It’s the year 2020. As always, mental health continues to be fiercely debated, discussed and more and more popular. However, it’s also becoming clear that our understanding of mental health is not complete. We sat down with counselling psychologist Parita Mehta, to ask her understanding of some of the most important terms of mental health. Having worked extensively with schools, colleges and corporates, Parita shares her insights on body image, self-love, depression, social media’s role in mental health, and much more.
What is your understanding of mental health?
Every individual has their own definition of mental health. My basic understanding of it is a perfect sync between your thoughts, feelings and actions. In layman’s terms, it means the absence of any illness, such as depression, anxiety or stress. When we go deeper, we realize that good mental health means that those three factors I mentioned are in one line. You feel a peace within yourself, and you are happy with who you are. Humans are social beings. As social beings, we all have expectations laid on us, and we try so hard to live up to it. Because of that, there is stress – work stress, family stress, so much of it. There are a lot of other problems that come up due to stress. There is no harmony within your thoughts. Perhaps you overthink, or you exaggerate things inside your mind. Because of that, you feel a certain way and you react a certain way. If you are able to compose your thoughts, then you are able to balance your mental health.
Are there a set of specific components that could help you gain good mental health?
If we were to talk about that, it would get really complicated (laughs). For people to understand good mental health, they should definitely keep their thoughts, feelings and behavior aligned. It can be confusing to think about – how do you keep them aligned? You can’t think one way, and feel the opposite way. Suppose you really dislike a person in your head, but behave sweetly towards them, there is a conflict between your actions and thoughts. Youngsters today are forced into pathways that they don’t really like – like engineering for example. Suppose they’re doing it because they will get a lot of money – but they’re unhappy in it. That is why we see a lot of dropouts and suicides in engineering colleges. If you read the news today, the kind of expectations that people have of youngsters – they’re definitely not able to live up to it. They don’t feel good, and when you don’t feel good – you’ll be conflicted!
What are some resources that individuals could take advantage of to help them, for example, therapy?
Individuals are all different, and we can’t say that a particular thing works well for everyone. It is highly subjective. The best way to deal with your stress or problems is to talk it out. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to a professional or even your family or friends, it’ll make you feel better. If you don’t feel like you can talk about it, then find an outlet to vent out your feelings. It could be art, or swimming, or any other way of expression. Some people meditate because they find inner peace, some people are spiritual and pray to find their peace. You can write journals if writing soothes you. Once you get those feelings out of your system, you will feel light, and your spirits will be lifted. Lighten your heart out, always.
A lot of people have been emphasizing meditation’s role in good mental health and inner peace. What do you think about that?
There are several forms of meditation, but at its core, it works like this – you let your thoughts flow uninterrupted, with great focus. Whether you’re chanting a mantra, focusing on an object, or listening to music with great attention, that is meditation. The concept behind meditation is extremely helpful because you cut yourself from external thoughts. We say that our mind is a monkey, because it keeps jumping from here to there. Focusing on yourself or a particular thing, without being distracted by your thoughts or external world – that will make you feel happy. Suppose you have a lot of negative thoughts, and whenever you meditate, you think only about terrible things – listen to good songs that cheer you up, and when you’re listening, identify what kind of thoughts come into your mind. When those thoughts come in, tell yourself that it’s not what you choose to focus on right now. The more and more you suppress thoughts, there are higher chances of it coming back. Let your thoughts flow freely. It’s okay if you think negatively sometimes, but ease up on yourself.
A lot of people have told me that they often feel like they’re overthinking. A lot of people think deeply about things, but when does that cross over into overthinking, and when does it become bad for you?
One easy way to find out if you’re overthinking or not is to check whether those thoughts are helpful for you. When it comes to overthinking, we don’t limit our thoughts to a particular subject. You tend to jump – from your career to your family to what others think about you, for example. Just stop and ask yourself “Whatever I’m thinking, is it helpful to me right now?” We think from a social aspect really often – what are others going to say about me? We keep adding thoughts onto it. Ask yourself if those thoughts are constructive or not.
What do you think is the difference between sadness and depression?
“Depression is a clinical term. It is an illness. It is a condition. Sadness is an emotion. A lot of people say it’s a bad emotion, but there’s nothing good or bad about an emotion. Sadness is temporary – it may or may not stay for a long time. The main reason for confusion here is because one of the ways to diagnose depression is prolonged sadness for more than two weeks.”
An ideal way to identify if you’re having depression or not is to check whether your sadness is going on for more than two weeks. Suppose you’re sad only for two or three days, you are not interested in doing things you enjoy. If you are a dancer, and normally you can’t control yourself during music, if you are depressed, you don’t even feel like moving, or even getting out of bed. Your appetite might be gone, your sleep cycles could be disturbed, you might feel hopeless.
