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Mental Health & Politics - The Fault Lines We Don't See

Over years of discourse in the field of psychology, it is commonly agreed upon that mental health encompasses our emotional, social & psychological well-being. A disturbance in or disregard for any of these elements could result in varying levels of distress experienced by individuals. We are all uniquely wired with our set of vulnerabilities, strengths & potential triggers – what sends one individual into an anxious spiral might not be given a second thought about by another. However, distancing ourselves from a quantum view of humans & looking at things through a wider lens, we are in a much better position to perceive the institutional & systemic agents that play a role in our mental well-being. 
 This article attempts to bring light to how the political climate - local or global - affects our mental health. Our mornings begin with the chirping of birds, or realistically, their tweets. We consume current affairs for breakfast, nibble on the latest celebrity gossip & have meals out of big political debates. In a hyper-connected world such as ours, we’re never too far away from the crutches of reality & while we pride ourselves on being up-to-date with the latest issues, do we stop & think about the toll it takes on our mental well-being? 
Our choices, our identities, our struggles, our privileges & our very existence is political. The realities that we live are construed & misconstrued by political agendas & majoritarian whims, it is but natural for our mental health to bear the brunt of the environment we live in. Unlike news on our screens, the reality is not something we can turn an off button on. When systemic factors that aim to curb freedom of speech, dissent & expression, subjugate the minorities, impose authoritarian measures for compliance exist, psychological well-being cannot flourish. Therefore, it is important to realise that racism, casteism, religious intolerance, gender inequality, etc. are not just social issues, they have very real & tangible impact on the psyche of the masses. In India, the past year has been ripe with political trials & tribulations; autocratic actions & uncertainty have been the norm. Combined with the pandemic, the state of affairs has not been an easy pill to swallow for most people who do not have the privilege of ignorance. When institutional agents sanction the silencing, subjugation & finally erasure of distinct identities, the essence of not only individuals but also communities is threatened. True freedom lies in the ability to think, act & express oneself authentically. Without such inalienable rights, how can a country like ours expect to find itself higher on the happiness index? One cannot talk about the impact of political disturbances & unrest in India without the mention of one of the most militarised regions of the world, Kashmir. Conflict, curfews & clampdowns are synonymous with the valley that has been ravaged over the years. This has fuelled alarming levels of untreated mental illness in the region and a clampdown that has been enforced for more than a year now has added immensely to civilian trauma in the region. Research published by IMHANS and ActionAid estimated that 11.3 percent of the population had a mental health disorder – higher than the national prevalence of around seven percent. One study found that 45% of Kashmir's adult population (1.8 million) was suffering from some form of mental distress. There is a high prevalence of depression (41%), anxiety (26%), post-traumatic stress disorder (19%), and 47% had experienced some sort of trauma. Large group identities are rooted in transgenerational transmissions & chosen traumas. Such erratic political changes serve to reinforce their chosen narrative & further agitate the fault lines that create divisions, thus hampering social harmony & mental well-being. More often than not we are only passive spectators in the wake of protests & unrest across the world, but that does not make us immune to the detrimental mental health consequences. Though not directly in attendance, the killing of George Floyd in America, the Anti-Abortion Law protests in Poland or the Anti-CAA stir in India caused significant distress to people all over who consumed this information. According to a new survey conducted by the APA, 68% of Americans say that the 2020 US Presidential Election is a significant source of stress in their lives. Undoubtedly, the effects of this will be felt much farther than the States and impact people from different walks of life across the world. The studies available on the relationship between news exposure and affect do generally support the notion that exposure to news reports affects our moods and state of mind. More specifically, a direct relationship between negative news exposure and negative emotional states was found in a number of experimental studies (Balzarotti & Cicero, 2014). As we discuss mental health, it is imperative to realise that no man is an island. All elements that make us human – biological, psychological, social, economic, emotional, cultural etc. are deeply intertwined with each other. Likewise, the political changes that emerge cannot be removed from the fabric of our existence because they lay the very foundation upon which our existence is allowed to persist. The perimeter of our freedom to be ourselves is decided by the laws & the political dictates of a country. As the saying goes, all are equal but some are more equal than others. While some think that politics is “uncool”, it has real time implications on the freedom, or lack thereof, for certain people. Privilege is not having to fight for being able to marry who you love, it is being able to step out at any hour of the day without fearing for your life, it is the right to choose what you want to do with your body without the law mandating on it. People are indifferent to the status quo as long as it doesn’t threaten their identities but for most, identity is political. Their identities are revolutionary in themselves & to demand space & legitimacy, though ideally basic, is a courageous act. We must look at mental health from an intersectional lens & recognise that there is no level playing field, there are only unique experience that demand a tailor-made, personalised approach which validates their lived traumas owing to institutional mechanisms that exist to delegitimise them and assimilate them into the majoritarian way of life. REFERENCES

  • Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences, Government Medical College, Srinagar & ActionAid India. (n.d.). Mental Illness in the Valley - A Community- based Prevalence Study of Mental Health Issues in Kashmir. Retrieved from https://www.actionaidindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Mental-Health-Illness-in-the-Valley-Final-Report-Web.pdf

  • Shoib, S., & Yasir Arafat, S. M. (2020). Mental health in Kashmir: conflict to COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7484691/

  • Balzarotti, S., & Cicero, M. R. (2014). News reports of catastrophes and viewers’ fear: Threat appraisal of positively and negatively framed events. Media Psychology, 17, 357–377. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2013.826588

  • American Psychological Association. (2020, October 7).Presidential Election a Source of Significant Stress for More Americans than 2016 Presidential Race. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/election-stress



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