Field Notes | Society

Adulting can be overwhelming, but millennials carry an additional burden

Social anxiety is a major crisis, but finding the right therapist can hasten the healing

Early this year, doctors at the SHUT clinic, or Service for Healthy Use of Technology, at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bengaluru, started treating people for selfie addiction. One of the patients was a teenager who would take 100-150 selfies in 15 minutes, just to avoid feeling lonely.

In Mumbai, Aditi Anand, 26, felt compelled to constantly portray what fun it was to be a single woman in Mumbai. “It became an addiction. A competition to show that my life too was about cappuccinos and mojitos and beaches and selfies.”

On the face of it, on Instagram, Anand was indeed leading a life straight out of the 90s sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S.; an object of envy for her friends back home in Pune. “I had convinced my parents to let me work in Mumbai. I live with two friends in a rented apartment in Andheri; for the first time I had the freedom to do what I wanted.”

It was perfect. “As I teenager, I’d watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and envy their lives. Finally, I found myself single, independent and free in Mumbai. I worked hard, weeks on end without a break when we had a big project, and I loved it.”

Less than a year later, Anand found herself hiding in bed, piles of unwashed clothes strewn around. She had to reset the snooze button 20 times before she could drag herself out of bed and make it to work. On off days, she wouldn’t even try. “I’d reach for my laptop and binge-watch Netflix,” said Anand, who works as an assistant director for a production house in Mumbai. “I felt nothing… no sorrow or anger or joy… just nothing. Even brushing my teeth was a chore.”

Unravelling life

The feeling of being untethered began slowly until it started to severely affect her productivity. “I didn’t know what I wanted, so I couldn’t find a solution. I didn’t want food. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to hang out with friends.”

That’s when she turned to a psychiatrist and is being treated for depression, stress and anxiety attacks. She’s also learning to reduce the number of times she visits Instagram. “Now that I don’t spend so much on coffees and cocktails, I’m actually saving money,” she said. When Anand spoke about her condition, she was surprised to find that many of her friends and co-workers shared their own experience living with depression and anxiety.

“It’s all the more confusing when there’s no trauma to pinpoint as the reason for your life unravelling,” said Rebecca Matthew, 29, a lawyer from Bengaluru, who has been battling clinical depression for several years. Her outgoing personality was muted by anxiety attacks and an inability to function “on really bad days”. After several months of trying to deal with it herself, she consulted therapists and finally found a psychiatrist who put her on “low-dependency medication”.

Today, Matthew no longer needs medication, and has developed a system that helps her lead a productive life. A mood journal, for instance, helps her identify triggers. “Something as simple as taking a walk helps.” She plans her day and lists out tasks because she has learned that, for her, chaos triggers the worst symptoms.

Matthew, like Anand, soon discovered she wasn’t alone. “My peers and juniors, all lawyers, started discussing their mental health problems. I have friends who are bipolar, who live with depression.”

The transition from student to young working adults, while empowering, can be fraught with pitfalls, especially when coping mechanisms fail. The good news is that increasingly young people are feeling empowered to seek help. It took Abhijeet, 26, more than a year to admit that he needed counselling, but he finally turned to it. “When you are ill, you don’t want to acknowledge it,” said Abhijeet, who works in a start-up in Bengaluru.

B.N. Gangadhar, director of Nimhans, has seen a subtle shift in the number of people seeking help for both psychiatric and neurological cases. “The institute has seen a 5% increase in the number of consultations compared to last year. People are becoming aware and seeking professional help at an earlier stage for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and childhood learning disorders,” he said.

Shabbari Bhattacharyya, a counsellor at Bengaluru’s Parivarthan Counselling, Training and Research Centre, attributes this to the changes in the way younger urban Indians think. “The growth economy allows younger people to earn money and have disposable income their parents didn’t have. This gives them independence. This is also changing the structure of society so that individuals discuss their own individual addictions or mental health issues. Urban Indians are questioning their own identities, and are choosing identities that may not sync with what family and society would have expected of them in the past,” said Bhattacharyya.

Handy crutch

American sitcoms — where the ‘shrink’ is reduced to a handy crutch for canned laughter or a tired stereotype much like the gay best friend — helped normalise therapy. But taking the actual step and making that appointment in real life is not always easy.

Abhijeet, who is today being treated for social anxiety disorder, turned first to marijuana to cope. “I used to pretend to be this fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy when inside I was miserable and didn’t know why,” he said. Slowly, the facade started to crack. “I would lose my temper at work, pick up fights with my parents, have panic attacks at night. My parents forced me to see our family doctor and he suggested therapy.”

As much as the media has made mental health acceptable, it is also responsible for whitewashing it. “Depression is ugly. But you don’t see that ugliness on social media. You see images of a person on a beautiful beach, or alone somewhere on a mountain. And that’s supposed to convey loneliness?” At her worst, Matthew would scroll through the images and wonder why her depression wasn’t like that. Finally, she learned to sift through the noise and filter in only resources that help.

“I think the right time to go a therapist is when you are struggling to find sense of your own life and if your thoughts are affecting your general existence,” said a 23-year-old artist in Bengaluru, who has been experiencing depression and anxiety for the past six years and has switched therapists four times. She is presently seeing a neuro psychiatrist. “In a bad month, I find it hard to speak to family and friends,” she said. Therapy has taught her to be kinder to herself.

Social anxiety is probably the millennial’s major crisis, but finding the right therapist or psychiatrist early can hasten the healing. This was an avenue an earlier generation was more reluctant to explore. Today, as Matthew said, “because of the level of awareness, we find it easier to seek treatment.”

(Names have been changed to protect identity.)

tanu.kulkarni@thehindu.co.in

anjali.thomas@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:29:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/adulting-can-be-overwhelming-but-millennials-carry-an-additional-burden/article25194992.ece

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