Aside from length of time, the intensity of your sadness is important. Is it only one particular thing that makes you sad, or is it everything around you? Suppose your friend promised to come visit you and didn’t make it, and you’re upset about it? How long would you be upset about it? People today use depression or the phrase “I am depressed” to mean “I am sad”. I would like to request people to not nullify the entire concept of depression. It’s an ailment. It’s so common to declare yourself depressed, and each time it’s done, people who are clinically depressed lose their voice a bit more. It’ll become difficult to identify them from the others. Another person next to me may be actually in depression, and it doesn’t mean that my degree of sadness and hers are the same.
You served as a school counsellor for a long time. In your opinion, what effect might schoolyard bullying have on a person’s self-esteem?
Self-esteem is defined by how you look at yourself. Kids in their formative years, in middle school and primary, are forming an identity about themselves. A lot of people think that teasing and bullying are the same – let’s understand it’s very different. Suppose you’re my friend, and I want to pull your leg to have fun – I might tease you by pairing you up with a boy. If I see you enjoying it in a playful way, then I can go on. But if I see you not enjoying it, and if I continue doing it, it means I want you to feel a certain way. In that case, it’s bullying. Suppose you told me to stop and you didn’t give me the consent to continue, and I enjoy your tears, it’s bullying. Bullying plays a key role in a person’s self esteem – they might look down on themselves or feel guilty. They will doubt themselves and lose love for themselves. They may become incapable of socializing. I have seen kids who love making new friends, once bullied, they confine themselves to themselves or just one person they know. They are not able to talk to anyone.
What role does social media play in mental health?
There are both positive and negative sides to social media. It depends on why a person uses it. Suppose you use it to network, or to make social connections or to promote yourself or your work, you have a goal for it. You have a purpose for using it. A lot of people use it as a platform to watch the world – to know current trends and to see what others are doing. If you don’t have an objective for using it, and you use it solely for pleasure, then you might feel inferior to others and their fabulous life. You might say “Oh, my life is not as cool as theirs!” A lot of people, aware of this feeling, try to fabricate the stories they put up – the kind of restaurants they go to, the kind of lifestyle they have. There are people who try to exaggerate the good in their lives, and erase the bad. Suppose they’re travelling in India, they might put up a status saying they’re abroad. A person viewing, who has low self- esteem, will hope to live up to their life. Social media and peer pressure goes hand-in-hand today.
The world is becoming a more complicated place day by day. If you would like to find someone to talk to in order to clear your head, you can reach out to Parita at firstname.lastname@example.org
How can people use social media in a healthy way?
Suppose you’re looking for new trends, or track your friends’ lives, you get to learn, but you decide how much of it you want to take. Set boundaries for yourself. Check it once a day at night, or give yourself only twenty minutes during a session. Social media can become addictive. Sometimes, when speaking to a person, your fingers automatically scroll through your feed, even if it’s not updated. It’s a compulsive need. There is no need, but I feel like I have to.
What steps can a person take towards loving yourself?
First and foremost, they need to accept themselves and who they are. Yes, you want yourself to be the best, and yes, you can grow and improve, but that doesn’t mean you change your identity, or hate yourself because you are not a certain way. Suppose you feel like you would only like yourself if you were thin, or would fit into certain clothes, then that is wrong. If you cannot accept your flaws and strengths, then you can’t love yourself. Self-image and self-love goes hand-in-hand. Self-image is also influenced by what others say about you. Suppose I am overweight, then I know I’m fat, but I am also fabulous, and I love myself that way. That is self-acceptance. We cannot say that what others say doesn’t matter to us. Suppose your mum tells you that you need to get fit, you’re obviously going to think about it. Your close circle does matter to you. Her perception of me matters. Based on that, I form an image of myself. I need to love that image.
What are some myths that people have about mental health, and how would you correct them?
Oh, so many! (laughs) People don’t understand that mental health is just like physical health. Suppose you’re even slightly affected, people will declare that you have a disorder, or you’re a maniac, especially people who don’t understand what it is. Mental health is still in an infant stage in India. It’s still growing. Whenever we speak to the older generation about mental health, they ask if we treat people who are retarded. They associate everything that is not normal as retarded. Not fit for society. We need to break this perception. Mental health is for all of us – for a baby, for a child, for a grown up, just like physical health is universal. If people can understand that the body needs to be fit, healthy and problem-free, then why can’t they understand that the mind is the same way? Just like you nourish your body, you should nourish the mind. The brain is the CPU of your body. If you can’t take care of your CPU, then how can you take care of your body. A lot of people equate going to a counsellor with labelling themselves as “crazy”. The good thing is that there are now a lot of platforms and programs discussing mental health.