A Lens on Mental Health
When I was a little girl, in the summer holidays we used to go with my grandmother to her village in Goa. My grandmother’s house faced the village road where many people passed and sometimes rested under the shade of a mango tree.
I remember a young man perhaps in his late 20’s, disheveled, his shirt usually not tucked neatly into his pants, who would do his rounds of the village in an agitated way, talking to himself, sometimes shouting.
My grandmother, as did the other villagers, would call out to him as he went about on his daily rounds. She would just inquire warmly how he was doing, whether he’d like to have some tea and bread and just connecting with him in some way. Sometimes he would respond and then trail off in his own imagined conversations.
I remember fragments of conversation around him – how he was remembered as a bright boy and nobody knew what happened but he had lost his mind one day. There were many conjectures about what might have transpired, perhaps the girl he liked rejected him or that he got possessed by a spirit one night as he was walking home alone.
As an adult it became clear to me that the young man most likely suffered from Schizophrenia and experienced hallucinations. What also strikes me is that from our perspective, I don’t think we would `let him’ roam around and continued our casual conversations with him. I think we would be after him to receive treatment and would have focused our efforts on `getting him better’ (based on our definition of what better looks like).
What I appreciate was how this young man was treated in my grandmother’s village. He was seen as a person. They remembered who he was. When they called out to him, when they spoke about him, they were connecting to the person they knew from before. Despite the hallucination, that person was still present, still somewhere there. I do think he had a sense of that seeing and could feel the sense of connection that was expressed in this natural way. They were seeing him and relating to him beyond his condition and letting him be just as he was, however he was. The village was his protected area where he could be and breathe freely. That was just the way it was.
It is very possible that he could feel this connection from others, this allowing and safety even if internally he might have been in turmoil. When I was learning psychology, we needed to intern at many places, one of them was a mental institution. There was one man I used to interact with who was suffering from schizophrenia. There were just these moments of when he felt clear enough to say something aligned to the questions I was asking him. At most other times he would be having clang associations. I genuinely felt connected with him in those fleeting moments and otherwise. After many days of meeting him regularly, he started to add something else to our routine. He would disappear as I was getting ready to go and find some rotis from somewhere (that were stale) to offer it to me. Although the rotis were not edible, I felt a sense of warmth in his efforts to share something with me and respond in some way. So, there is connection perhaps that we may feel that doesn’t require words, connection that can reach us somewhere even through all the fogginess and disconnection.
Someone was sharing with me that in some WhatsApp group that she is part of, there are few people in the group that clearly have something that seems like a mental illness going on for them. The group simply allows them to be – sometimes they get reactive, sometimes they are ok. The group simply lets them move through that in a non-reactive way and without advice or trying to fix them. This letting be, without getting into the other person’s storm nor trying to change them seems precious to me. Yet when things feel okay, they remember and remind these people in casual ways of what they remember about them, convey to them in some sense their essence that is not lost even through all those tumultuous waves. We all need that remembering and reminding of what people connect with in us. We need that reflected back to us. We can have that for each other when we interact with each other, in our surroundings and virtually. With technology, we now have perhaps different kind of `villages’ or communities – the virtual ones.
We don’t need to see people through the `labels’ of their conditions or `other’ them if they are suffering from a mental illness. A connection is always possible when we can just let be. We don’t try to `practice’ compassion – we simply see the other and when we can’t see, we remember moments when we have been able to see them – at a soul level or at the level of being.