When we talk of mental health, we see the focus fall squarely on vulnerable populations. Women, queer people, people with disability, disadvantaged communities and other minority populations are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, with many studies reporting incidences of mental health issues being two to ten times that of men.
Barring organic causes of mental health issues, much of the mental health concerns stem from having to cope with an oppressive society, which is patriarchal and divisive with the dice loaded in favor of the Man. Roles and rewards are very particular, with the Man on top, with far greater control over resources and opportunities, and reaping significantly higher rewards. Working through and often against such a system is tough, and leaves vulnerable populations exhausted, scared, anxious, depressed. This is where mental health issues stem from.
The idea of ‘Man’
The mythical Man in these arguments is cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, educated, and is from a majoritarian community. But even without some of these identities, the idea of the Man as the oppressor is a strong narrative.
Men are not immune to mental health issues, even though the social norms are in their favor. This is because often they are struggling to meet the high expectations of patriarchy, and in that process, cannot be true to their own individuality.
In recent years, the idea of ‘alpha’ men and the others, the 'beta’ men has gained traction, notably after incidents of violent terror attacks. Commentary has centered around how the beta men, feeling invalidated and oppressed by the system that rewards only the alpha, find themselves extraordinarily deprived, especially of sexual partners and opportunities. This frustration, coupled with poor coping skills and access to means of violence, creates spaces where the continued experiences of rejection and ensuing feelings of powerlessness can become a murderous rage. Even for the so-called alpha men, expectations of ongoing perfection, perception of competition and a constant need for appreciation sets them up for their own mental health issues.
There are no winners in patriarchy
While patriarchy does affect the women, queer and others disproportionally, men aren’t spared either. The idea of the Man is quite rigid, and comes with rigorous, unspoken rules, especially when it comes to mental health.
There is hardly any patriarchal society that does not have the following rules, among so many more darker rules:
Bullying is often machismo defending its fragility
This cultivated machismo doesn’t do well under situations of confrontation. Any situation that threatens to break through that sliver of fragile and shallow machismo, and expose the reality of the vulnerable, desiring and needing man, results in explosively violent defence. Bullying of women, transpersons and liberals could all be seen from this lens.
Threats by other representations of masculinity, such as by more gentle men or gay men, are also often met with such violence. A Singaporean study, for example, found that kids told to ‘man up’ were four times as likely to become a bully. This is to portray themselves as being strong, which creates a vicious pyramid of bullies.
Bullying by the uber macho men is often a result of such a threat to their machismo, be it the school ground bully who shakes down the ‘geek’ and the ‘nerd,’ to the homophobic man, who is violent towards trans and gay people.
Should there be spaces and means where people could explore their own fragilities, would bullying to shore up one’s own masculinity happen as much? Would bullying still be as prevalent?
Mental health issues as a weakness
A tragedy arising from this valuing of a rigid patriarchy is the denial of the reality of mental health issues of men, especially those seeking to shroud themselves in the machismo to project their alpha credentials. The idea of masculinity leads men to disconnect from their emotional experience. While others may more freely confront their anxieties, moods and thoughts, men seeking their uber masculinity would see acknowledging it as a weakness, and work hard to mask it, deny or overcome it.
Consequently, more men are violent because only anger is seen as manly.More men kill themselves because failure is not an option, and because they see themselves as solely responsible for their circle of influence. More men live and suffer in their own private mental hell, without ever reaching out for help.
What if we lived in a gender-free world?
With the awareness of the ills of patriarchy, liberal societies around the world are doing a lot more to break down gender stereotypes, invest in social education of gender equality,empathy across identities, values of compassion and understanding. School systems in Europe, Canada and elsewhere in particular, are investing in early education along these lines to dismantle patriarchy from early on, starting with primary education. Legal systems in these countries too have moved towards equality and non-discrimination, with more and more laws becoming gender neutral as well.
Early results do show that among youngsters, the wide gap in mental health issues between genders and communities does reduce, with much less reported bullying and aggression that continue well beyond the time of such interventions.
