselor – a good counselor is receptive to feedback and the transparency will deepen your therapeutic relationship. As for where one can go for help, getting referrals from your doctor, psychiatrist or hospital might be a good place to start. There are a few counseling centres popping up over the urban cities that have online reviews. A couple of websites and apps now offer online counseling too.

Why was the reaction of your folks and friends on hosting this? And opening up about your issues?

Zain: Luckily we’ve had a good amount of support from the get-go. I suppose a lot of the initial hesitation might have been self-imposed — Is this a good idea? How will people react? Will this affect me negatively? But we moved past that (which we were able to do thanks to the support we received), and no regrets.

How does one get to stay happy? It should be easy, right? Stay happy. That’s what we all wish for and write on birthday cards. But why do some of us struggle with it?

Avanti: Our understanding of happiness is flawed. Chasing happiness sounds like a recipe for disaster. Happiness does not necessarily mean ease or comfort. Life is suffering, a constant struggle for balance, and some days are easier than others. Sometimes our perspectives are widened and sometimes they are narrow and this can affect the way we see our lives. I would say that it isn’t just some of us who struggle with happiness… we all do. Only some of us voice it, allow ourselves to feel it more deeply or seek for answers to questions.

Zain: To add to this, when someone says “Hey, don’t be sad,” I’m curious to know how many people have literally stopped being sad that very second, if it’s supposed to be easy.

What is depression? Self-initiated or a deep-rooted medical condition?

The long answer to this question requires a proper conversation or writing an essay! The short answer is that depression is a combination of having a genetic predisposition to it, an event or situation that may trigger the depressive state, and a pattern of thinking which highlights feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness and feeling bleak about oneself, other people and the world in general. It can be treated as a medical condition because it can be severely crippling – with therapy and medication.

You can follow the Marbles Lost & Found page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marbleslostandfound/

Or write to them here: writetomarbles@gmail.com

Please Note: The Marbles Lost & Found team strongly recommends seeking professional mental health treatment to anyone who feels they might need it.

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