Between them, the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz and Deepika Padukone have brought depression out of the closet.
In lay parlance, depression can vary from the apparently fixable and transient state that Padukone writes about, to something sinister that Lubitz suffered from. More specifically, depression usually refers to a prolonged mood of sadness, which seems either because of its duration, or, the apparent absence of a trigger, to result in a withdrawal of interest in life.
But this definition can encompass a whole spectrum of suffering where the intensity of pain and responses to it can vary dramatically.
If the state of mental health could be treated as analogous to substances, we might say it is more liquid than solid. The daily rhythm of sleeping and dreaming indicates the indispensability of space where the obligation to reality is lowered and we can descend into nightly psychosis.
But it is when the curtain between sleep and waking up vanishes that we enter a catastrophic zone.
It is perhaps this very fluidity that terrifies us, making us shake off suggestions that all is not well.
For of all the things that terrify us, perhaps losing control over our minds is the most frightening. Thus we distance ourselves from the glimpses within ourselves by pointing it out in others derisively.
Navigating our own resistance is hard enough, but it is also often greeted with a blight of disbelief in families.
‘Get over it, stop navel-gazing, go for a run, help the poor’; the choir of well-wishers is never ending.
This disturbingly unhelpful stance taken by families is perhaps a response to the symptom of the loved one as if every illness were a reproach to them. Repeatedly people report their parents and spouses saying ‘why can’t you speak to us’?
Most of us fall prey to this culture of shaming and blaming; whereas the truth is, that no matter how good parents/lovers may strive to be, we are going to make our own peculiar sequence of mistakes and the problem is our belief that this inevitable fact can be evaded by some notion of ideal love.
While we may stride out and seek help, we still bear the stigma of living with it in our work environment.
How do we ask for medical leave for a breakdown or for just feeling depressed? Take a medical certificate from a psychiatrist? Will we become the butt of jokes at work? Will it affect promotions? The cultural antipathy towards mental illness, our refusal to see symptom as suffering and not as moral turpitude is responsible for the pervasive damage it causes.
This raises knotty questions: If it is known that a potential employee is prone to panic, anxiety or depression, would we employ her at all? If we don’t, why shouldn’t she conceal it? If we do, will it interfere with the work?
These are not easy to answer. If in exceptional cases, where help is sought and the patient’s destructiveness becomes apparent, and the professional is free to certify unfitness, it is possible that some disasters could be averted. But in the case of Lubitz, doctors had declared him unfit and the certificate was found torn in the bin.
So there is still no saying that all such disasters can be averted; the mass shootings in American schools testify to a primary violent streak, but one that is aided and abetted by an open gun culture. Let us just say that coming out of the closet can help a great deal, but that it is not a panacea for all damage control. That while many like Padukone fall within the range of those who want to be helped, a few like Lubitz do not.
Nilofer Kaul is a Delhi-based psychoanalyst
The views expressed by the author are personal