Mental Illness In South Asia
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We Need To Re-Evaluate The Portrayal Of Mental Health In South Asian Media

The faster we stop accepting the problematic narrative spun around mental health, the faster we can get rid of the stigma and taboo around the subject.


Mental health is a topic that has been on my mind all semester yet somehow never gets talked about. Maybe I fall into that category of people that add to the stigma by not speaking my mind.

But here's a different problem, the portrayal of mental health issues in media, specifically South Asian media.

I am Indian and I am super proud of my heritage, but that doesn't mean I can't see its flaws. A recurring theme in my life is Indian cinema. I learned different languages and a whole lot of life lessons by watching movies. I've always been a literary nut, so I love to see the deeper meaning and symbolism in different works of art, my favorites being books and movies.

Since I've been home for break, I've gone back to my childhood habit of binge-watching Bollywood and Tollywood movies. This gives me a good scope of how certain parts of life are portrayed in various parts of India. Considering how diverse India is in terms of culture and language, it is not surprising that there are a lot of differences. The one unfortunate similarity, however, is the woefully unrealistic portrayal of mental illness.

In one movie, a man has depression and is an alcoholic. His illnesses cause him to become unable to work as a singer anymore. While this is happening, his lover is rising in the industry, which only serves to exacerbate his own gloom. At one point in the movie, she finds him laying in broken glass in his living room, which he tore apart in a drunken rage the night before. After momentarily kicking her out, he comes back to her pleading with her to help him. So far, so good, right? Typical cinema. However, after he hits rock bottom like that, instead of trying to figure out the root cause of issues or help him find a doctor or a rehabilitation center, she takes him to a cottage in a forest and tries to love his problems away. Honey, that's not how that works. Unsurprisingly, when he returns to society he is still depressed and he is still an alcoholic.

In another movie, two children develop dissociative identity disorder as a result of watching their respective families get massacred. They get separated after the incident as they flee to safety. They spend much of their adult life dealing with their illness while trying to locate their childhood friend (the other child). The boy grows up with a fantasy of enacting revenge on those who murdered his family. When all is said and done and the revenge plot is over, the end scene is literally a doctor seeing the two childhood friends reunite and saying "see, now their pain is over and they have found love, their illness will disappear with time."

I probably didn't do justice to the amount of sheer stupidity put into the mental illness arcs of these movies. I probably couldn't even if I spent all day trying. The idea that mental illness is something that is curable with "love" is ridiculous to me. There are so many people who suffer from depression and anxiety and personality disorders and other mental illness that come from loving backgrounds with beautiful families. There are just as many people who suffer with mental illness who don't have that. Mental illness can be much more manageable with a strong support system, sure, but there is no way in hell that another person can "cure" you with love.

Another big issue is that South Asian media loves to portray mental illness without ever naming it. It's as though naming it makes it more real. God forbid someone actually related to a character's situation. You can't fix a problem if you never admit there is one. This probably the biggest reason these types of narratives fall short from doing justice to the illness.

If you teach people that the answer to their problems is finding love, they will look for strength in other people instead of in themselves. The last thing a depressed person needs is some idealized version of love where every day someone is sacrificing their happiness for the other person. Romantic relationships should be between two equals. The best thing that can come out of a story like this a heartbreak and the worst thing that can come out of this is codependence.

This is not me saying that people with mental illness do not deserve love or cannot be in relationships. This is me saying that in a culture where mental health education is long-distant fantasy, in a world where even the most liberal countries hold a stigma against mental illness, these types of repeated half-assed mental health story arcs only serve to add to the problem.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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