Are You Okay?

Piyali Gupta

Photo created by Susmita Paul
The last time I spoke to her, we were gushing over the aesthetic blue walls of a heritage structure, the kind you find strewn all around the northern precincts of Calcutta, places that we admired, loved, and belonged to, or at least we thought we did. We met in one such heritage building, the college where I teach and where she was a student. She graduated and left college but we remained in touch till one day another of my students texted to give me the ‘bad news’ that she was no more. She chose to end it all.

I don’t know how she felt. Or maybe I do, because I had come very close.  

As a society we are forever geared towards being ‘okay’. Wherever you see, people are posting happy photos, perfect relationships, well behaved children, exciting jobs and travel destinations. One begins to wonder about the chaos and the mess. It is certainly there, it has to be,  but we choose to invisibilize it. It has potentially damaging effects for us and for the people who are watching us. I know I have done it and you have done it too. While there is nothing wrong in choosing to portray the happy memories, what is problematic is posting only the happy ones. Not everyone has the insight to distinguish between the real and the virtual, and the alluring virtual makes an impression easily, and sometimes indelibly so, leading to anxiety and depression.

Depression is defined by American Psychiatric  Association as “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home.”  While most of us have known feelings of sadness which are fortunately fleeting, for a clinically depressed person, it is one lasting emotion that needs medical attention. And attention from a person who listens, without any judgment. 

Remember how as kids we would visit our neighbours or our friends and family and the first question one would face is ‘How are you?” At school, during English lessons, we were taught to write letters and one of the stock opening sentences was ‘Hope you are doing well/Hope you are in the pink of your health.’ This was a conversation starter but mostly it was directed towards physical health. Nobody spoke about mental health but we were all battling these issues while growing up. For instance, to a question of ‘how are you’, I would never answer, ‘I am being bullied at school because I speak in English while others use Bengali and that is causing me a lot anxiety and I don’t even want to go to school anymore, can you just tell my parents that I want to curl up in bed and sleep?’ Instead, I would smile and say ‘I’m good, how about you?’ And that is how most of the people I knew dealt with issues of bullying, by friends and teachers, molestation, body shaming and the rest. Most of us did not even understand what we were going through but it led to low self esteem that became a best friend forever. And as one thing leads to another, anxiety and depression followed soon. 

As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to listen. Just listen. Not be judgemental, and definitely not begin a sentence with ‘When we were your age..’ because the world is different, the challenges are different, the people are different. The whole phrase of ‘being in your shoes’ should be done away with. You cannot be in someone’s shoes - first they won’t fit you and then, you are not that person, you are who you are! So saying things like ‘you have everything, why are you sad?’ or ‘there are so many people who do not even have food on their plate, and look at you!’ does nothing to help. We have to remember that it is not for us to decide if one has legitimate reasons to be depressed. We must also know that mental health is as important as physical health so if we are worried about a child’s cough and cold, we should be equally worried about her anxiety and depression. Seeking professional help is extremely important. Talking about mental health, acknowledging it, making it part of public discourse is something we must constantly strive for and not only when we lose a prominent personality to suicide. 

There has been a lot of conversation about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and while it is encouraging, it may also be overwhelming. It may be good to be on a social media quarantine while you are quarantining from the disease. It might do a whole lot of good to wake up and smell the coffee, not on Instagram, but in your kitchen. And while we are on social media, the least that we can do is being kind and not critical. 

And perhaps, the blues won’t be so blue and you can be okay!
1st February 2022

PIYALI GUPTA teaches English Literature in a Kolkata college. Her doctoral dissertation was on actress autobiographies. She is passionate about women and their narratives. She also loves exploring her city on foot and occasionally writes about her experiences on social media. 

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