Trigger Warning: Depression, Suicide, Mental Health
Editor’s Note: This month, that is September 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Boys, Men and Masculinities, where we invite various articles to highlight the different experiences of masculinity that manifest themselves in our everyday lives and have either challenged, subverted or even perpetuated traditional forms of ‘manliness’. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These days India is overtook by a storm. As people shut themselves in their homes with the onset of the pandemic, another whiff of alarm and panic emerged that erupted with its wrath on television screens and social media, on June 14th. The tragic death of the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput has been a shocker for many people on multiple levels. The initial narrative that circulated on media had been that the actor died by suicide. News channels did not hesitate from flashing movie clips of the actor where he appeared as a lively, charming fellow, full of zest for life, which created confusion in the minds of the viewers.
When you are constantly flashed with images of a person laughing, smiling and brimming with energy; subconsciously, it becomes more difficult to believe that the person could have suffered from a mental health crisis. For an actor, who once did a whole movie built on the theme that it is possible to escape suicide for youth, it becomes even more unfathomable to comprehend that the person could have succumbed to emotional turmoil in real life.
Mental Health For Men
According to the World Health Organisation, around 200 million people in India suffer from depression, which boils down to nearly one in every five people. This data just covers people who have reported their mental health issues. There could be a lot more people who shroud away their disorder beneath the garb of propriety, in order to avoid being stigmatised in a culture that has insensitively tabooed mental health problems.
While WHO statistics state that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men, there is a disturbing trend and pattern in Indian society and culture to perceive emotional troubles, anxiety or hysteria as predominantly ‘feminine’ behaviours. The misplaced and problematic practice of perceiving depressed people as ‘emotionally weak’ contributes to the enormous amount of stigma that silences and suffocates a person suffering from depression from even being able to identify their own troubles due to the internalised fear of social exclusion and ostracisation, let alone being able to talk about it to someone.
Furthermore, the patriarchal belief that men are supposed to be more ‘rational’ creatures and not get affected by emotional troubles or traumatic experiences of harassment, bullying and abuse has engendered toxic social constructs of masculinity that socialise boys from a very young age to hide away their feelings and not report anxiety, stress or prevailing feelings of sadness; as any sign of vulnerability openly revealed, is likely to make a boy feel emasculated in front of his peers and society at large.
Media And Its Denial Of Depression In Men
This belief is hugely reflected in the tone and attitude with which the media has reported the SSR case. Initially when it seemed to be a case of suicide, there was a collective surprise and disbelief among the masses, at the possibility that a man who seemed to have everything going for him, in terms of career and wealth, could have suffered from psychological difficulty in his private life. Our entire culture and civilisation is built upon the assumption that a man is immune to psychological pain, that he can shed off all his anxiety and trauma merely by bulging his chest and directing his frustration into a drive to achieve more in life.
There have been tons of movies made to bolster this belief, that the only possible way in which male emotional turmoil could manifest is in terms of anger, rage or frustration. The man could have several situations or obstacles working against him in life, but he has to emerge as the hero in the end. The idea of a man, we collectively adore so much, suffering from depression irks us. It troubles our internalised notions that associate masculinity with strength and stoicism, and compels us to admit male vulnerability in a manner that society, media and culture, thriving with its narratives of hypermasculinity, do not allow us to.
To expect Indian media to follow a code of ethics while reporting events without sensationalising them has been proved to be an irrational expectation since long ago, for here we present news more to titillate, direct and satisfy baser instincts of the audience, than to report information with objectivity. However, every day when news channels try their level best to discard the late actor’s mental health troubles by reducing the possibility of his depression to a mere ‘theory’ and construct it as a fallacious one at best, a trend way bigger and more dangerous is proliferating in our collective psyche and the country at large.
Boys who suffer from depression in this country choose to not talk about it even among their peers or family members. A culture that associates a boy’s worth to his perceived physical and emotional strength, silences and shames him perpetually by instilling the fear that openly confessing his vulnerabilities would make him less of a man in the eyes of others. Media portrayals of masculinity continually contribute to the myth that men are emotionally resilient at all times by glorifying muscle power, hooliganism and victory against all odds in films and serials. With the SSR case, the media has taken the responsibility upon itself to hunt through all possible sources of Sushant’s personal life that would hint at the fact that he was a happy, bubbling, charming man with happening family relationships.
Playing videos of his happy times with his niece on a news channel to prove that he was not depressed reeks of a kind of stupidity and ignorance about mental health that should alarm any concerned citizen of this country. It is about time we understand the fact that depression as a disorder is different from sadness as a feeling or the mood-swings which any of us likely experience on a daily basis, and acknowledge that a depressed person suppresses his pain to appear ‘normal’ and function in society, to escape shaming and discrimination.
People suffering from depression already have a hard time explaining their condition to anybody, in a society that continually invalidates their pain by telling them that it is all a result of their overthinking. We surely need to inculcate mental health awareness as an essential component in our education system within schools and colleges, and make therapy and counselling services more accessible for children, adolescents and youth (a need that the ambitious New Education Policy has conveniently missed out on).
The refusal to acknowledge all probable signs that hint at the late actor’s depression in the current reporting of the case by news channels not only further stigmatises mental health disorders, it also strengthens and reinforces the notion that men are not very likely to suffer from emotional upheavals. The vehemence with which the public and media are eager to deny the possibility of depression in the case reveals our collective obsession to retain our belief in a heightened notion of masculinity. Admitting that a 34-year-old man who always appeared bright and thriving with energy before the world in public spaces, could possibly be dealing with trauma and mental health issues in his personal life which most of us know nothing about; requires us to drop our patriarchal assumptions about masculinity.
A nation that is so desperate to deny the possibility of depression in a man, that it is vehemently discarding even an iota of credibility in the statements of his girlfriend and hopelessly trying to cling to stray and feeble sources that could contradict the possibility, reveals the agonised sensibility of a hypermasculine social order that would much rather suffocate the lived realities of all boys and men who have ever suffered from any mental health disorder, than take this as an opportunity to investigate its own biases and get rid of its gendered assumptions.
There had been a narrative about suicide in the initial days, but even back then, all of it had been blamed entirely on nepotism in Bollywood, and no due space was accorded to the genuine social need of talking about mental health issues, apart from mere gestures of tokenism. Whether the late actor actually suffered from depression or not, the denial of even its possibility by Indian media and society at large reflects a deeply ingrained toxicity in our cultural values. We want to desperately prove that we are not a nation where boys cry, or a nation where some men have a hard time navigating their emotional troubles, due to which they may have maintained a secrecy around their lives to retain their public image of a charming, happy-go-lucky lad.
With the way in which it has handled the SSR case, Indian media has stooped to a new low by its repeated manoeuvres to tacitly, but brutally nevertheless, shame all boys and men who have ever suffered from depression, or dealt with anxiety or any other sort of mental health disorder. It has further contributed to the erasure of culturally available vocabulary to express male vulnerability, due to which some boys feel compelled to hide and suppress their emotional sensitivity while navigating the world.
Disproportionately putting blame for every suspicious act upon Rhea Chakraborty in the absence of clear evidence, and refusing to begin an honest conversation about the mental health crisis that has been plaguing this country since a long time, speaks volumes about the depths to which toxic masculinity and internalised misogyny have been ingrained by our society.
Featured Image Source: YouTube