What happens when a much loved celebrity dies of suicide? When Robin Williams died seven years ago, it started a sensitive and nuanced conversation about the importance of mental health and how even those with privilege struggle with it. When Anthony Bourdain, Avicii and Chester Bennington passed, we extended the same empathy to them.
But in India, when a celebrity dies of suicide, the story plays out differently. And the whole country witnessed it when 34-year-old Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his apartment last year.
A police investigation concluded that Rajput was living with clinical depression and bipolar disorder and it was confirmed that the actor died of suicide. But his fans — who call themselves SSRians — adamantly refused to accept the verdict.
“Why will he be depressed? His movie was releasing, he had money, fame and a girlfriend,” a fan told me. This was the general sentiment among the media, the larger public and some of his loved ones.
The statement is emblematic of India’s relationship with mental health: complete misunderstanding or a thorough denial — something millions of Indians who live with mental health challenges know all too well.
“What do you have to be depressed about?” is a question most of us have been asked. The insinuation that we have a choice or control over our depression and anxiety shows how skewed the understanding of mental health is.
Rajput’s death could have served as the tipping point for the country to have a conversation around mental health.
And probing deeper, there is a good reason for this misunderstanding. Mainstream Indian media and popular culture use depression and other mental health challenges very loosely, often using it to convey heartbreak, sadness or grief or to downplay it. It is looked down on as a weakness or a temporary dejection rather than a health condition. In a country like India that worships its celebrities, how could Rajput’s fans truly believe that he was “weak?”
Instead they chose to indulge in a host of conspiracy theories which dominated primetime news and social media feeds.
“He didn’t die. He was murdered,” said another fan when asked for an interview. He refused to speak to me in detail but made it clear that according to him, this wasn’t suicide. But why and who murdered him? Some blamed his girlfriend (who was villainized but that’s a whole other story), fellow actors and even politicians. Some took it a step further.
The culprits need to be brutally punished.
SSR was a person par excellence.
He was leading a team & was in contact of scientists worldwide, doing meetings for discovery of COVID vaccine in the lockdown. Wow. & the bloody hypocrites are proving him to be mad.#SushantCoverup pic.twitter.com/GL45gH94w5
— Chatterjee@divine (@Manichat_divine) August 4, 2020
By “proving him to be mad,” she is referring to his mental health diagnoses.
Earlier this month, when Bollywood actor Sidharth Shukla died of a heart attack, many of the same fans tried to concoct stories of him being murdered, perhaps by the same people who were out to get Rajput.
That is the absurdity of this country. There are thousands who find it easy to believe that an actor with no medical education or training was killed trying to discover a vaccine but struggle to accept that their ‘hero’ lived with mental health challenges, or in their words, “could be mad.”
But mental health challenges are not rare in India. A study conducted by WHO in 2017 found that over 56 million people in India or 4.5% of its population live with depressive disorders. In the year 2019 alone, 139,000 people died of suicide in India and that’s just reported deaths. Despite this, mental health remains a heavily stigmatized topic in the country while education awareness and the infrastructure to improve it remain woefully low.
Rajput’s death could have served as the tipping point for the country to have the conversation around mental health it so urgently needs. Instead, the media and the government harped on the naivety and sentiments of his fans for their own benefit. Instead of advocating for better mental health facilities, the BJP, India’s ruling party, promised during state elections to bring ‘justice’ to Rajput if they were voted into power in Bihar, the actor’s home state. At a time when mainstream media could have held discussions and interviews with experts on mental health, they chose to feed into the frenzy.
From a distance this charade seems laughable. But for those of us with mental health challenges in India, this whole saga is yet another painful reminder. A reminder that our mental health struggles will never be accepted by the masses. That we will be called ‘crazy’ and ‘weak’ and ‘lazy’ and ‘liars’ and every other derogatory term instead of receiving support and understanding. That in a country where even the government makes a mockery of a famous actor’s mental health challenges, holding out hope for change is beyond exhausting.