Most people talk about mental health as a short-term problems and short-term, everyday disorders or acute disorders—something that can be cured with medication, counselling and a change of lifestyle. Doubtless a lot of people experience it this way. However, that is not my experience, and I will not talk about that here.
The positive definition of mental health would be satisfactory emotional and behavioral adjustment. The negative definition would be an absence of mental illness. This is a simplification of a complex set of sometimes disjoint criterion put under a very large umbrella.
Concerns of mental health range from behavioral adjustment to disorders of the brain. As such its not straight forward to have a conversation about mental health without getting something wrong or overgeneralizing something. Now considering the fact that each of these problems along the range of behavioral adjustment to psychological disquiet to psychological disorders to disorders of brain chemistry and brain structure, there is still one fact that remains constant. The fact that these concerns are real to the person experiencing them. The problems are not only about how much psychological pain they cause the person but also that they affect the quality of life and often more importantly stop people from functioning properly leave alone flourishing despite obstacles. Oftentimes people find themselves stopped dead in their tracks.
If the aim of live is not only to exist, but to exist and flourish, then mental illness is a problem that needs to be recognized.
A Multidimensional and Ugly View of Mental Health
Mental illness is not the one-dimensional thing that it is shown as in media—either the teenaged girl made suicidal purely because of external causes, the college student suffering from depression and anxiety shown staring into the distance with a sad expression on their face, or the polar opposite misrepresentation—the stereotyping of ‘extreme’ mental illness as crazy, dangerous, degraded, so different from us that we cannot even hope to understand them, held up to us as looming threats of what might happen if we go off the beaten, neurotypical path. Or misrepresented and dramatised with near-magical abilities, both feared and awed—think of the very common misrepresentations of people with Dissociative Identity Disorder, as one example.
Mental illness can mean—cutting oneself to function in class, having a high CGPA kept afloat at the expense of taking care of one’s mind. It can mean lying for days in bed without getting up, sleeping through important events because you just don’t have the will to get out of bed. Mental illness can be a woman abusing her children, yelling psychotic nonsense at them, and it all being kept within the family. It can be a father drinking himself into oblivion instead of dealing with his family.
Mental illness is not pretty, and it is not a problem that can be handwaved away by ad-hoc solutions like student volunteer training or simpering HV lectures and workshops in the name of students’ well-being that do nothing for the significant population of mentally ill people on our campus.
The Kind of Change we Need
The college’s response when one reaches out for help is quite positive and one can apply for mental health leave and take the time out to recover. However, we still need social, institutional and structural change to help students with mental illness.
Many times, people in positions of authority think that they can solve the problem of mental illness within their family or institute, via some stroke of organisational brilliance. Many people have their own ideas, ranging from compulsory yoga in a bid to make sleep-starved students more “healthy”, shamanistic happiness seminars in a bid to teach students unverified philosophy that, the organizers swear, are the key to a vaguely-defined “happiness”, and the like, to wilder schemes. The one thing all these strokes of brilliance have in common is that they disregard the agency of mentally ill people, and add extra burden to a population that is already straining under a heavy academic load.
The truth is, we cannot personally know what is “good” for someone’s mental health unless we are the person themselves, or their chosen confidante or psychologist. But we can make small changes to our social structures to make life more livable for mentally ill people.
One part, of course, is societal—removing the stigma around mental illness, making it okay to talk about it and seek help. Making people accept that taking temporary medication for mental illness is okay, that it’s not very different from taking medication for a particularly long-term flu. Informing people about therapy and making the idea of professional therapy and counselling more acceptable—not any longer a marker that someone is “mental” or wrong, but an indicator that a person’s seeking help for a common problem.
However, structural change—change in how our institutional—and since I’m in IIIT, educational structures work, is another important part of the process.
During the POPL class of 2018, Professor Venkatesh Choppella tested the idea of conducting remote video lectures, streamed in multiple classrooms and even, if possible, on students’ personal laptops. I was delighted by the idea because video lectures would mean that I could learn even on days when leaving my room is hard, that I can disengage from the lecture at any time, calm myself down and then come re-engage, and that I didn’t have to play the game of “go to class and be overloaded and unable to work all day, or stay in and miss class?” every time I had a bad morning or a bad stretch of days.
(Unfortunately the reality of completely remote lectures didn’t pan out this semester—the lectures were broadcasted only within the POPL classroom, and attendance was still compulsory.)
I don’t think that making life easier for neurodivergent students was the professor’s intention in testing this, but this is an example of how a change that benefits all students to various levels can be a life-saver in particular to mentally ill students. Making teaching, learning and assignments easier to access and to do—not by reducing the difficulty of a course or assignment itself, but by reducing the difficulty involved in the logistics thereof—adds a +10 of ease to everyone else’s life. And since some people live life on a default setting of -10, this enables them to be on par with their neurotypical peers.
