People with bipolar disorder must not only cope with the challenges of the illness but also the stigma and discrimination in an ableist society.
By Suryatapa Mukherjee
CW: suicide, ableism
Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput passed away in June of this year at the age of 34, shocking all of India and plunging millions of fans into grief. Rajput’s death was initially reported as a suicide due to mental illness, but it was later speculated that he could have been murdered. Many insisted he must have been murdered. Because a mind like Rajput’s—a mind that is brilliant and artistic and dreams bigger than life itself—could not possibly be bipolar and suicidal, as stated by some of his psychiatrists. Many people with bipolar disorder watching this unfold are being deeply impacted by these toxic narratives about mental illnesses.
Rajput’s death was appropriated for political gains with looming state elections and the hunt for his alleged murderer was quelled by arresting his ex-girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, for getting him marijuana. “I messaged a friend when I received news of his death,” says Rituparna Borah, a queer feminist activist in India. “Oh my god, how many times have I wanted to die? All these incidents came flashing back.” Borah received her bipolar disorder diagnosis years ago while in college. Now she is in tune with her illness enough to know when a manic or a depressive episode is setting in, and Rajput’s death definitely triggered a depressive episode. That same day, she spoke to her psychiatrist to change her medication accordingly. But what impacted her mental health even more was witnessing the persecution of Chakraborty.
“I know it’s not politically correct to say this, but it made me feel like her only mistake was falling in love with someone mentally unwell. I’m saying this as someone who is mentally unwell,” says Borah. “It made me wonder, am I burdening my partner? Am I burdening my friends?”
On one hand, Chakraborty was accused of being a gold-digger who kept Rajput under a haze of drugs in order to take advantage of him. News channels aired segments on how Bengali women like Chakraborty practice black magic. She is currently being investigated by the Narcotics Control Bureau as part of a drug raid in Bollywood.
On the other hand, one of Rajput’s psychiatrists breached client confidentiality by publicly stating that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and that Chakraborty made his therapy appointments and took him to the sessions. Two psychiatrists told police that Rajput often wouldn’t take his medication, and Chakraborty claimed that he used cannabis to cope. “Attacking the caregiver was a big thing for me because caregivers play a big role in our lives,” says Borah who also suffers from fibromyalgia. “My ex-partner told me ‘I am tired of your illness’ at the end of our relationship. I’m dreading the day my current partner will say the same.”
The “evidence” that Rajput did not have bipolar disorder mainly comes from myths and stereotypes about the illness. “So many from [Rajput’s] film fraternity have linked his suicide to ‘mental illness’ without even realising how patronising it is,” tweeted author and news panelist Anand Ranganathan. “He was a brilliant, well-read engineer deeply interested in philosophy and astronomy.” Many others also touted Rajput’s academic and professional achievements as proof of a healthy mind. People who fulfill the cultural markers of “success” are not believed to be mentally ill, but the reality is that many “successful” people hide their illness to avoid being associated with damaging stereotypes about their abilities or lack thereof.
“Sushant was more comfortable talking about his big ideas and big dreams, rather than indulging in small talk in social situations. I really quite relate to him,” says Abhik*, a graphic designer who found out he has bipolar disorder in the aftermath of Rajput’s death. He says that the idea that smart, creative people can’t have bipolar disorder is ahistorical, citing the example of British comedian Stephen Fry. “I had one of the highest IQ scores in my high school. I have had moments of success. Yet I am a person who has bipolar disorder. One doesn’t negate the other,” Abhik* tells me.
Rituparna Borah is generally seen as “successful” in her work as a queer feminist activist. She works 24/7, going without sleep during her manic episodes and unable to take a break when her mind and body demand it. “After doing so much, there is no space for me to say no,” Borah laments. “To say that I can’t conduct a training today. I can’t have a meeting today. My mind is not working. My health is not good. We should be able to have those spaces where we are not able to do things.”
Psychologist Lameeya Parween tells me, “There are stereotypes of what a mentally ill person looks like. Robin Williams died by suicide. His job was making people laugh. He defied the image of someone who is depressed. You don’t look a certain way when you are depressed or when you have bipolar disorder. You can’t pick mentally ill people out of a lineup.” Many aggrieved by Rajput’s death see the claims of mental illness as an insult. In turn, people are using “bipolar” and “mental” as slurs against those they hold responsible for his death.
“Mental illnesses have always been used as insults,” says Parween. “But this time, it’s playing out on a large scale, on national media. It is undoing the work done by people to remove the stigma of accessing mental healthcare.” Deepika Padukone, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, has been speaking out publicly about her depression since 2015. However, since Rajput’s death, she has been trolled and harassed on social media about her mental health. Hence, Parween has had a rising number of people reach out to her after being negatively impacted by this outpouring of toxicity. Many of them had to deactivate their social media accounts to preserve their mental health.
Saurav* is a UX designer who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at around the time of Rajput’s death. “When I came out to a relative about my diagnosis, they didn’t believe me. Even when I said that I have been formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist and I’m getting medication, they said that I don’t show the symptoms,” he says. The mainstream messaging has had an impact on him as he often feels that he is too “normal” to have bipolar disorder despite his diagnosis. “I question myself all the time. I’m often paranoid that I’m making it up,” says Saurav*. “The common depiction of bipolar disorder in the media is very wild. I’m not saying that those things don’t happen but it’s not the entirety of the experience. There are moments of ‘normalcy’ and they make me question myself,” he adds.
However, the impact of mental illness stigma does not end there. Sukanya* works as a designer at an e-learning company. She experienced a series of extremely unfortunate events in college which brought her symptoms to the surface. “My mother didn’t know much about mental health practitioners so she took me to the family doctor we had been seeing for more than a decade,” recalls Sukanya. “The doctor said that it could be bipolar disorder [but] she convinced my mother to not go to a psychiatrist. She said that if it ‘got out’ that I am seeing a psychiatrist, I wouldn’t get married and the medication would make me infertile. She then sent me out of the room and told my mother to ignore my mental health to make me ‘get over it.’” Sukanya still struggles with her mental health but after this ableist experience with a doctor, she has been discouraged from visiting a mental health practitioner.
Abhik* says that the negative discussion around Rajput’s mental health was predictable. He has faced such stereotypes first-hand when telling people about his mental health. “I’m not focusing on the mainstream side of the discussion because there is no point in doing that. There is an alternative conversation happening as well about mental health,” says Abhik* who has been focusing on these alternative spaces. “There are so many people I have found over the last few weeks on social media who are making art based on their mental health experiences. Honestly, that has been empowering,” he adds.
It must be noted that all the people I spoke to are aware enough about mental health to, firstly, seek care and, secondly, to talk to me for this story. And yet most asked to be anonymous as they are aware that coming out as bipolar could lead to discrimination in their professional and personal lives. People with bipolar disorder must not only cope with the challenges of the illness but also the challenges posed by people seeing them as less than they are. When Deepika Padukone came out about having depression, something shifted in our culture. It became more okay to talk about depression. The outpouring of grief over the tragic loss of Sushant Singh Rajput could have been a force for good. We could have taken a deeper look at bipolar disorder and understood it better. Unfortunately, in seeking justice for his death, many have made life harder for people like him.
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
Suryatapa Mukherjee is a news reporter and feature writer in India. She has written for Vice, Huffpost, Asia Times and others. Her poetry was published in ‘Hiraeth Erzolirzoli: A Wales – Cameroon Anthology’. She chaired the Media Representation panel on Bi Pride UK 2020. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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