A more radical approach would be to try and dismantle gender altogether in social circles and identity formation. What if people did not care about gender as much? What if there were no gender coding at all in societies – no pink/blue segregation, no clothing/makeup differences, no hairstyle/footwear mores? What if there were no barriers to communication of feeling or thought or behavior?
Would a society where the idea of gender was utterly fluid and inconsequential to identity formation have far fewer mental health issues? Would there be far fewer social issues such as sexual violence, gang-related issues etc?
In recent times, some societies are experimenting with the idea of taking away the concept of gender as a core aspect of identity formation altogether. In some Scandinavian countries, there is a movement to gender-neutral terminologies, naming and schooling. Whether it would really change how people identify themselves in the gender spectrum, and whether it would really breakdown the gender walls and dismantle systemic issues that directly correlate with mental health issues – that remains to be seen.
Not many of us in India had heard of the Beta revolution or the Incel revolution till a few weeks ago. The terms have been coming up in the news after a 25 year old Canadian suddenly drove his van onto a busy pedestrian area in Toronto in April 2018, mowing down a dozen and more people, murdering ten people in the process. His social network history suggested that this random terrorist act was not one of a political or religious nature, but was really coming from his conviction that a Beta Revolution was on its way, and that Incels needed to act for themselves to assert their ‘rights.’
Incel stands for Involuntary Celibates, and the Beta in Beta Revolution stands for men who are not ‘Alpha’ males, or the guys who aren’t getting the first pick of what they think the world has to offer in terms of sexual opportunities. To their way of thinking, Beta men are those men who are not as much of a ‘prime catch’ as Alpha males are as far as looks and abilities go; Alpha men attract women to themselves, including ‘Beta women’ who supposedly use make-up and fashion to up-sell themselves, and thereby deny Beta men their ‘rightful’ women. Men like these who lack opportunities (or skills) to find a sexual partner call themselves ‘Involuntary celibates’ – they don’t necessarily want to be celibate, but believe that women are just not ‘available’ to them. That it may have more to do with their lack of social skills rather than anything else does not appear to strike these Beta men.
All the terminology aside, when I think about it, there is really just the one question that comes up for me: How does sexual frustration become an ideology that can trigger someone to mow down strangers in an act of violence?
In my work as a counsellor and as a mental health professional, I talk sex a lot with my clients. Sex and sexuality is an important part of the work of any mental health professional. It comes up in all kinds of contexts such as attractions, longings, sexual functioning, infidelity, loss of libido, sexuality differences, quirks, compatibility within a marriage, and so on. Sometimes, it also comes up in painful ways as histories of abuse, assault and rape.
There is no doubt that sex and sexuality has a lot to do with an individual’s personal mental health. When an individual’s sexuality is repressed or in any other way hurt, it can leave them with significant psychic scars that may affect them in their personal lives and relationships, as well as professionally and socially. Sexual abuse especially is hurtful. It doesn’t affect just the sexual aspects of the person abused, but their whole selves. When a child goes through sexual abuse, it is particularly abhorrent. The impact of abuse is often such that the abused person ends up repeating patterns they were subject to as a child when they are adult, thereby perpetuating cycles of victimhood. On the other hand, healthy understanding of one’s own sexuality, being able to express it safely and sensitively by ourselves and/ or with consenting partners, finding one’s sexuality acknowledged, validated and even encouraged – all this and more have a lot to do with how a person feels about themselves and helps them feel secure, confident and active.
While we have come a long way from the singular Freudian focus on sexual energies and reducing most mental health disturbances to sexuality, there is no doubting its significance for an individual’s wellbeing. The approach is a lot more holistic now. When someone presents themselves as sexually frustrated, we work with them through education, permission to experiment, coaching on handling rejection, developing coping skills, social skills and so on, and over time they develop better ways of dealing with their sexual desires even where such desires may not be fully met by a partner for whatever reason.
Thanks to the Internet and its abilities to create and support communities, people can and do find support and solace. Even the terms ‘Involuntary Celibates’ and Incels appear to have started in such a fashion, with a woman seeking support for the particular kind of loneliness that she was facing. However, as things often happen, it morphed into the dark and ugly monster that produced the Toronto Van attack.
