Is Depression just Depression?

— The NotA Collective

This was originally written as a talk to be given at an event, which eventually didn’t happen, on mental health on campuses.

In his last letter, Rohith Vemula, the Ambedkarite scholar, wrote,1

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get seven months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that.

Even as all of us were moved by the sheer force of Vemula’s last words, this banality — where he had to make a request to collect the outstanding scholarship amount that was due to him — best explains why we are losing more and more students from marginalised communities to Indian academia. Consider this: In a public university like JNU, deemed number one in humanities, research scholars run from pillar to post, to get their scholarship forms processed. The process starts with the pink form. Students cannot fill it without attaching a copy of the office order. This order arrives in the first week of the month, days after the mess bills are issued. When the order arrives, students collect a copy and submit it along with the filled-in pink form to the supervisor. The supervisor may or may not sign. We say may or may not because the supervisor can choose to procrastinate or delay this process if they are not happy with the student (they may call it “performance”). But for now, let us not go down that route. Let us imagine the best case scenario. The supervisor signs and the student is now at the last phase of this process. Their forms are now at the doorstep of the admin building. As they slowly make their way to the scholarship office, they see a pile of pink forms stacked on the desk. The student’s form is placed at the bottom. The student leaves hoping that the form will be processed in due time. Days go by and there is no intimation of money being deposited. The student visits the admin office. They are told that the form is lost. Please repeat the process. Two weeks have passed since the office order came. There are bills to be paid, food to be eaten and things to be bought. One could argue that the scholarship is worth it. After all, isn’t the State paying students to conduct research? Not really. The time and energy expended on this process amounts to a measly stipend of Rs 5000 for non-NET MPhil research scholars and Rs 8000 for non-NET PhD research scholars.

We start with this basic description of an ordinary day in a research scholar’s life at a public university to highlight a few concerns. In 2016, when Rohith passed away leaving us with the legacy of a letter, several student organisations protested against the State. They pointed fingers at the university administration as well as the government for being the cause of the tragic death. But, in mainstream columns, a certain Manu Joseph, asked2

Can’t a Dalit activist be clinically depressed? …We can believe that people with no suicidal tendencies can be driven to suicide in the face of great atrocities or deep loss. Young women whose sexual acts have been recorded and shared on the internet have killed themselves. A woman in Mumbai, who had killed her infant in a fit of rage, killed herself […] As unpleasant as this question may be, did Vemula face such an extraordinary atrocity or tragedy? […] Rohith Vemula, from all evidence in sight, is a depression story, not a Dalit story.

Joseph’s need to find the extraordinary trigger that led to the suicide or his insistence in claiming that caste is not the cause tells us why MH is still grossly misunderstood as an illness that has nothing to do with the State or the caste society that we are in. We are told from day one that we are abled-bodied/abled minded humans who must at all cost work hard and propagate the myth of meritocracy. Thus the lone student from a marginalised community who scores high is celebrated as a PR story while reports on student suicides particularly from marginalised communities are ignored as depression stories. This false binary of separating depression from oppression/of suggesting multiple causes to depression shows how the State and this society is only interested in washing their hands off.

In Joseph’s story, we are told that depression is just… depression. Since Rohith had not mentioned names of perpetrators and had not pointed fingers, Joseph thinks that caste cannot be the cause of his depression. This insensitive take to Rohith’s story stands in sharp contrast to a profile that Sudipto Mondal wrote,3 days after his death. In this profile, we see how Rohith’s discrimination by caste had significant repurcussions on his schooling and education. We see how Rohith and his family were expected to do labour in return for living expenses. Thus for Rohith, his life as a PhD scholar, was tied to his need to fight and not succumb. What will a seven month delay in scholarship mean to Rohith and his family? What will the suspension trigger?

In 2008, a student at Government Medical College, Chandigarh, committed suicide because his openly casteist teacher refused to pass him in a course, prohibiting him from even becoming a doctor.4 An external committee reviewed his paper and judged that he had passed, but by then he had already passed. Surely, if this had got the kind of attention that Rohith’s story had gotten, Joseph would have blamed mental illness here as well. In the book Those Who Did Not Die, activist and author Ranjana Padhi documents how farmers and agricultural labourers who have lost everything sink into a deep depression; in some cases, they stop talking altogether. Mr. Joseph would surely advise mental health counselling in this case also.

Mr. Joseph’s piece here exemplifies two dogmas of how mental health must be discussed, which we call individualism and bio-essentialism.5 The first dogma states that mental health is a problem of individuals living their lives, and must be dealt with at that level. Imagine telling an agricultural labourer who has lost his livelihood, or a bright young student who has used his family’s entire savings on education to learn that he will never pass college, that what they need is counselling. The second dogma complements the first dogma; it states that the cause of the mental health issue is not the social structures that oppress individuals, but chemical imbalances in the brain.

And this is how the more “progressive” administrations and journalists deal with these issues. More commonly, we just hear outright dismissal; that individuals need to “buck up” and take responsibility for their own lives instead of wallowing in their depression. In response to a spate of suicides, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) recently decided to… get rid of ceiling fans in hostel rooms. The acceptable range of solutions, then, goes from ignoring the issue to dealing with something else entirely to pretending it is a problem of individuals.

But, as we have pointed out here, these solutions will all fail, in very obvious ways. The only solution is to actually build a truly equal society. To actually empower our students to tackle caste discrimination, gender discrimination, etc. To actually make it so that access to education is available to all, and doesn’t require students to use up money that they usually don’t have. This real solution is unacceptable to the human resources departments and ruling class journalists that shape the conversation and the policy around mental health. They will refuse to deal with it, because dealing with it requires the annihilation of the power structures they work to preserve. The problem of mental health in our university campuses can only be solved when we take back the university and build a campus that is actually dedicated to learning and upliftment of the oppressed. The problem of mental health in our society can only be solved when we take back control and build a society that is actually attempting to uplift all who have been oppressed.

  1. Vemula, R. (2016, January 19). Full text: Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide note. The Times of India. ↩︎

  2. Joseph, M. (2016, January 25). Depression or oppression: What led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide? Hindustan Times. ↩︎

  3. Mondal, S. (2016, January 27). Rohith Vemula: An Unfinished Portrait. Hindustan Times. ↩︎

  4. Deshpande, S., & Zacharias, U. (2016). Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education (1st ed.). Routledge India. See chapter 6. We have written a short invitation to this book at The NotA Collective. (2021a, September 7). An Invitation to Beyond Inclusion. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  5. The NotA Collective. (2021, October 14). On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