Apart from general solutions that make a student’s life easier, several universities abroad offer accommodations to students with mental issues, that help them function better. I’m not going to include a list here, but I will say that the concept of giving academic and structural accommodations to mentally ill students is by no means a new concept.
Being Insane, and Making Your Peace with It
The popular narrative of mental illness—in progressive circles, where there’s enough conversation about mental illness to have a popular narrative—is one of onset of symptoms, a period of suffering in the metaphorical darkness, visiting a therapist, “seeing the light”, medication and/or therapy, and recovery. “Recovery”, as in, these symptoms will eventually disappear and one lives a “whole” life again.
Some things don’t go away. There are diagnoses that are permanent features of the brain—autism spectrum disorders, for example. There are diagnoses where the end result can never be a complete “cure”, but management of symptoms to the extent that one can once again flourish, not just survive.
Besides, mental illness, or neurodivergence in general, is not entirely negative. This might sound strange—given that I have spent most of the article talking about mental illness as a problem—but, well, things are multifaceted. Or rather, I should say that some things that we call mental illness intersect with the wider umbrella of neurodivergence, and neurodivergence can be both positive or negative.
Neurodiversity. What is neurodiversity? To quote:
“The neurodiversity paradigm suggests that it’s not altogether a bad thing that human brains vary quite a lot. This perspective is in opposition to the medical model of brain variations and disability, which takes for granted that ‘normal’ brains are both real and desirable, so that any deviations from that norm represent disorders, mistakes or diseases.”
Being significantly abnormal can be okay. An example: in popular culture, having “multiple personalities”—multiple people or personalities sharing a single “person”—is a horrific disorder. However, many multiples—people with MPD, or now diagnosed as DID—formed communities in the 90s and quietly protested against the “abnormalization” of multiple personalities. Healthy multiplicity is the term for acceptance of several identities or personalities existing within the same body, instead of treating it as a disorder. In fact, the philosophy emphasizes that trauma-based multiples are capable of learning to cooperate and function in a healthy fashion, so that integrating the personalities is unnecessary.
There are emerging, successful therapies that suggest trying to work with “abnormal” people is a better method of therapy for some disorders, than stubbornly trying to cure people into “normal”. There is a growing body of psychiatrists and psychologists that view mental issues as being on a spectrum from healthy, everyday behaviors to disorders.
I have a small army of tips, tricks, lifehacks and coping mechanisms for functioning in college. Some among them: I’m very sensitive to noise, so I often wear noise-cancelling headphones around the campus. For the same issue, I wear earplugs in classes, that let me hear the professor lecturing but damp the noise to a bearable degree. I carry fidget toys and plushies around campus to soothe myself – those annoying fidget spinners? Yeah, they actually help people like me. I cope with my brain’s constant, unceasing demand for mindless stimulation by sewing- I’ve found that it is a soothing, repetitive activity and also one that gets me cool purses and gloves and things.
I use my phone in class sometimes. Having a phone may take away some of my attention. Having a panic attack in class will take away all of it, so I compromise. In a way, living with mental illness is a lot about finding the halfway point between what society wants you to do, and what your brain will allow you to do.
I’m good at hyper-fixating on a topic for days in a row and pouring all my time, thought and emotions into that one topic, so I’m focusing on research where—to an extent—I can choose my fixation.
(I’ll note here that the above paragraph sounds very faux-inspirational “My life is completely in order, look at all these wonderful things I’m doing to cope!”, but I’m only showing the nice happy coping mechanisms I’ve tried here, and also only the ones that have worked, here. Please don’t get the impression, from the above paragraphs, that my life is in any way put together.)
Also, anecdotally, I’ve seen communities and support groups—hell, even a “support group” that consists of two friends bitching to each other about their respective malfunctioning brains—to be immensely helpful. One part of mental illness is feeling like one is alone, that one is wrong and broken. Knowing that there were other people out there with brains like mine—and not only that, but that they led their own lives, good or bad—helped immensely. Another reason that communities help is that they consist of people who are involved in the day-to-day drudgery of living life with mental illness, and thus one finds very specific and actionable advice on forums and online communities. In my case, the entire reason I was able to stay afloat until I got to the second year of college and met a therapist, was because of help and tips from communities and forums of other people like me.
Most of all—it’s okay. I know this sounds corny or untrue, but well, this is the best advice I can give.
It’s going to be okay. Yes, it’s going to be harder struggling through the added burden of a mental illness, but you can do it. And no matter what your brain or your environment or society tells you, there are beautiful things in this world still worth living for.