Having gotten introduced to the terms through that attack, I was curious to see whether there were Indian avatars of these. A quick Google search shows that while it is indeed quite a widespread, even if subterranean and largely online-only phenomenon, there wasn’t much on India.
How come we don’t hear of Indian Incels? Where are the Indian Betas?
It isn’t that the Indian space is immune to such deep-seated feelings of sexual frustration. If anything, there is more than enough evidence to show that we are indeed quite a sexually frustrated society – there is no open conversation on sex or sexuality at any age, some forms of sexual expression continue to be illegal, gender-based segregation is the norm even in schools and institutions that are supposedly co-educational. We have the police and goondas who take offense to seeing a couple even hold hands in public places. Morchas are taken up to curtail something as simple as celebrating Valentines Day.
Is there an Indian Beta Revolution brewing?
In India both men and women are expected to be celibates in our marriage-driven culture. Sexual activity before marriage is certainly frowned upon, and once married, sexual expression outside marriage is not OK. Given the increasing age at which people are getting married, especially in the urban centres, that leaves a lot of people celibate for much longer than they would wish, and certainly for many of them, years of active sexuality are spent in enforced celibacy or in keeping up an appearance of it.
Amongst all the floating dots, are there any connections? The ‘Love Jihad’ is potentially a version of such a revolution – the fear possibly not being just one about religious conversion of women, but just about appropriation of women, who are becoming ‘scarcer’. Then there are the issues of the collapse of the arranged marriage system as seen through increasing separations and divorces, and that gets blamed on mobile phone usage, the Internet and all-around increased exposure to modernity that makes women more conscious of what is possibly available for them. Early in May 2018, a politician pushed for early marriages of women, just to avoid such scenarios.
Many commentators have speculated that the increasing sexual violence and cases of rape are a symptom of the increasing sexual frustration of the Indian underbelly going unaddressed. The number of children reported as having been raped and then murdered has been skyrocketing – and in many such histories, it is more and more alarming to find that under-aged boys or young men are involved such as in recent incidents in Bihar, the Kathua case and many others. And then there are communities of young men networking through WhatsApp and other mobile social groups finding each other to jointly prey, as evidenced by reports of a 20 year old being arrested along with his four accomplices for running an online child pornography racket.
It is not that this is a particular set of people who are ‘depraved’, and despite communal and other angles being attributed to these incidents, they really appear to be part of a larger issue. We observe this in news reports that cut across regions, religions, class and societies in India. While lack of suitable employment, forced migration and young adults finding themselves suddenly thrown into a cultural milieu very different from their own may partly account for some of these outbursts of violence, the increasingly younger ages of the perpetrators of sexual violence shows that this is a larger structuralissue. This is a deeper crisis of masculinity, of a warped sense of entitlement and a culture that often shields abusers rather than holds them accountable. This is not to excuse individual responsibility but there is also no wisdom in evading social responsibility.
In some ways, perhaps this Indian Beta Revolution, is already on and has just not been named. By not being mindful, maybe we are spawning an Indian Beta Revolution amongst mummy’s spoilt betas who believe that any vulnerable person, be it woman, girl or child could be theirs for the picking.
One wishfully hopes that thisis perhaps the last big gasp of patriarchy seeking to reassert itself in its dominion over the discourse of sexuality and society, or like in the horror movies, that one last swipe of the zombie before it is forever put down.
Are we teaching and practising empathy and compassion that cuts across class, community and gender barriers? Are we acting to lessen feelings of frustration and alienation and to increase feelings of belongingness and wellbeing? If not, we will have a public health crisis in the brewing.
As written for and published by TARSHI's InPlainSpeak
What is the role of work in our life? Is leisure really the opposite of work, or more correctly, is work merely the means to finance a life of leisure, if not right away, then in the future? The parable of the small fisherman and the big businessman captures some of these questions. We have versions of the story as one between a Mexican fisherman and an American investment banker, or an African fisherman and a British banker (as in the video linked here), or a Mumbai stock broker and a Goan fisherman - multiple versions of the same really. We could have a conversation on the class/ colonial/ race subtexts of these stories another day perhaps, but for now, taking the parable as is, does one look at it and say if work and ambition is about attaining a certain kind of leisure, then why not seek a measured leisure right away?
