Updated: Feb 27, 2021
I recently came across pictures from my sophomore year in college. In them, I look my best: my body is at its leanest, my hair is shining, and my eyes are glowing. Anyone who sees these images would think I’m thriving. In fact, I almost had myself fooled. Yet, when I see these photos, I feel a pang of sadness, for only I know the reality of that time. While I may have physically looked my best, these images were captured when, mentally, I had reached a nadir. In the pictures now, we see a seemingly happy young woman, but only I remember the woman who was then unsure of how - or even whether - she should reach out for help.
Last month, Bollywood fans across the globe were struck upon hearing the news that Sushant Singh Rajput, a promising young Bollywood actor, had died by suicide. Journalists and well-wishing fans took to the internet to express their shock and grief. Perhaps we are so affected by his death by suicide because we can all, on some level, relate to the emotions of feeling alone and as if we don’t truly belong - I know I certainly can. Even so, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about mental health, especially in the South Asian community. July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how my community can be better, do better, with regards to mental health.
We become so shaken when someone dies by suicide, but what if we stopped treating mental health struggles as a failure in the first place? We are quick to say “suicide is not an option,” but we fail to think about the person for whom suicide was more of an option than reaching out to anybody for help. The shame is on us all for creating such a culture where, ironically, everyone struggles, yet, we all do so in silence. And the conversation doesn’t end there. Most of us don’t fully understand the nuances of how to approach mental health, and I’m guilty, too. I’ve considered myself a mental health advocate for years now, but I’ve made a heavy mistake in how I frame the conversation this entire time. I often tell the people I care about that they can come to me anytime, that I am here for them. Yet, two of my friends recently opened my eyes to the fallacy in such statements. They reminded me how someone at a mental low point will not want to reach out to others, and I realized my oversight: I’ve spent so much time telling people I’m there for them that in doing so, I’ve inadvertently forgotten to actually show them that.
As I mentioned, during my sophomore year, no one knew just how much I was aching. Of course, I had amazing friends and family who, numerous times, told me they were here for me, but in those moments, I did not want to become a burden on anyone. I knew I could reach out to a handful of people, but I still did not. In the same way, people might not be comfortable reaching out to me no matter how open I tell them I am. At the end of the day, if I care about someone enough, then it’s on me to stay in touch, reach out, and look out for changes in their behavior. Personally, I’m not always the best at texting or calling people, but this is no excuse - if I care, then I must show it. Marketing consultant Mahdi Woodard posted on his Instagram account recently, urging us to go through our contact list and check in on three people a day. This is one small step I can take to truly be there for my loved ones. His line that most touched me was, “You may be the only person to do that for them.” When I started going through my own contact list, I came across so many names of people I haven’t talked with in so long, but for whom I do want to carve out time. If I can waste hours of my day mindlessly scrolling through social media, then surely I can take out a few minutes to actively let the people in my life know that I am thankful for their presence in it.
While I’m checking in on my loved ones, I also want to eliminate the singlemost hollow phrase from my lexicon: how are you? We have become wired to reply, “good” any time someone asks us this. What is, at surface-level, a question, now serves as a mere greeting, with the how are you-good exchange being functionally no different than a hi-hello. In essence, asking someone how they are doing does little to evoke an honest response. I read a few articles (check out this one, this one, and this one) that suggested other questions we can ask one another instead, and I’ve begun incorporating them into my conversations. Some of my favorites include: What’s on your mind right now? What times of the day/week are hardest for you? What color describes how you are feeling right now and why?
I tried asking these to a couple of my loved ones and, as you can see, we immediately struck up heartfelt conversations. One of my friends recently experienced a big life change and had a lot on their mind, and the other was on edge about a decision they need to make soon. I can’t say for sure, but I have an inkling that a simple “how are you” would not have paved the way for this same kind of exchange. I’ll admit it didn’t feel as organic at first, but the business student in me did a quick cost-benefit analysis: the potential ‘cost’ here might be that the person on the other end thinks I’m weird and awkward (true and true!), or worse, ignores me. On the other hand, the possible ‘benefit’ is that someone who is struggling and feeling alone now knows that I am here for them in this exact moment. Suffice to say that one of these outcomes clearly outweighs the other.
There’s a saying that urges us to leave people better than how we found them. Unfortunately, too many times, we find people gone, when it’s too late to help at all. Almost always, there is an outpour of support when we hear of someone’s death by suicide. Also almost always, though, we realize that there were signs the person was struggling. If we are able to have an acute sense of someone’s cry for help after they end their life, can we not channel this same empathy and compassion when people are alive and struggling?
My pictures from college tell one happy story, but my memory reminds me of another in stark contrast. Looking at these photos serves as a reminder to me that regardless of how close I am to someone, I still only know a fraction of their story. And I need to make it my responsibility to let them share with me the rest. Today, I am left helplessly wishing that someone had been there for Sushant Singh Rajput to show him that they cared. For the people in my life, though, I don’t have to just wish. I can be that person for them. I will be that person.
*HUGE thank you to my friends Vishwa Dhulesia and Vaidehi Patel for calling me in and teaching me that my simply stating “I am here for you!” is not nearly enough.