The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise and the river was making a noise but I couldn’t hear a thing.’
One month after Sylvia Plath’s searing autobiographical novel The Bell Jar on her struggle with neurosis and depression was published Plath pushed her head into the cavernous oven in her kitchen and turned on the gas.
Her two small children were in their room upstairs when she killed herself. Just a few days earlier Plath had been prescribed anti-depressants and medicine’s jury remains out on whether she could have been saved had she started treatment earlier.
It was 1963 when Plath’s dramatic suicide first catapulted the issue of depression on to centre stage.
Yet in 2015, despite the strides made by scientists in understanding the human brain, depression and varying conditions of mental illness continue to be judged, laughed at or treated with contempt or worse still, mild amusement.
Plath’s doctor John Horder struggled to explain that just like an imbalance of insulin resulted in diabetes a chemical imbalance or genetic inheritance, exacerbated by other stress triggers, resulted in anxiety and mental disorders.
Decades later, doctors are still trying to get past the sniggers and smarminess of social response in their attempt to lift the stigma around it.
For a country diagnosed as the world’s most depressed nation by the World Health Organization — the WHO report found that 36% of Indians had suffered from a major depressive episode (MDE) — we can be near-cruel in our lack of empathy and misplaced embarrassment about mental health.
There are notable exceptions of course, but as a country we seem to almost suggest that ‘depression’ is some sort of a luxury good that only the spoilt upper-crust can afford.
So many people I know tend to dismiss it as an airy-fairy chi-chi ailment conjured up by the vapidity and decadence of the rich who don’t have ‘real’ problems. They may not say it in so many words but you can see the subtext clearly in their attitude and insensitive responses.
This was brought home to me a few weeks ago after I had an in-depth conversation for television with the extraordinarily brave Deepika Padukone along with her mother and two doctors.
For someone in the business of selling fantasy and glamour it was quite remarkable that Padukone decided to allow millions — used to consuming her persona only in images of idealised beauty, a toned body and a happy, toothy, wide-set smile — to get past the glitter and step into what had been her private hell.
First in a conversation with this newspaper and then with me on TV, she spoke candidly about the strange, stabbing “pit” in her stomach, not wanting to get out of bed, locking herself up in a vanity van and crying relentlessly and about discovering what separates mere sadness from clinical depression.
Her doctors — a counsellor and a psychiatrist — walked her through the treatment she needed and her mother said the family did not ever pause to worry about what this ‘admission’ may mean for her public image as a peddler of dreams.
Her courage, and that of her parents, encouraged me to also speak freely to her about the anxiety attacks that had plagued me a few years ago and the sense of emotional isolation I felt when even the most well-meaning, helpful friends thought that the attacks were at least partially triggered by what they saw as my propensity for drama and hysterical over-reaction.
Padukone candidly spoke of how through her period of depression she had to do what TS Eliot called “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”, tearing up on national television as she described the dichotomy of smiling for the unforgiving cameras and hastily retreating into the shadows of her mind when alone. She was doing this, she explained, because she believed her talking about it could offer strength to others to come out, confront the demons in their head and, more importantly, because people needed to know that medical treatment could either cure or contain most forms of depression.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” she admitted. The staggering response after the broadcast showed that she had touched more than a chord. Countless people wrote in about their own struggles and travails and how they had derived the confidence to talk about it from her.
Yet there were also the usual carpers. I heard whispers of the interview being used as a marketing launch-pad, snarky take-downs of her tears and contemptuous dismissals of her as a spoilt, rich girl who should not be complaining. I was incensed.
Instead of applauding her, these lazy, arm-chair barbs only underlined the ignorance that continues to prevent the understanding of depression as an illness, just like any other.
In a country with the highest number of suicides in the world (WHO report, 2012) Deepika Padukone has done us all a favour.
She has lifted the shroud of silence that has long veiled an honest discussion about our mental well-being.
By baring her vulnerability, she has in some ways made herself even more vulnerable to unforgiving public scrutiny. Statistics and science both offer us all the evidence we need that depression is not a product of self-indulgence.
So does poetry and the intensity of words. “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo,” wrote Plath. That loneliness, if not treated, can kill. Literally.
So it’s time. Let’s talk depression.
Read: 'I had to take medication for depression'
(Barkha Dutt is Consulting Editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective . The views expressed by the author are personal.)