Have you ever felt like what is normal to you is way outside of what is normal for the people around you? At times like that, having a friend who has gone where you’ve gone, and whom you can share with and listen to, is like a balm to the soul.
Tell us how The Desi Condition started and why you felt there was a need for it.
Tanushree: I grew up in Queens, New York. I was born and raised here. I have always had ADHD, depression, and these were things that went undiagnosed until well into my adulthood. I realised that all of this stuff went unnoticed because they were often brushed aside,like, you know, “Oh, she’s just shy,” or “She’s kind of quiet,” but that’s not what was happening.
It’s not that I blame my family; I think they just didn’t quite know how to identify what was going on. And that was what inspired me to want to normalise conversations around mental health.
The Desi Condition started about a year ago. Once I decided that we wanted to talk about de-stigmatisation of mental health, I knew we had to be talking about culture. I realised there was a need for people to be talking about mental health and what is it about Desi culture that kind of exacerbates certain attitudes toward mental health.
Can you share more about how your culture may have affected your own mental health?
Tanushree: I think there was a fair bit of pressure to live up to the “immigrant dream.” And if I’m being honest, I think there is a lot of sexism in Asian culture, so that definitely contributed to it. I had a lot of anxiety as a kid, a lot of emotional problems.
In Desi culture, people kind of just sweep that kind of stuff under the rug, because they themselves were never really exposed to that back in their home countries. So when they see it happening here, they are just kind of like, it’s not a big deal, it’s a “mood.” A “mood” is very different from a mental health condition, but that is what it gets written off as; like it’s just temporary, and not real, you know?
Why did you pick the podcast platform?
Tanushree: I guess there were a couple other ways I could have done this, like writing or making videos. I know that I’m too lazy to make videos. I did consider writing, but I know that I don’t necessarily have the discipline to write once a week or a few times a week.
I like listening to podcasts; I like the audio medium and I enjoy listening to audiobooks. And podcasting just felt like a good way to interview other people and to have them own my show, speaking in their own voice. And I really like that.
You’ve pulled off three seasons so far – kudos to that! What’s been the most-talked-about topics when it comes to Desi culture and mental health?
Tanushree: One thing that comes up a lot is the conditioning – which is also where the name of this podcast comes from – we receive from our society. For example, women are very much seen as martyrs, you know? So we talk about female martyrdom.
And because Desi culture is very much influenced by the days of the British occupation, it’s also very survivalist – you tend to have a sense of distrust against people outside the family. And if you do something your family disapproves of, it’s like “dishonouring” your family. We also talk about familial pressures. We tend to live in multi-generational families, which doesn’t happen a lot in Western cultures.
What’s one of the more memorable episodes for you?
Tanushree: I did one episode about platonic heartbreaks, like what happens when friendships end. I called in a mailbag episode, because a lot of people just submitted entries of their similar experiences. It was very vulnerable and there were a lot of people talking on it and just being really, real and raw.
Another episode I really like was on the intersection of religion, spirituality and mental health. My guest and I discussed our experiences of how in our respective religions, people often dismiss mental health issues using religion, and they’d say things like, why don’t you just pray? And I think that resonated with a lot of people.
What’s your vision for The Desi Condition in the coming years?
Tanushree: I want people to feel comfortable talking about mental health, and I hope that when they look at my page, they’d realise there are lots of different kinds of people talking about this stuff in an open and vulnerable way. And I hope that serves as an example that you can do that as well, whoever you are.
So, Mental Health Talks India. How did it all start?
Ayushi: Adishi and I have known each other for quite a long time, since 2012 when we were in college. We always wanted to set up something around mental health because we both have been living with our own mental health conditions. We have been talking for a long time about creating some advocacy and awareness in this space, which are really lacking in India.
My first experience with therapy was back in 2017. Back then I was a master’s student, researching on women studies. We saw a lot of film and documentaries with a lot of “triggering” content around sexual violence, which reminded me of my own experiences with sexual violence. But it was when I was in therapy that I started developing symptoms of depression and anxiety, as I struggled a lot with a professor’s perception and I would also say, harassment, of certain students. Later I saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed some medication for depression, which I was okay with taking but was highly stigmatised by the people around me. They used a Hindi word to describe me, which basically translated into “mad person”. So sometimes even if you don’t stigmatise yourself, the people around you and the comments they make can be like ticking time bombs, if they don’t have the right mindset about mental health.
