Let’s create a vocabulary for mental illness

Deepika Padukone was the first Bollywood celebrity to speak about depression on national television.

When the title of Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao’s new movie was announced, the Indian Psychiatric Association (IPA) and the Indian Medical Association (IMA) said it was insensitive.

After some back and forth, the title was changed from ‘Mental Hai Kya’ to ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’. 

By all accounts, the new title is better. After all, we are a judgemental country. From a stranger you just met to the relative you have never met, everyone has an opinion on your life. Imagine mentioning to them that you suffer from a mental illness. How would they react? In all probability, they would quickly say it is not real.

Popular entertainment forms like cinema have a greater responsibility to society than our filmmakers would like to believe. While taking offence is a famous pastime here, on some occasions, it is justified. Especially when the one giving offence is in a position of power and the ones taking offence are the marginalised.

People with mental illness rarely have the power to control their own narrative and the language used to construct it. We grow up in an environment where ‘mental’ is used as a pejorative term. By prefixing the word mental’ to a person’s name, we treat mental illness as a personality quirk that can be remedied with a bit of effort.

Hence, when filmmakers use mental illness for laughs, they are complicit in making it appear like a personal failure.

According to a survey conducted by Deepika Padukone’s The Live Laugh Love Foundation on how India perceives mental health, 60 per cent believe ‘one of the main causes of mental illness is the lack of self-discipline and willpower.’

That is not so. Just like other illnesses, mental illness is an illness. Hence, people suffering from it are asked by experts to distance themselves from the illness: “You’re not depressed. You have depression.”

The survey found that 62 per cent of respondents use derogatory terms like ‘retard’, ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘stupid’ and ‘irresponsible’ to describe people with mental illnesses. As if chiding and shaming them is a corrective measure.

This is a country in the middle of a mental health crisis. About 20 per cent of the population goes through depression (the common cold of mental illnesses) once in a lifetime. But with few practitioners, the healthcare infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle it.

In its efforts to empower the mentally ill, the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 tackles the stigma associated with it. Hence, when a movie uses a derogatory phrase that might further the stigma, it must be called out.

With its co-option into the colloquial tongues, ‘mental’ does not just mean concerning the mind anymore. It has been conflated with words like ‘pagal’ and ‘huchcha’. Unlike English, Indian languages do not have the vocabulary to talk about mental illness. These words cannot distinguish between depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Everything is ‘mental’. By actively using names like Huchcha Venkat and Mental Manja, we are trivialising the illnesses that need greater attention, and stigmatising people who need compassion.

Deepika’s foundation recently tweeted an Instagram visual (called a boomerang video) showing her celebrating a video on depression hitting 10 lakh views.

Kangana’s sister Rangoli Chandel was quick to shame Deepika and ridicule her experience of depression. As if dancing in a boomerang video somehow negated her experience of living through depression. 

It would have done the Ranaut sisters some good if they had spent some time mulling over why Deepika’s foundation questioned Kangana’s movie’s title. By ridiculing her, they have proven that India does need better mental health awareness. 

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