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Importance of mental health & demystifying depression

Thinking about health makes us remember the visits to the doctor, or the aches and pains in the body, or the bout of food poisoning last week. It could be that we suddenly remember our resolve for a healthy lifestyle promised to ourselves as a New Year’s resolution but got dropped due to unavoidable circumstances such as binge watching a new show on Netflix, an unfinished packet of chips or just the No cooking January by Zomato!

But how many of us think of our brains when we think health. It is a fabulous piece of machinery (better than the computers, well at least  for the time being) with more than 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) and  more than 1000 trillion connections (officially called synapses) that help us to remember, learn, think, plan, speak, imagine, dream, reason, experience emotions and basically helping us do pretty much whatever we do!

So when we think of illness, how are those affecting the brain different from those affecting the rest of the body?

Every nerve cell passes information to other through an elaborate electrical and chemical system. The synapses exchange information through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, endorphins etc. Any imbalance in these chemicals can cause “chemical locha” of La Munnabhai Returns fame.

Why is it then that ailments and sometimes just fatigue that affects the brain are considered a taboo subject to be kept under wraps especially in a society like ours? (Where everyone is interested to know what the other is doing.)

As the famous author C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

According to WHO, 56 million people in India suffer from depression making it the most depressed country in the world, and 38 million Indians suffer anxiety disorders. The average suicide rate in India is 10.9/1,00,000 and the majority of people who commit suicide are below 44 years of age many of the students.

The numbers are staggering for a country that has many people believe that one of the main reasons for mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower! (60% according to The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF) study) Wish the chemistry in our brain could be controlled by will-power and self -discipline. The observation is based on a study conducted by TLLLF, where though most of the respondents did express sympathy for sufferers, a significant section also reported fear, apathy, anger, and disgust at times. 60% agreed that those who suffer should have their own groups so as not to “contaminate” healthy people.

Well for the record, mental disorders are not communicable (infectious)! It is not that you will catch a headache by sitting with someone with a headache (unless you are causing it, then better keep a safe distance). Also sometimes it pays to ask for help especially for young people. Did you know that most people’s brain don’t reach maturity  unless they hit 25 or so. Having this knowledge, shouldn’t we be treating our youngsters differently? I digress.

But the point being made is that we as a society need to take mental health seriously and accept those who suffer from it with empathy and support. We must also take care of ourselves to prevent the onset of mental issues. But importantly, not neglect the signs and symptoms of depression, the most pervasive mental disorder in ourselves and our loved ones. Some most common manifestations of depression are as follows:

  1. Feeling Hopeless, extremely sad: You might be passing through a difficult phase in life or not but this feeling of bleakness, just won’t go off? Well, you need to find out why you are feeling that? Is your personal life or professional life in turmoil? Or is it just a feeling? Ask yourself. No matter how difficult things are or how difficult they seem, it’s not the end of the world.
  2. Loss of interest in everything: If you cease to find enjoyment in things you loved to do, unless you found a new hobby, then this is another sign that you are not feeling right. Also not able to concentrate on anything or getting things accomplished.
  3. Increased tiredness and change in sleep: Are you feeling so tired that you sometimes can’t function properly. It’s a feat to drag yourself out of bed every day? Are you sleeping considerably more or less than what you usually do? Watch out.
  4. Increased anxiousness, fear or feelings of guilt: I agree many of us are perpetually worried and it’s our state of being. But are you more anxious than normal? Worried something wrong is going to happen without any reason. Stop watching the news for a few days and see if it helps.
  5. Increased irritability and uncontrollable emotions: Does it seem that most of the time you are on the edge. Ready to snap at someone or on the other end ready to burst into tears. Some people are more sensitive than others, but have you developed this sensitivity off late that once did not exist.
  6. Looking at death: if thoughts about escape and death loom in your mind again and again, it’s a definite red flag that should never be ignored.

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