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Despair in the pandemic brings mental health to the centre stage, writes Sanjay Jha

07:10 AM Jul 24, 2020 | Sanjay Jha

If you had told anyone on January 1, 2020 that they would spend most, if not all their time locked up at home, frightened and fearful, prohibited from travel and movement, having zero access to friends and colleagues, they would have probably thought you were loony. They would have recommended a shrink, maybe. Or asked you to practise Baba Ramdev’s deep-breathing exercises that also appear to toughen your abdomen muscles. We are now in the month of July, 2020 and it appears almost eons ago that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first of a series of national lockdowns on March 23rd 2020. At first, expectedly, people were too gobsmacked to even fathom what was going on. There was a sense of near-partial paralysis of life, a freeze. How could we survive three weeks of staring at each other, reinventing our business model, not going for a morning jog, and bloody hell, that weekend hang-out with deep-fried prawns?

But then that’s what makes human beings tough—our ability to weather storms. We are a lot more resilient than we think. We are pre-ordained to be survivors. We have the inexhaustible supply of grit within us that in the course of daily existence, we ignore. We need to find it. There cannot be a better time to do so.

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I read with extreme sadness the alleged suicide of the brilliant actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Death at whatever age is sad; someone who is there today is gone tomorrow never ever to be seen or heard again. The grief of those who know the departed soul is deep, often occupying an everlasting corner in their hearts. I lost my mother to cancer on April 21, 2006 and since I invariably think of her at some point or the other, there is no need for me to do an annual prayer for remembrance. It is not just with your parents that you have an umbilical cord, love is perennial, it creates a bond of unshakeable permanence with anyone you care for. When I saw the poignant pictures of Sushant’s father with his son’s photograph decorated with flowers, I could very well imagine the excruciating pain his father was going through. I hope no one told them to “move on”, because they must live with it. That’s life. And they will find a way amidst the tears and memories of a young Sushant who made their lives so beautiful.

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Ever since the pandemic became a modus vivendi for us all, mental health has taken centre stage. It is good that people are expressing themselves. It is nothing to be ashamed of. I admire the candidness of actor Deepika Padukone and my fellow Congress colleague (so far not yet sacked or suspended) Milind Deora who spoke about their own personal experiences battling depression. They are superstars not because of their social status but because they took the bull by the horns. We need to understand that articulating one’s vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but a manifestation of strength. It takes character to do that, an inner conviction borne out of fearlessness. Trust me, even the most sanguine persons with an authentic sunny disposition struggle to grapple with the vicissitudes of life. We cannot be eternally happy, and by the same logic, we will not be eternally sad either. Our society has become judgemental and harsh, mostly borne out of archaic paradigms; for instance, being a widow was considered to be a curse once as was being part of the LGBT community. These antediluvian constructs needed to be challenged, and it is commendable that we have progressed in becoming a more liberal society today, despite the intermittent embarrassments.

As a student of political history, I was appalled at humanity’s barbarism as recorded in the concentration camps during the terrifying reign of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany. When I visited Dachau near Munich, where Hitler commenced his first laboratory of human extermination, there was palpable sombre silence shared among all international visitors. We were unwittingly enough united in human grief and suffering. It was a dignified homage to the innocent women, children, old men and several others who were either tortured to death or sent to the gas chambers. But it was in the Holocaust Museum is Washington that I heard very powerful words, words that can change one’s life. On a pre-recorded video, a 92-year-old survivor from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, narrated her story. She now lives in the United States. She had lost her entire family to the cold-blooded brutality of the Nazi SS. But she hung in there, tenaciously, and survived to tell her story and some inspirational advice. “Giving up is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

A vaccine will certainly arrive, hopefully soon. We will then troop back hurriedly to be in a multiplex, gym, sports stadiums, coffee shops, malls, flights, and of course, our offices. This period too will pass. But we must always remember the lessons that this unprecedented circumstance has taught us all. It is all right to be scared and worried. It is okay to feel low. It is perfectly normal to be vulnerable. Because we all are. You are not alone. We are in this together.

The writer is a Congressman, recently suspended.

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