On a warm October afternoon in Chinna Ikkam village of Tiruvallur district, about 80km from Chennai, six women in pink saris are seated on plastic chairs in a semicircle. They are all facing Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone. The women, all Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), discuss in detail the numerous mental health issues prevalent in their communities―postpartum depression among new mothers, suicidal tendencies and stigma-induced trauma amid people with disabilities, and more. The actor, plainly dressed in a beige salwar suit, with her hair pulled back, listens to each one intently.
For instance, an 18-year-old underwent acute pain while delivering a baby and became averse to the very idea of motherhood. She refused to nurse her baby and contemplated suicide. In another village, a woman in her early 20s was sent back to her maiden home within a month of marriage because of her obsession with washing hands. It drove her to depression. E. Sangeetha, a village health nurse from the Primary Health Centre of Kalyanakuppam, mentioned “the failure of love marriages, unwanted pregnancies, difficulties associated with early menstruation”as the most-observed issues plaguing women in her area. After the initial inhibition of opening up to a celebrity, the women spoke with animated enthusiasm. They spoke in Tamil, a language we were told that Deepika was not fluent in. But she never showed it. She would give everyone a patient hearing and would keep nodding her head to denote comprehension. For, Deepika, from her own battle with depression eight years ago, has learnt that listening is the first step towards empathy and it transcends the language barrier.
That learning, however, did not come easy. There was a time when she had found herself sinking into a black hole of negativity, worthlessness and self-destruction. A gnawing feeling that felt so beyond control that it drove her to “suicidal thoughts”, making her question her very existence. All she wanted then was someone who could listen to her, without judgement. That is why, when E. Nandini (name changed) spoke about how her hallucinations had made it difficult for her to lead a normal life, Deepika did not try to console her. She simply listened. Towards the end, a teary-eyed Nandini, 38, said, “Thank you for hearing me out. I feel lighter and better.”Deepika smiled and replied, “I know the feeling.”
Deepika, straddling two very different worlds quite gracefully, was in Paris for a fashion event just before coming down to Chinna Ikkam, where she launched a rural mental health initiative via LLL (Live Love Laugh). She launched LLL in 2015, a year after getting diagnosed with depression. The aim was to give hope to every person experiencing stress, anxiety and depression. This, the foundation does by funding grassroot organisations and collaborating with them so as to take the discourse on mental health forward. Flanked by her mother, Ujjala, and counsellor Anna Chandy on one side and sister Anisha and friend and foundation trustee Ananth Narayanan on the other, Deepika takes centrestage as she interacts with activists, health workers, caregivers and the media.
In Chinna Ikkam, LLL has partnered with Vasantham Federation of Differently Abled Persons, which helps the needy get free access to mental health services. When Nandini was abandoned by her family because of her mental illness, Vasantham helped her get a unique disability identity card to avail of the benefits provided by the Tamil Nadu government. “Through this card, I receive a monthly allowance of Rs1,000 for my psychiatric medicines,”she said. “It’s not a huge amount, but we make do.”
The grassroots organisations that LLL works with first identify people with mental ailments, with help from ASHA and Integrated Child Development Services. LLL then provides funds for capacity-building and implementation so that preliminary medical attention is provided for free.
Deepika’s own step towards seeking help came from her mother who “realised something was deeply wrong”. Ujjala recalled how the “exact same thing” had happened to Deepika's father, Prakash, years ago. At the time, the badminton player was at the peak of his career, having won championships in India and abroad. Deepika, too, was at the peak of her career when she felt “miserable and empty”. A year before her breakdown, she had delivered award-winning performances. That’s when her mother saw a pattern and joined the dots. “I was shocked,”she said. “Memories from the past came haunting back and I knew something was seriously wrong. Deepika needed professional help.”
At the time, Deepika was in Mumbai and her family had come down to visit her. Ujjala cancelled her return ticket to Bengaluru to be with her elder daughter then. And, she has stayed by her side ever since. Ujjala comes across as restrained, quiet, camera-shy and highly guarded of what she says. In terms of temperament, Anisha seems more like her mother. But Deepika, says Ujjala, was always the complete opposite. “She is temperamentally outgoing, outspoken, bubbly and cheerful,”she told THE WEEK, sitting in the car even as her daughters continue with their work amid rains. That is why it was “shocking”to see her in a highly vulnerable state. Ujjala made it a point to ask Deepika multiple times what was wrong. That also laid the path for determining LLL’s first campaign―'Dobaara Poocho' (Ask again). “Initially, I thought it could be related to stress at work or a past experience or some chemical imbalance in the brain,”said Ujjala. “But then I realised that it could happen to anybody and need not actually answer the question ‘why’.” It was then that she asked Deepika to see Anna Chandy, a counsellor and family friend, who, in turn, referred her to psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat.
