For my colleagues —Dr S, SR, RS, AL, and FA— thank you for putting up with my pestering ways!
This post might end up sounding like a plug for a video I’ve helped create with my colleagues in the past week, and maybe it is in a way, but the idea for this post actually came from a podcast.
Let me begin with the video in question: this is the famous Tamil actor Chiyaan Vikram, known most recently for his work in the film Ponniyin Selvan-1, on working towards mental wellbeing through physical health.
Vikram very kindly agreed to do this video for our initiative, and we were thrilled because this gave us an opportunity to engage young people more actively in thinking about mental wellbeing. Sure enough, when we shared links to the video on our social media handles, they were picked up rapidly by a number of people. My Twitter handle saw a burst of notifications — being someone whose tweets are read by only half-a-dozen people, mostly blogger friends from a job in a different decade, I was happy to see Vikram fan clubs find and share the video.
The numbers are interesting, but they aren’t the main thing. What matters is that somewhere, in some small way, the people who watch the video think about mental wellbeing. It may not stick with them immediately, of course; many of us have been conditioned to ignore our mental health, or even the existence of such a thing. Growing up, I didn’t know of counsellors or mental health professionals. My friends and I dealt with exam stress simply knowing that this was a rite of passage. What were our options anyway? Everybody else did it, so we had to be capable of it. Complaining was for the weak.
Thankfully, things are changing now — but very slowly.
A few days ago, I began listening to Nikhil Taneja on Amit Varma’s podcast (The Loneliness of the Indian Man on The Seen and the Unseen). I’m not one for podcasts, but I wanted to listen to this one for a few reasons. One, loneliness is inextricably linked to mental health. Social connection, peer support, friendship, listening— these are among the first terms we hear from young people when we ask them what could help their mental health. Two, I’ve spoken to Nikhil a couple of times to learn about his work with mental health, and he came across as an open, honest, and committed person. I wanted to hear more from him.
I’m only an hour into this long podcast, but quite a few points have already resonated with me. For the sake of brevity and relevance, I’m going to mention just one here — as a child, when he felt he didn’t fit in, he often turned to movies for solace. When he struggled with the social expectations of a new school, or on the occasions that his father wanted to spend time with him (the podcast explains this better!), storytelling and cinema came to the rescue.
Growing up largely in Vizag, and living in Chennai now, I can relate to this. These are cities where actors have massive fan groups, who take their idols’ success and failure personally. The fervour was evident before the age of social media; is it all the more obvious now.
What stands out is how closely people connect with the actors they idolise. Most Twitter accounts that picked up my tweet used Vikram’s photo or character names in their profiles. Their bios talked of their affiliation to the actor or his fan clubs. Their timelines provided regular updates on the actor’s shooting schedule or shared posts from his Instagram feed. There was a lot of affection and respect for Vikram, almost as if he were someone they’d known since childhood — and perhaps he was that person for many, the brother or the friend in their daydreams, in the escapism that helped them cope with whatever they struggled with in their real lives. Because often, the balm that soothes our mental unrest comes from our imaginary lives — books, cinema, games, or in the relationships we choose to believe we have forged, when we can’t find them in real life.
Therefore, having an actor like Vikram, who is widely respected, was important to us.
This is probably quite obvious to you; but as I earlier saw fan groups merely as ardent followers of a particular person, it was only after this experience that I started thinking more reasonably about what might drive them to be so, beyond the appreciation of someone’s skills. This is making me examine my own idolisation of certain people, while encouraging me to think about the gaps I might thus be trying to fill.
In the video, Vikram tells young people why they should care for their mental health, and a few ways in which they can do so. He uses language that is simple and palatable. It is not easy, because (a) nobody likes unsolicited advice, and (b) the term “mental” alone can invoke references to Ranchi, Kilpauk, and a host of other places with “mental hospitals”. His expressions speak of kindness. But we’ll save the story of language for another day, which is a topic for a book by itself. We hope that at least a few people will stop to think about what mental wellbeing is, not just as a concept, but in their own personal journeys, and for those around them.
As I wrap this up, I’m grateful, yet again, to be working in mental health, and to have the opportunity to learn from people who inspire with their empathy and wisdom. I’ve mentioned only two public figures here, but there are many colleagues and friends (you know this if you’re reading my rambling post!), who keep me wide-eyed with wonder at the depth of their knowledge, at their capacity for doing good.
Four-and-a-half years and counting.