By Dhruti Modha
CN: Depression, stigma,
self-harm, scars, anxiety
The Himba people in Northern Namibia have so many words – more than we do in English – for the colour green. But the Himba don’t have a single word for blue.
“You know,” my father says, taking another biscuit to dip in his tea, “in Kenya we never used the word ‘depression’. I never heard it.” I’m not sure if it’s pride or deflation I hear in his voice.
I chew over that thought with a slice of toast and wonder at the irony. The discourse surrounding mental health is undercut by a silence which is so deeply rooted in our culture that there’s a big, black vortex of fear swirling right at the heart of our language.
How in the hell do you go about explaining what anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, bipolar disorder – anything neuro-divergent – feels like to someone with no lexical concept of them? Yes, you could google the symptoms, or take a look on WebMD; but there’s more to mental illness than a checklist of behaviours and reactions.
A lack of the right words, the right tools to express what you suffer from (words we take for granted, like nausea or dizziness) have bred fear and suspicion in the South Asian community towards matters of mental health. There’s a vague understanding of the concepts under an ominous namelessness that lingers.
“We talk about our community, we praise how low our divorce rates are, how well we do in the workplace, what good little model minorities we make, a neat and homogenous bunch.”
Here’s what our community values more than anything else: adherence to social norms. When we talk about our community, we praise how low our divorce rates are, how well we do in the workplace, what good little model minorities we make, a neat and homogenous bunch. This comes from a ruthless self-policing that places anyone who falls outside the parameters of “normal” in jeopardy, including members of the LGBT+ community, women who fall outside the archetype of what a decent daughter (beti) ought to be, and the mentally ill.
The more superstitious of us still believe that people who are mentally ill are possessed by jinn. Or we write it off as the will of god, or karma for a past life’s deeds. Even the sceptics seem to fall mute on this particular topic.
This silence is deafening.
Discussions, if they happen at all, happen in secret. We say no more other than “ē mathu ma sarku nathi”, she’s not right in the head, and that will be that. Sometimes it’s said in pity, sometimes in disdain – but there is never a conversation or a real dialogue.
Without the right words, the suffering becomes easier to ignore. Easier to dismiss. If you can’t see it, if it’s not right in front of you, then you can deny it. No matter how obviously feeble you might become, or how dark and deep the circles under your eyes are. Or how much you hate the fact you just can’t move, and it’s been two hours that you’ve been lying on your back, unable to feel your own body. The panic attack you have right in front of your parents or siblings or friends. The obvious scars on your skin. The cold phantom where you used to feel an emotional response.
It doesn’t matter, there’s not a word for that. It’s not real.
1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental health issues in our lifetime, and mental health issues make up 22.8% of the entire ‘disease burden’ according to the World Health Organisation. When you compare that to something like cardiovascular disease, which only makes up 16.8% of the disease burden, it is disturbing. There is a whole group of people suffering from mental health problems who will never have the vocabulary to express it.
“There is a whole group of people suffering from mental health problems who will never have the vocabulary to express it.”
Words are tools. We conceive of the world through language: words help us make sense of experience, to break it down into manageable chunks. We are living in a cultural and technological climate in which everything we do and say is being watched and scrutinised. You’re doing it now, to me, to this article – you’re looking at what I say and how I say it. And you should be. Such is the price of living in an era a lot of people are calling “post-truth”.
But the whole farce of spectacle, of log kya kahenge? (what will people say?) has created a glaring absence of words to reach out with. It has muted essential dialogue out of fear, both of the unknown, and of the atypical. If the figures are anything to go by, then nearly two billion people’s voices are missing here, across cultures which have smothered cries for help in a similar way to that of my own.
We do in my culture, however, have words for shame. Eight of them, actually, in Hindi alone. We are so afraid of ourselves, of falling outside our own self-imposed constructs that we will go to any length to suppress discussion – including ripping chunks out of our own vocabularies.
When we do that, we affect more than just our speech.