Why you should never dismiss symptoms of depression simply as signs of ageing

Dear Mum,
You have too much anger inside you to see the love and affection I am giving you. It is best I don’t cause more pain for you.
Love Neena.


It was a beautiful October night in Bangalore and she was in the middle of entertaining friends at home when the call came. “You have to do something, your mother hit me in the head and now its hurting,” her father mumbled.

Shock and disbelief apart, Neena was exasperated with her parents’ continuous bickering. “Don’t ever call me again to solve your problems,” she yelled into the phone, “I have enough issues of my own, the last thing I would expect from you is to drag me down to the mess you guys create everyday.”  She closed the line, downed the drink in her hand and stood in the shadow of the balcony, distancing herself from the dinner party. There was nothing she could do; atleast not that night, she told herself. Her parents lived 500 km away, in Kochi. Nothing could take the pain and guilt away – the guilt of not doing enough.

Her father was close to eighty, an insulin-dependent diabetic and recently diagnosed with Parkinson that made him unsteady on his feet. At sixty eight, her mother too had unaddressed medical issues. Adamant about not seeing a doctor she had gone from being sad and depressed to increasingly belligerent over the years.

Thinking a change from the routine could help, she suggested her mother come and stay for a while in Bangalore. It took a lot of convincing but she agreed in the end. Then, after a fortnight, she said she wanted to return home and vowed never to visit again. To her father she grumbled that Neena had a bad attitude and hadn’t treated her well.

Determined to try and understand what was going on, Neena looked up whatever she could find on behavioural changes in the elderly. It turned out depression was far more prevalent than she had presumed. One in five Indians above 60 years suffered from it, and due to a critical lack of expertise a vast majority remained undetected. Sadly, depression was treatable but most people never get to it.

Her mother didn’t fit the typical profile. Neither widowed nor divorced, the couple were well off and lived with a full-time maid, and within yards from relatives. Their two children lived away with their families. “Among her sisters, my mother was the most envied,” recalled Neena, “she got to travel abroad and live a fancy life with her husband when her sisters carried on with their families in the small town.”

The distressing situation at home was beginning to take a toll on her father too. He began shutting himself in his room all day so as not engage with someone insistent on picking a fight every waking hour. At the dinner table, he quietly ate his meal and left. Still conversation invariably steered towards the hardships of their early years, the slights endured at the hands of in-laws and of the things that went wrong.

Hoping to ease the situation for her father, Neena visited as often as she could. But her involvement only appeared to make the abuse worse. Her mother would remark about her lack of ambition and criticize her decisions. “It got to the point where I started yelling back louder than her and we would both end up storming off from the table leaving the dinner untouched,” she remembered. The next day Neena would find things she had gifted her mother for a birthday or festival returned, unopened.

Neena wrote a note and left it on her mother’s bed:

Dear Mum,

You have too much anger inside you to see the love and affection I am giving you. It is best I don’t cause more pain for you. Love Neena.

She decided to stay afar. Several months later, after a particularly longstanding chest infection her mother agreed to see the doctor. During the medical check-up, Neena broached the subject of her mother’s errant behaviour in private with the doctor and cautiously raised the possibility of a medication that could ‘calm her down a bit’. “The physician looked at me in disbelief like I was making it up,” says Neena and ushered her out of the consulting room in a hurry.

His response was not surprising. In the west there counselling centers, hotlines, group therapies and expert advice for people to cope with depression. But in India, especially for people in small towns there are hardly any options. Experts themselves admit doctors in India are incompetent to handle mental illness in their practice. A 2010 survey also put a dismal figure on the available number of psychiatrists to the general population especially in the northern part of our country.

With outside help ruled out, Neena sought to bring up the subject of her mother’s erratic behaviour with close relatives. “Slowly others too began opening up,” Neena discovered, “and it emerged that there were several dysfunctional members in the family.” When sharing her helplessness with friends she found many had or were going through almost similar anguish. “That was some relief,” she said, “but none of us still knew what to do about it.”

Neena continued to go back home for family events but began to spend lesser time on each visit. On one of these visits, she noticed scratch wounds on the maid’s arm. “This was someone who had been with us for years so I knew she wouldn’t open up easily,” recalled Neena. Then, one evening a loud wail brought Neena to the garden where she found her mother striking the maid. She cannot remember the order of events that followed but it was the breaking point.

With a warning to her mother that she would call the police if she ever raised a finger on anyone again, she threw her clothes into her backpack and left the house not even stopping to say goodbye to her father.

“I was both angry and heartbroken,” she sighed, while admitting it was not the right response. Back in Bangalore she quit her job, signed up for a meditation course and made one call to her father, “I told him I was not in a good place emotionally and wanted to be left alone to find answers to my own life, that he should try and understand.”

It’s been almost a year now. Neena is still estranged from her mother. She calls her father every once in a while but fears her mother remains dangerously close to a mental breakdown. “Staying away is not the right thing to do but it is the only way I know to survive insanity,” she said recently, “I know I have failed my mother.”

***

A few things I learnt along the way :

  1. Many people believe “it’s all in the head” and can be controlled with attitudinal changes. Wrong. Depression involves a chemical imbalance and requires medication or therapy.
  2. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing symptoms of depression as simple signs of ageing.
  3. Untreated depression can progress to more severe conditions when medications may no longer be effective.
  4. It is not true that if a person talks about suicide, they will not attempt it. Take it seriously. Depression carries a high risk of suicide.

 

lll-logoSpeakYourMind is a special series on mental health by The Alternative in partnership with  The Live Love Laugh Foundation. Starting Mental Health Day, Oct 10th, the series will feature voices and expert views on issues like depression and anxiety disorders and how sensitivity and timely support can help people overcome them. If you have a personal story around mental health to share, please write in to editor@thealternative.in, and we will publish it in the strictest confidence.

 

 


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in India and brought up in Ghana, Anjana Das lived the most exciting part of her life in Egypt where she worked as foreign correspondent from 1999 to 2012, cruising the Nile, snorkelling along the Red Sea coast, hiking Mt. Sinai, camping in the Western desert and writing stories about people and their life, until the Arab revolution sent her packing from Cairo. Her work has appeared in Egyp... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in India and brought up in Ghana, Anjana Das lived the most exciting part of her life in Egypt where she worked as foreign correspondent from 1999 to 2012, cruising the Nile, snorkelling along the Red Sea coast, hiking Mt. Sinai, camping in the Western desert and writing stories about people and their life, until the Arab revolution sent her packing from Cairo. Her work has appeared in Egyp... more

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