I Have Battled Suicidal Thoughts & ‘Mental Hai Kya’ is Triggering
As a person with clinical depression and a history of suicidal ideation, I found ‘Mental Hai Kya’ disturbing.
Trigger warning alert
Razor blade and the chills.
The first visual which popped up in my mind when I saw the poster and the teaser of Mental Hai Kya was of the night when I decided to end my life using a razor blade. And along with the visual, I could sense a gush of unpleasant memories and emotions fill up my senses.
As a person with a history of suicidal ideation and ongoing battles with clinical depression, I found the promotional content of Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao-starrer Mental Hai Kya triggering and deeply stigmatising. The more time I spent poring over the poster, the angrier I felt.
The producers and Kangana Ranaut, who stars in the movie, have released statements that the movie encourages people to embrace their individuality and fights the stigma around mental illness. As a member of the audience who is undergoing a mental illness, the title and the promotional material did very little to make me feel comfortable about my illness.
For people who have on a continuous basis been ridiculed for being ‘depressed’ in front of their friends, family members, colleagues, the title felt like a direct jab at everyone who has or is battling any mental health issue and especially ‘mental illness bullying’.
Mental Health Awareness in India
In India, the awareness about the importance of mental well-being is low, though the tendency of calling a person ‘mental’ or ’psycho’ is surprisingly high.
According to a survey conducted by The Live Love Laugh Foundation in 2018, 62 percent of the survey participants used terms such as retard, crazy, mad and stupid, when asked to describe people with mental illness.
Albeit the results are from a small focus group, it is definitely indicative of how deep the stigma runs when it comes to mental illness.
Title of the Movie Sets Us Back by Years
Despite the clarification of filmmakers that the movie is not aimed to offend any person, the usage of the catch phrase ‘mental hai kya’ and promoting stereotypes of mentally ill persons such as a cross-eyed lead actress ends up doing exactly that!
The title of the movie can actually end up undoing the years of hard work put in by mental health activists who have put up a brave fight to end the stigma, as Dr Soumitra Pathare notes. Over an email interview, Dr Pathare, mental health activist and Director of Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, tells me that the promotional material released sets us back by several years as it uses stigmatising language and stereotypes people with mental illness.
Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at Wysa, world’s first mental health chat bot, feels that the posters of Mental Hai Kya can have an impact on young adults especially if they are battling a mental illness.
Smriti shared that a lot of college goers and young professionals anonymously seek help on Wysa “because of stigma associated with being called ‘mental hai kya’ (are you mad) if they are seen visiting a counsellor or a professional in an in-person setting”.
The use of stigmatic words in the title of the movie is therefore clearly problematic.
Is Sanity Really Overrated?
The film poster goes on to say ‘Sanity is overrated’.
Were the makers too focused on the message of encouraging people to embrace their individuality and ended up overlooking the problems associated with such a punchline?
As I was slipping into the abyss of depression, I experienced a loss of control over my mental faculties. Sitting in a plush office in a high rise, I would offer counsel to my clients with a constant urge to end the conversation right there and jump off the window to end my life. These episodes were followed by breakdowns where I would wish my ‘sanity’ – my ability to make a rational judgment – be restored so that I could function like the lawyer I used to be.
So I beg to differ – for someone who is undergoing a mental illness, sanity is definitely not overrated.
‘Mental Hai Kya’ Reinforces Stigma
To name a movie ‘Mental Hai Kya’ reinforces the stigma – when the need of the hour is a collaborative effort of all stakeholders of the society to work towards eradicating it.
Smriti shared that the posters released are particularly dangerous for people who are vulnerable to self-harm thoughts or are triggered by such imagery or young children like her own daughters aged 10 and 7.
She adds that “young vulnerable minds, like those of adolescents or young adults, can find these [posters to be] very daring or triggering to commit an impulsive act following what their favourite actors are doing and are unable to think of consequences that can follow. The promotional content is like giving an image to the thoughts of those who struggle with sado-masochistic traits.”
Smriti also adds that the responsibility of the filmmakers does not end with putting a disclaimer “that ‘content and characters is all fictional and its not to hurt anyone’s sentiments’ – it is not enough. It is not enough to stop people from internalising what they see or strengthening their beliefs about a concept.”
Bollywood and Mental Illness
Looking back at the kind movies made, it is evident that Bollywood has mostly demonstrated a colossal ignorance about mental illness. The use of mental illness in Hindi movies has been to create an emotional melodrama and add to the entertainment value of the movie.
One of my earliest memories of watching a movie on the subject of mental illness was Khamoshi where the doctor instructs the nurse to pretend to be in love with her patient, who suffers from acute mania after facing a heartbreak, to ‘cure’ him! Never mind the gross violation of medical ethics in doing so.
The award-winning performance of Sanjeev Kumar in Khilona where he portrays the role of a schizophrenic is actually a lesson in how not to make movies about mental illness.
Some of the contemporary movies such as Tanu weds Manu Returns don’t do any better. The lead pair’s marriage is on the rocks – so they visit a mental rehabilitation and recovery centre to undergo counselling. When the actor gets worked up during the session, the doctors instruct the security to drag him away!
I don’t know what was more bizarre – the limited understanding of psychotherapy or how calmly Tanu sipped her beer after committing Manu to the center.
Dear Zindagi, though a brave attempt to fight the stigma around undergoing psychotherapy, ends up romanticising the topic of mental illness and therapy.
Therapy for me is a journey of self-discovery, to process our emotions, through a holistic understanding of our conditioning and experiences. The therapist is not a magician and cannot be your tool to attain enlightenment.
A Word of Advice to the Filmmakers
Cinema is an extremely powerful medium particularly when it comes to conveying a message about an issue. In the times that we live in, cinema can be used as a medium of social change.
According to Smriti, “Movies made with sensitivity and empathising with the characters can actually be helpful sometimes for people to challenge their existing ways of thinking or can give them a new perspective to their own life.”
Therefore, the primary need for filmmakers is to demonstrate an empathy towards mental illness and translate the empathy on screen.
For example, the Oscar-winning movie about John Nash, a Nobel laureate who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia is titled A Beautiful Mind – a title which does not have even a sprinkling of any stigma about schizophrenia!
Or a title such as Little Miss Sunshine which is about a family where everyone, except the youngest daughter Olive, suffers from a form of depression and Olive is shown as ray of sunshine to help them cope with the pain of depression. True empathy cannot exist if the filmmakers fall into the trap of using stigmatising language while claiming to make a movie about raising awareness about mental illness.
While we await the release of the movie to understand if the claims of the filmmakers are true, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
(If you are feeling triggered by this post, please reach out for help. Some counselling and suicide helplines you could reach out to in India: iCall – 02225521111, Sumaitri – 01123389090, Lifeline – 03324637401, Sneha – 04424640050, Parivarthan – 08065333323.)
(Shayonee is a lawyer based in Mumbai. She strongly believes there is a need for greater openness about mental health matters, especially in the workplace.)
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