“It is important to remember that mental illness is not because of one single factor but [many],” said Chandy. “So, at any given point, there may or may not be a direct correlation to an event that just happened; it might just be a contributing factor but not the only factor. In the case of Deepika, I knew that she was inherently a happy person and very resilient.”
Deepika took the first step to seek help, but did not stop there. She spoke about her mental illness in a television interview―something an Indian actor of her stature would rarely do. That she had lost a dear friend to depression had further added to her resolve to help others who found themselves in a similar position as her but had no way of accessing help. That is how LLL was born. Earlier, the goal was to save and impact “even one life if possible”, but it has now expanded to “touching as many lives as possible”.
“That one interview got us such tremendous feedback that we were overwhelmed,” recalled Anisha, who became Deepika’s primary caregiver early on. “People from all over the country messaged saying that her experience resonated with them in so many ways. That it gave them a voice to express their own innermost fears. That's when we thought we could not stop at the interview and had to go beyond.”
At a time when her own career as a professional golfer was going good, Anisha decided to give that up and commit herself to the cause of mental health. With a graduate degree in psychology, sociology and economics, she became the CEO of LLL. Anisha's relationship with her sister, she said, became much more evolved post the latter's diagnosis.
“Initially, I thought I was someone who was fairly well-versed with the topic of mental health. But the experience of being a caregiver taught me so much more,” said Anisha. “It was overwhelming. How can one help, but not overdo it? How does one advise without sounding preachy? Just how does one extend care to a loved one without letting it take a mental toll on oneself?” Her experience led to the introduction of the caregiver module in LLL’s mental health initiative. In Tiruvallur, Vasantham has tied up with Carers Worldwide, which focuses on caregivers. They plan to scale up their caregiver support group from 12 to 50.
For LLL, Tiruvallur became significant for a number of reasons. First and the most significant of all was that LLL found a donor in Sundram Finance, which was keen that the work happen in Tamil Nadu. Second, Vasantham, which was shortlisted as the implementation partner, was based in Tiruvallur, a district with “the highest number of people with disabilities in Tamil Nadu”. “There are more than 96,000 people with disabilities here, including those with any type of mental illness," said Anil Patil, founder of Carers Worldwide. In terms of LLL’s impact in Thiruvallur since the initiative's launch in April 2022, there have been close to 500 direct beneficiaries and 480 caregivers, said A. Livingston, president of Vasantham.
Deepika’s next stop after Chinna Ikkam was the hamlet of Karikalavakkam. She visited the house of Amulu, a mother and caregiver to Surendran, 20. Three years ago, Surendran, who would have epileptic attacks in his teenage years, met with a road accident that left him with a head injury. He would turn violent, bite himself and often aimlessly wander through the village. He was diagnosed with multiple mental ailments, including psychosis. But the family of four was unable to afford any kind of treatment, as they make do with the meagre earnings of his rickshaw driver father. Vasantham helped the family get free access to medicines, enrolled Amulu into the village’s caregivers group and also got her the unique disability card.
When Deepika entered Amulu’s mudhouse at 2.30pm, she left her celebrity tag far behind. She sat on the floor, as she listened to Amulu’s travails. But the tag follows her around, like a shadow―villagers huddle around the SUVs and sedans blocking the narrow pathway to the house. Everyone wants a glimpse of the actor, a photo of or with her. Somebody asks out aloud if all’s well between Ranveer Singh, her husband, and her. The tag comes with a price.
But Deepika doesn’t let that get to her; she remains calm and composed. It has taken her a while to let her composure not be a mere façade. What Deepika wants to change essentially is the perception people have about mental illness. “What is most bothersome is this notion that if you’re successful you should be happy, implying that it would have been okay for me to say I was depressed had I been through a series of flops. Is that what the perception is? I want to tell everyone that it does not matter how successful you are or how much money you have or what stratum of society you come from,”she told THE WEEK while on our way to another caregiver’s house. Sitting next to her is Chandy, her constant companion whenever she talks about mental health.
