In 2019, nearly one billion people, including 14% of adolescents worldwide, were living with a mental disorder.
According to the WHO, social and economic inequalities, public health emergencies, war and the climate crisis are among the global structural threats to mental health.
COVID-19 has been a major contributor to mental health issues, with depression and anxiety increasing by more than 25% in the first year of the pandemic alone. But it also brought change, lifting the lid on mental health issues and creating awareness.
However, much remains to be done, and no one knows it better than author and columnist Aparna Piramal Raje.
Keen to accelerate positive dialogue about mental health, Aparna, the eldest daughter of VIP Industries Chairman Dilip Piramal, released her book, Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked my Mental Health, in early May.
In this book, part memoir, part report and part self-help guide, she reveals her experience with bipolar disorder and how she came to terms with it. Aparna hopes her book will help change the perception of bipolarity and mental health issues in general.
Chemical Khichdi begins with Aparna’s admission of having lived with bipolarity for over two decades and focuses on the fact that one can be happy, successful, and bipolar – and achieve one’s dreams.
“That’s why I reveal my vulnerability in all its misshapen glory,” she wrote.
Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression, is a mental disorder that causes unusual changes in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to perform daily tasks. The condition can be managed with medication, talking therapy, lifestyle changes, and other treatments.
Aparna says these emotions are like the ups and downs most people experience during a normal day, only much more intense.
With an MBA from Harvard Business School and a student at Oxford University, Aparna was CEO of BP Ergo, a furniture company. She also wrote a leadership column for the business journal Mint.
Her first book, Working out of the Box, a book about the lives of 40 progressive leaders, explored the connections between their workspaces and work styles and was published in 2015.
In 1999 she co-wrote Business Mantras, with Gita Piramal, Radhika Piramal and Mukesh Beriwala.
Aparna has divided her book into three sections: a memoir that delves into her story over the past 20 years, the second section talks about seven therapies that guided her to get better, and an eye to the future.
Born in 1976, Aparna remembers the first time the problem arose. It was 2000, the summer before she was supposed to go to Harvard Business School.
“The first incidence of my mood swings started over 20 years ago. At that time there was no awareness. It was more likely to be considered a personality issue than a a mental health issue,” Aparna told HerStory.
“There were a lot of questions: was it bipolar? Is this limit? Should I take medication? Shouldn’t I take medicine? she remembers.
Aparna visited a therapist “who was very helpful” and continued to see her for a long time. “She didn’t like the whole idea of bipolar; I didn’t like the label either. I started taking medication about nine or ten years ago. That’s when I formally accepted the diagnosis,” she says, retracing her journey to acceptance.
The author asserts that therapy is a very important part of the healing process and should not be limited to people struggling with mental health issues, but should be available to everyone.
“I would advocate therapy for everyone because I think it’s good to have someone to talk to, someone who is non-judgmental and will give you good advice. That doesn’t mean you have to be married to the same therapist your whole life,” she says.
Aparna worked with three therapists at different stages. The first helped her to understand – to understand herself, to befriend her emotions and to understand how to deal with so many emotions.
She says her second therapist helped her understand what bipolar disorder is and how to learn to live with it. The therapist she currently works with has given her “a fantastic vocabulary to understand myself.”
“I think we all evolve and grow at some point,” she adds. “The drugs are going to prevent some chemical imbalances, but it’s therapy that really helps you understand the root causes of why things are happening.”
Acceptance and allies
Beyond therapy, Aparna says allies are an important part of healing and recovery processes. They provide a safe and stable environment and ensure judgment-free conversations.
The author believes that mental health is a team sport, making it important to know “what team you’re on and who’s on your team.”
She says her book club and writers club were very supportive when she was writing.
Aparna recalls being introduced to her first therapist by her aunt 20 years ago. When it came from someone who knew, she and her parents were willing to try the treatment.
“It shows the importance of finding someone within the system who will listen,” she says.
In the book, Aparna attached a letter from her doctors which said “she has a normal personality”. “I felt so validated and relieved because ultimately it meant something was wrong with me; something was wrong with my brain,” she says.
“It needs to be fixed, but it’s not all about me, it doesn’t define me. It’s part of my identity, yes, but it’s not my only identity,” she adds.
Therapies and awareness
Aparna says these days there is some understanding of depression and anxiety, the most common mental health issues.
“People aren’t aware of specific conditions like bipolar, which is considered a more serious mental health condition and only affects 1% of the population.”
People are still not comfortable with many aspects – getting a clinical diagnosis, understanding what the disease means, going to therapies, living with it, and being open to work.
High costs often put therapy out of reach for many, but options like helplines and nonprofit organizations now offer therapy.
A few therapists are willing to work on a sliding scale payment system where one can pay according to one’s ability. His book also mentions a few companies and NGOs working on providing therapy and hails a rural community program where champions are trained in mental health issues and provide counselling.
“All of these options are starting to become available. Of course, given the size of our population and the needs, this will never be enough. What we will really need is for the state to step in to provide the resources that are really needed,” she adds.
write the book
Aparna, who had wanted to write this book since 2015, says it was no easy task. “I had to be in a place where I was stable.”
Each chapter brought her back to that time and those feelings.
“I couldn’t write more than one chapter at a time. If I wrote a chapter on depression, I would become depressed. If I wrote a chapter about my mentors, I would get too emotional and the writing wasn’t good,” she shares.
The only way to do this was to find a place where she was stable enough to “feel a sense of detachment from matter.”
“The most important thing a writer needs is a sense of detachment where you can write about time, imagine it, live it and relive it without the impact of treating it and remembering it as memories” , she says.
Aparna says it has been over four years since she had a manic episode, adding that she has used the seven therapies mentioned in her book to “stay stable”.
Normalize the conversation
COVID has changed the game by transforming the narrative around mental health issues. This has enabled the rise of new treatment formats such as online therapy and online group support and has led governments and corporations to take the issue seriously.
The author believes that mental health is “intersectional” as it cuts across many other areas such as education, gender, economic opportunity, etc. Seen in this light, the perspective on mental health will change and help further normalize conversations about it.
Aparna, who completed her book during the pandemic, says she was praised for her courage in writing the book – an indication of the stigma that surrounds mental health.
“When there is no need for the word courage, it will show how hard we have worked to understand mental health,” concludes Aparna.