Then, on the other hand, is the idea of Ikigai - of what work can really be. Work as a life's journey, a way of being where what one loves to do, what is needed, what pays the bills and what one has the capabilities for meet in this wonderfully utopian space of Ikigai, where work is no longer a trial or a sufferance, but a joy that is worth the effort and the pain, and brings rewards and impact as well. Ah! What a space to live in where work is beautifully satisfying. Like the perfect curd rice, or that right on the dot tenderloin steak - or whatever rocks your boat, that keeps you going for more and more and you can stay engaged in it forever.
Then again, is it worth it if this search for Ikigai overshadows everything else? Should work be a priority over home, family, health etc? One would hope that one can have Ikigai but still be alive and happy in other ways as well.
Within this conceptual diagram of what Ikigai is, the idea of a 'Professional World' is where many of u find ourselves: Professional workplaces with people working to get better and better at what they are doing and getting better and better compensation for it.
This is also where much of the discussion on Mental Health in the Workplace happens. For a large number of us, the things we love and things we know the world needs become hobbies or social projects/ weekend volunteering, and the professional workplace is the mainstay that provides security and safety, and satisfaction to the extent it does.
Who we are at the workplace, and how the workplace is to us both are key for mental health. If we are but shadows of ourselves in the workplace and/or if the workplace is a tyrannical grindstone, work soon ceases to be even a profession and descends into drudgery, or worse. The tango between the worker and the workplace needs only either of them to mis-step for it to quickly cease to be the dignified profession it seeks to be and become a mockery of it at extremes being a slave-house or a den of ineptitude dragging a once-great idea into bankruptcy, in the tug between the 'Professional Life' and the 'Personal Life.'
Listening to her and thinking further about it, there are a few things that seem really key to good mental health in the workplace for the individual:
1. A keen respect for one's work, including an ongoing spirit to learn and improve
2. A balance between work with other passions, including love and joy, and letting one defer to the other when needed.
3. A willingness to fight against injustices, and win allies in the process that can help change unjust systems rather than stay under its tyranny
4. An ability to take help when needed, and to hold the longer-term view on life and living.
Mental health in the workplace is more personal than about personnel. When we know what place work has in our lives, and can expect and influence our workplaces to care about what's personal to each of us and help as they can, we will see greater mental health in the workplace.
Remember the last time you read an article where it was mentioned that “The neighbours had no clue as they had never spoken to this person who lived right next door” or “This person was staying here for 2 years but had no friends”? When we hear of neighbours being strangers (especially n the urban context), the word “lonely” is often loosely used to describe how life is today. I say loosely because people often tend to confuse being lonely with being alone. And yes, there is a distinction. Being alone can be a choice and it can bring happiness.
For instance, a lot of people enjoy watching a movie by themselves or spend an evening reading a book. In fact alone time can actually be quite relaxing. Loneliness is when there is an associated sadness – an empty feeling that could be triggered by several factors.
For many, the loneliness is so uncomfortable, that denial of the feeling seems the easiest way to cope – in fact sometimes this reaction is almost instinctive. One tries to superficially engage in interactions/work. However it is difficult to sustain and sooner or later the hollow empty feeling comes back.
To really cope with loneliness, the first step would be awareness; to go beyond the denial and superficial engagement. However, that is not always easy to recognize and we keep ourselves too busy to even be aware that we are lonely.
Once aware, acknowledging and accepting the lonely feeling logically follows. In that awareness, sometimes loneliness makes people feel more critical about themselves -they criticize themselves for being unworthy of others right when the need really is for more self-compassion. It is ironic that while we are aware of our need for compassion from others, we often don’t extend it to ourselves!
To really engage with your loneliness, you can ask yourself a few questions:
Strange as it might seem, there are some benefits to loneliness. Your loneliness could be telling you that you don't feel too good about yourself, and could benefit from working on your own emotional state. Your loneliness can be a crucial signal that your relationships are not as emotionally close or supportive as you really want them to be. It gives you an opportunity to engage differently.