When we reached the caregiver’s house in Arumbakkam, it was late evening but the weather was still warm. Devi, a 36-year-old divorcee, lives with her father and two brothers who have mental ailments. After marrying a man whom she courted for six years, Devi went into depression and also attempted suicide because of daily fights with her in-laws. LLL helped her get medical treatment after suffering for 11 years.
“Movies have a huge part to play in this (addressing stigma around mental health, especially depression),” said Deepika. “You know this typical thing of boy gets dumped by the girl and then starts drinking or vice versa, this typical portrayal of depression has played a huge part in stereotyping this mental illness.” Depression is not always about negativity alone. “With or without mental illness, I always had great resilience,” said Deepika. “In my case the two things are unrelated. There is no place for negativity in my life or being affected too much by things. How strong one mentally is has no connection with mental illness. I can be a really determined person but I can still get cancer, right? We have to start recognising this as a medical condition. I can go to the gym everyday but I can still fracture my hand. So I can be a mentally strong person but that does not mean that I'm not susceptible to mental illness.”
You could see how passionate she is about mental health awareness by the way she speaks―her expressions change by the second. Deepika was no longer just a celebrity but more a woman who was unafraid to bare her vulnerabilities. There was a look of resignation on her face when asked if she had ever tried to harm herself. She took a brief pause, looked into the distance and said that the question made her uncomfortable.
In the last six years, LLL has worked with communities across the country at multiple levels and in different formats. Foremost are its school programmes, called 'YANA - You Are Not Alone’, initiated in 2016 to create awareness on stress, anxiety and depression among adolescents, teachers and parents. Since the onset of the pandemic, YANA has been taken to over 2 lakh students and over 20,000 teachers in 31 cities across India. Through its rural programmes, presently concentrated in Deepika’s home state Karnataka, and Odisha and Tamil Nadu, free psychiatric treatment is provided to persons with mental illness. Across the three states, LLL has impacted 6,000 direct beneficiaries in the form of free treatment, and 25,000 indirect beneficiaries or caregivers across 20 talukas. Through its programme on doctors, LLL helps train primary care physicians to detect, diagnose and treat common mental disorders. This fills in a huge gap in a country of over 1.3 billion people with only about 8,000 psychiatrists. Besides, LLL offers research in mental health, counselling support to patients, and lecture series by noted experts on ideas that can shape the global mental health narrative. Its Frontline Assist offers free counselling service to India’s frontline workers. Its partner organisation in Karnataka is Association of People with Disability (APD) that works across Davangere, Gulbarga and Mysuru districts. In Odisha’s Lakshmipur and Narayanpatna, it is Carers Worldwide.
“In the next few years, we will scale up and work with various organisations and with the government to impact policy-making. We have predominantly been in the south and now we also want to cover the east,” says Anisha.
Deepika mentioned a startling statistic―one in seven Indians experience some form of mental disorder. “It is happening to so many of us but still the stigma is preventing many of us from talking about it,” she said. The situation has become even more worrisome because the National Mental Health Survey 2015-16 revealed that nearly 15 per cent of adults needed active intervention for one or more mental health issues and one in 20 Indians suffered from depression. As per the WHO, depression is ranked as the single largest contributor to global disability. And, at its worst, depression can lead to suicide; over eight lakh people die of suicide every year. It is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.
Even as prevention programmes have been shown to reduce depression, Deepika maintained that one has to be cautious at all times. “Even today I remain on edge, thinking it can come back any time,”she said. “Every time I wake up, I make sure to prioritise my health, to know that I'm fine, so as not to sink back into that black hole.” For the longest time after she spoke about her mental health, Deepika felt a certain stereotype working against her. What was so depressing about her life, some asked. Was she simply calling for attention? “And, that is why, I know it can come back if I don't take care of myself,” she said. “You have to practise self care. I prioritised my sleep, took regular therapy, go into the sunlight and most importantly be mindful of where I am and what I am doing…. So not a single day goes by without me not thinking about my mental health, to keep checking in on how I'm feeling.... Now it has become a part of my everyday.”