There is a popular, widespread notion that depression and mental illness in general, is somehow more prevalent among people of a higher economic status, and is even symptomatic of it. Of course, there must be a very close connection between economy and anxiety/depression, for lack of a financial status that would help the person maintain his desired lifestyle will definitely affect him emotionally. However, by the same argument, those who are unable to afford the minimum conditions of living are just as likely to suffer depression, if not more. It is time we buried this notion that mental illness is a disease of the privileged, for that would not account for the alarming statistics that come up everyday, which must include the impoverished in a world where the latter are easily the greater number of the global population.
There is a concept of comparative suffering, which is often simplified in a statement like, “Oh cheer up, there are children in Africa dying of hunger. That’s where the real problem is.” It is too presumptuous to blame financially developed countries (the conception of 1st, 2nd and 3rd world countries have long proved inadequate and misleading, though it is still popular) for celebrating their privileges, at the cost of ignoring their or world problems. This creates greater stigma, and hence, greater private suffering from mental illness because the expected support system devalues what the privileged person is very validly suffering. It also ignores the fact that those who are in the process of dying of hunger are highly likely to be depressed.
Being Indian, having lived in India my entire life, I cannot wrap my head around comparative suffering and the supposed moneyed status of mental illness at all. We have a higher percentage of reported depression and suicide than any other country in the world. Be careful to note that I use the word “percentage” and not a number, to reflect that it is irrespective of our population. India is an incredibly diverse country, with many contradictions. I can easily dismiss the question of mental illness and privilege when I say that on one hand, there are many young students committing suicide when they fail to live up to their own/their parents’ academic expectations. On the other hand, there are farmer suicides, where there are a considerable number of people who literally live hand to mouth, as they farm their own, modest acres of land to support their family, end their lives after a bad crop, debts etc. We cannot speak of poverty in that nauseatingly pitying tone, especially when it often ignores the people dying or suffering from having any consciousness or emotional turmoil of their own.
It isn’t a question of privilege at all; it is one of stigma. There are too many people, those being informed by popular culture and regrettably, those in a professional sphere as well, who explain away mental illness. I wrote of my experiences with getting therapy humorously, but I didn’t stress on the frustration and helplessness I have felt, having suffered from chronic anxiety and depression my whole life. If there is someone like me, who could afford the one-time luxury of a visit to a therapist who wanted to charge 1000 rupees for a session five years ago (a steep amount even now), but could not provide me with the basic requisite of confidentiality, what are those who cannot afford to spend even a minimal fee to expect?
Mental illness is the very opposite of a luxury, and those who can afford help don’t necessarily get helped. I cannot imagine the millions of people out there who cannot even dream of getting help, even if they are able to admit to themselves that they need it. Growing up with anxiety and depression, I did not have a vocabulary for it until I read about it on the internet. If people are getting to know about it, if people are willing to talk about it, why make such widespread, dismissive assumptions? Why not, at least, talk about the mental health of those below the poverty line, if we are to feel better about ourselves through comparative suffering?
I believe, with all my heart, that when therapy, or having external support systems and information become more affordable, there would be a decrease in the alarming level of stigma faced by those who suffer now, whatever their economic or social status maybe. Till then, I ask you to refrain from and educate those who diminish the seriousness of those suffering. And even more importantly, be of any help you possibly can to those who are physically and mentally suffering. It is all very well to generalise and theorise and make assumptions based on some research blown out of proportion, but when it comes to the real thing, the real thing that is the basic condition of being human – it is accepting responsibility to help another make their life better, without making light of your own, or their, condition. Resist the implicit vanity of helping another because you are, somehow, better off than them. Do it, because it is so much lonelier if there is no one to help. Any real humility and equality among our species is in our ability to help one another. That’s the real privilege.