Why Deepika's fearless disclosure is important for South Asia

Updated January 20, 2015

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On the face of it, Bollywood’s most influential female celebrity appears to have it all.
On the face of it, Bollywood’s most influential female celebrity appears to have it all.

Last week Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone publicly admitted to suffering from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks throughout the past year.

With two of the highest grossing Bollywood films of all time under her belt, a first-ever world tour completed, countless awards and brand endorsements gained, and rumours of a relationship with one of Bollywood’s most handsome and down to earth men – on the face of it, Bollywood’s most influential female celebrity appears to have it all.

Indeed, as Deepika’s op-ed on her “struggle to get out of bed”, feeling a “roller coaster of emotions”, and the dire need for better understanding mental health in South Asia went viral, while most admired her courage to speak out on a heavily stigmatised topic, silent whispering continued to ask,

How can you be depressed? Why are you anxious? You have it all.

As someone who has experienced the twin evils of anxiety and panic attacks at various stages of my life, and a very brief period of depression following the death of a close friend, Deepika’s bold admission that “this is probably one of the deadliest mental disorders [and that] nothing, including life, makes sense to people suffering from it” broke the last remaining personal barrier for me.

For as long as I can remember, I have been asked the same thing Deepika admits to being asked throughout last year as she climbed all the ladders of success:

What’s really bothering you? What could possibly be wrong? You are so lucky, you have it all.

Also read: Not a Happy New Year: Deepika talks about suffering from depression

Growing up in a close knit, supportive family helped throw open doors for me. Because money was never a major issue, I was able to attend one of the world’s highest ranked universities. Because my parents believed in higher education for their daughters, I attended law school. I traveled frequently.

On the face of it, I have it all.

But, herein lays the real problem because having it all hasn’t stopped me from harbouring an innate, inexplicable fear of losing it all.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a perfectionist.

The thought of letting myself down or, even worse, letting my loved ones down, is a constant worry I carry with me. The need to maintain control in every situation has resulted in my having a short fuse for stressful situations. When faced with the unexpected, I find myself short of breath. When faced with conflict, I’ll lose hours of sleep in anticipation of reaching a resolution.

“Don’t worry, everything will be okay” or “it’s all in your head” are the two most degrading things to tell somebody who is stuck in the omnipresent, circular, and crippling hell that becomes their mind during a panic attack or an anxious episode.

Firstly, I know everything will – eventually – be okay. I have had enough panic attacks and anxiety-ridden moments in my life to know that just like everything on this planet; these twin evils are not permanent.

For instance, I know a panic attack lasts an X amount of minutes and can be controlled through X, Y, Z strategies. And, I know my anxiety is very much situational and once the situation subsides, or I am removed from said situation, my anxiety, much like a Genie, is sucked back into the little lamp I seem to always, unwittingly carry.

Secondly, while I know it is all ‘in my head’, it’s not as if I have invited anxiety, panic and the occasional bouts of depression as welcome guests, sitting and breaking bread in my head simply because I’m too lazy and dull to do something about it.

The feeling of foreboding, dread, fear, and hollowness that accompanies anxiety and depression is not something that I can remove and rearrange like a Rubik's Cube.

They are in my head because something – i.e. chemical reactions – or someone – God’s will – have said so.

Just like individuals diagnosed with the common cold or life-threatening cancer tend to hop on to the Internet and find out everything they can about their affliction, I’ve spent countless hours studying the hows and whys. But explaining the hows and whys to loved ones, who tend to want to elevate us, to see no flaw in us, is the tricky part.

Like the Anna Karenina quote, “is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?”

Anxiety is not an absolute. Indeed, it is very, very relative. In fact, it is a monstrous mass of subjective reactions.

Everyone feels anxiety and depression differently.

For some, it is a presence like one’s shadow. Some days you are aware of it. Some days you see it. Other days, you don’t. For others, it is like King Midas’s touch – except that everything you touch does not turn gold but instead a gloomier, grey which eventually taints all of your life view.

Also read: Policing Mathira, Deepika — and all South Asian women

That’s why I am not shocked when someone like Deepika, who has an immeasurable amount of beauty, wealth, success and global admiration, admits to occasionally being crippled by emptiness and an inexplicable unhappiness.

Her billions do not necessarily mean she is a billion times happier.

I’m also not shocked when Deepika admits to have initially refused medication. The stigma and the sheer unacceptance of any glimmer of mental illness is rampant around the world – South Asia, perhaps the most.

We come from a part of the world where any hint of mental instability is quickly explained away as an inherent problem within the affected person who needs to just ‘figure it out’, or if you are really old school, it’s explained away as the effect of nazar or jinnat, curable with some jadoo tona.

But, clearly, these limited efforts are failing us.

Also read: Mental illness in Pakistan: The toll of neglect

So little has been done to address and monitor the prevalence of mental illness in Pakistan, I couldn’t even find a reliable enough figure on how many might currently be suffering from anxiety or depression.

However, based on my own mini-scientific enquiry (i.e. a few Google searches), the vastness of instability in our society, the alarmingly high suicide rates, the out of control poverty, a complete lack of basic necessities, and an internal war waged by fanatics, I’m willing to bet there are more than just a few people feeling inherently anxious, inherently depressed.

As Deepika writes in her op-ed, the World Health Organisation has categorically noted that in a few years anxiety and depression will be the world’s most widespread epidemic.

In a region that is fascinated with the Bollywood cult, and prone to celebrity-worship, if everyone’s current favourite heroine becomes the reason why we all smarten up; pay a little more attention and pass a little less judgment on those battling with depression, then kudos to Deepika.


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