Adishi: We felt the need to do something like MHTI because nobody around us was talking about it. It made us feel like what we’re experiencing was alien, not relatable, or it’s something that just happened to us for reasons we couldn’t understand. It became very important for us to have that space to voice our confusion, and to connect with people who may resonate with our issues and experiences.
With respect to my own mental health issues, I really don’t know where to start! I remember as a teenager, often crying myself to sleep and I didn’t know why I was feeling this way. School was also an unpleasant experience because of a lot of bullying, and I was always a very reserved child. The year 2015 was when I finally could not look away from the fact that I was not okay, because I was suicidal all the time. It took me around two years from that time to actually go and seek help – I first stepped into a therapist’s office, also in 2017. It’s been three years of seeking therapy, I don’t have an official diagnosis but I still do struggle with suicidal ideation and am trying to deal with that.
What is the current conversation around mental health in India?
Adishi: A lot of it is still very much focused on how mental health is individualised, but our outlook is completely not that way. Many still make it out to be a “personal failure”, in the sense that like, if you are struggling, it’s because you did not do something right. Or you are not thinking positively. Or you are not being grateful enough about life. But it’s not as simple as that.
Ayushi: So at MHTI, we want to discuss mental health through lived experiences and also with a social lens, looking at how our social and environmental factors influence mental health. There are so many factors at play in the Indian culture, such as class, gender, sexuality, religion. In particular, religion is really dominant in India. A lot of people are religious and there is this belief that if you are dealing with some mental health issues, you might have become “possessed” or something. And that your religious identity is going through a crisis, or people just attach some religious element to it. Some people believe you can get it “fixed” by going to a priest who will conduct some rituals.
Is there stigma around talking about mental health?
Adishi: Definitely. For example, if we want to talk to our family members about what we’re going through, the attempt could snowball into a conversation about how there is something deeply wrong with you. On the face of it, there appears to be more initiatives coming up that seek to increase conversations about mental health. There is a lot of buzz and, to some extent, “noise” online. But in terms of whether this is translated into our conversations offline, we don’t think much has changed.
Just recently, a very famous Bollywood actor allegedly died by suicide, and the way people are talking around it, including the media, is sensationalism on another level – in a very ignorant and insensitive way. None of that gives you the impression that mental health is becoming less stigmatised.
Ayushi: There has been a lot of news coverage on this incident. Some news channels dug up past videos of him during better times with his family, and actually had the audacity to comment that he didn’t look like someone who was suffering from depression. And that is the kind of narrative that we often encounter in India – that if a person is looking a certain way, they can’t really have a mental health issue. There are so many other examples and we could spend a whole day talking about it.
How does MHTI seek to change that narrative?
Adishi: Our work was initially just online, we dedicated our efforts to creating content around mental health awareness. We gradually also started holding physical events. For instance, we had a workshop on suicide prevention last year, and another on friendship breakups.
We believe in the value of personal experiences, which is why we want to give a platform to people for sharing their personal experiences. We also believe in art as a medium of expression, since not everyone shares their feelings through writing or talking.
Since we’re still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, can you talk a bit about how this is affecting people’s mental health?
Adishi: I think every day, we wake up to new ways in which the pandemic is affecting us. Initially, I think a lot of people were coping by overworking themselves and being “productive”. So there was like a “productivity high”, especially for some of us who were feeling hopeless and stuck in places that may not be the safest and such – and we almost felt the need to similarly be productive.
Ayushi: I think one positive outcome of the pandemic, for some people, is that they are pushed to keep them and their families within safer spaces. Perhaps some were even able to devote more time to their favourite hobbies. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have access to certain resources, like tech tools. For many people, homes are also not necessarily the safest places… Some people haven’t shared about their mental health issues with their families, and are now stuck with them. Also, not a lot of people have homes that are huge or where they can carve out their own space. Thus there are a lot of people who aren’t able to access therapy as well.
As we speak, India just clocked the highest number of cases in the world, giving us another world record – not in a good way.
We do hope that MHTI can provide some respite during this time, especially for those who feel stuck in more challenging living situations.