So, go ahead. If you are lonely, listen to your loneliness - It might be telling you something really important for you.
The Vishaka Guidelines of 1997 and the subsequent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, have gone to great lengths to specify systems, processes and protocols to make the workplace safer and our lawyer friends tell us, are among the best such laws in the world.
While the law is quite rigorous, the implementation especially at the local district and state levels is still nascent. However, many leading corporates and institutions have gone ahead and implemented the Act in letter and spirit, often going beyond the law to cover all genders and taking a larger workplace safety view beyond sexual harassment.
That said, all too often, reporting and getting action on sexual harassment is a real ordeal, even in work spaces where all the policies and protocols are in place.
Often, the idea of where the incident(s) took place and whether they were at the office premises become the first line of questioning, and despite the growing virtual workspaces and blurring of boundaries between work and private spaces, and the wide definition of 'in the course of employment,' there is a reluctance to fully investigate a complaint if the incident happened outside the office. Secondly, despite very specific guidelines on how cases are to be documented, confidentiality is to be maintained, closure obtained and communicated, often action is through undocumented meetings, verbal commitments and actions oriented towards creating a 'compromise' especially where no hard evidence exists. Thirdly, leaks in the process mean the 'news' gets out, other employees take sides or form opinions and the work environment could become hostile for either or both the parties.
In the process, the complainant who is reporting an offense ends up feeling victimized all over again, or - on the other hand, the one complained about finds their reputation tarnished even before they have had the slightest chance to defend themselves. Many times, the process is exhausting emotionally and the parties just want to close and move out or move on, and that then can leave the complaints committee with questions of what is fair or just, and if they really addressed the complaint fully.
Point is, creating safe working spaces need to go far beyond documenting policies and procedures. Sensitizing all the people involved in the process is critical to its success, as is ensuring confidentiality and maintaining rigorous documentation. Wide-spread communication and keeping up awareness on the rights & responsibilities of all staff is important.
That said, while there are some baseless and malicious complaints intended only to hurt, the larger reality is that most complaints are genuine and yet victim-blaming continues to be the norm. The complainant's personal history, habits, prior relationships, performance history at work, history with the person in question and everything else gets dredged up. That needs to stop for more people to feel confident enough about the system and the processes to report any issues, and for the work place to be fully safe.
This post is inspired by a social media campaign by Himani Auplish aiming to increase awareness among the people about harassment after the harassment
In the USA, May is observed as National Mental Health Month. For much of the rest of the world, October 10th is the Mental Health Day, and some countries like Australia mark all of October as Mental Health Month. In India, the central agencies do mark October 10th, but there is no specific mental health month as such.
Whether a day or a month, the aim is to increase awareness of mental health issues, the need for assessment & care, and to destigmatise mental health. Mental health conditions tend to be given the short end of the stick, with a little more than a sneer and judgmental comments such as, "You just have to decide," or worse, "You are just looking for an excuse for your laziness."
In reality, mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety are very real and quite common. If understood and addressed, recovery is quite possible.
Fact is, quite often, we speak of mental health issues as what the mythical 'others' likely have. When the MHA publishes statistics that say 20% of all Americans are likely to have a mental health issue each year, how many do you think would pause to consider if they might be among the lot? Irrespective of nationality, I would suppose that we ourselves do not want to think we may have an issue, while it is more comfortable to look at others and say they might have an issue.
There is too much of an expectation we have from ourselves that we must, at all times, be perfectly well especially mentally, even if not physically. And that, needless to say, is just irrational. Mental health issues can happen to anyone no matter what race, age, class or community. While certain social situations do create greater distress, even the most privileged of communities are not immune to mental health issues.
So, what can one do? The simplest thing to do is to a quick self-check. Mental Health America has a great set of specific self-use tools that can help you decide if you might have an issue and if you cold use some help. Go ahead, click on the image and take a few minutes to check in on yourself.
You owe it to yourself.
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.