SEEMA HEALTH: Reflections on an Illness

After he was found hanging from the ceiling fan of his apartment in his Bandra home without leaving a suicide note in June, the “mystery” of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has unfolded several theoretical explanations that read like the plots of the soap operas in which he began his career. In spite of clear evidence and opinions from multiple mental health professionals, all these theories are somehow more (perversely) fascinating than the easiest conclusion to draw: that an illness as debilitating as bipolar disorder could have caused his death.

The Nepotism Theory

Some, most notably Kangana Ranaut, believed Rajput killed himself because he was unable to cope with being an outsider in Bollywood’s largely nepotistic circle. Although the nepotism theory did not last long, it generated a wave of sympathy among those who were just casual appreciators of Rajput’s work and gave rise to a new term, “SSRians.” As the TV news-fed masses suddenly remembered their disdain for nepotism, the trailer for Mahesh Bhatt-directed Sadak 2 (starring Bhatt’s daughter Alia Bhatt) flopped miserably.

Abetment of Suicide

Then, Rajput’s family contested the Mumbai police’s conclusion, claiming there was foul play, and accusing Rajput’s business partner and girlfriend, actress Rhea Chakraborty of abetting his suicide. The allegation was that Chakraborty had systematically manipulated Rajput, drugged him, forced him to cut ties with his family, and laundered Rs 15 crore (a little over USD 2 million) from his account. Well-known politicians also averred that there was a conspiracy to commit murder.

Although Chakraborty is only accused (and is not proven guilty), what she has endured while grieving the loss of her lover is humiliating and cruel.

As of writing this piece, there is very flimsy evidence for either claim. However, three government institutions (the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Narcotics Control Bureau) have begun an investigation whose media coverage has displaced more pressing concerns during prime time: the ailing economy, a massive farmers’ protest, and even the coronavirus pandemic itself.

Sushant Singh Rajput Was Suffering From Bipolar Disorder

Rajput was struggling with bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression). Bipolar disorder is subtle and tricky to diagnose and understand. The mood swings can often be written off as a bad temper or a “sensitive heart.” During a hypomanic episode, the individual can often be so high on energy that their productive output can be mistaken for genius.

“He had a rock solid work ethic,” said Leena James*, who had worked closely on multiple projects with Rajput. “It was also obvious to most of us that he was consuming hard drugs. He did have his quirks, and the odd tantrum, which got more severe during the last project I did with him. But there are lesser stars than Sushant, who throw worse tantrums. His was not even 5 percent of what we normally see among actors.”

Bipolar disorder, if not all mental illnesses, is a product of both nature and nurture. Ranaut may not have been wrong about Bollywood creating a toxic environment that possibly pushed him further into darkness. But to say that this, or his drug habit alone were to blame, provides an incomplete picture.

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Some of the most creatively prolific people in the world have had bipolar disorder – Sylvia Plath, Kanye West, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Mel Gibson, and Sinead O’Connor, to to name just a few. However, their brilliance has come at a cost. Several bipolar personalities have, like Rajput, had tragic, untimely deaths by suicide. When drugs and other substances are in the picture, the disease becomes almost unmanageable.

Rajput could have been an extremely high-functioning individual, which is probably why sometimes those closest to you can miss the signs. Ankita Lokhande, Rajput’s ex-girlfriend, insisted that in her six years of knowing him he was never depressed.

In an interview with Republic TV, she said: “….He wasn’t a depressed guy. I have not seen a person like Sushant, a guy who used to write his own dreams. He had a diary… He had his five-year plan — what he wants to do, how he will look, etc. And exactly after five years, he had fulfilled them. And when things like ‘depression’ are used after his name… it is heartbreaking. He might be upset, anxious, yes, but depression is a big word. Calling someone ‘bipolar’ is a big thing.”

It is a big thing. But it’s not a name to call or an insult. It’s an illness. Much like diabetes, which is for the most part, invisible. And nobody says “Does he LOOK like he has diabetes?”

Media Coverage

In spite of the fact that this particular illness is common, even among celebrities, it is heartbreaking that Rajput, according to his therapist, Suzanne Walker, was mortally afraid of anybody finding out. Walker had made a conscious choice to break client confidentiality to tell the media of Rajput’s illness, because of the turn the coverage of his death had taken. However, by international standards of mental health practice, it is a preposterous mistake, with the potential to dissuade sufferers from seeking help.

“I think there is a lot of ignorance regarding mental health and a lack of education that permeates the way the media speaks about it,” says Omar Bazza, a therapist based in Toronto. “If I had to pick three (things media is getting fatally wrong about mental health), it would be: a lack of understanding why we get mental health issues, blaming the victim, and not talking

Indian media is certainly making the first and third mistakes. Instead of blaming Sushant however, they’ve chosen to go the more salacious route. Accusing a woman of manipulating him is far easier than holding difficult conversations about the nuances of mental illness – which is desperately needed. According to The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF)’s 2018 report How India Perceives Mental Health, 26 percent of respondents said they feared people perceived as being mentally ill.

The cost of this stigma is high. India reported an average 381 deaths by suicide daily in 2019, most by hanging. A supportive environment is crucial to recovery. In 2010, the WHO estimated that for India, the economic loss due to mental health conditions between 2012-2030, would be about 1.03 trillions of 2010 dollars. That is about USD1.23 trillion today.

It may have even cost Rajput his life.

We Need to Stop It – Now

I was 22, sloshed silly, and feeling very full of myself. My flatmate and I had been having a crushing week and wanted to feel better. So we traipsed into a popular Bandra bar in the mood for trouble. We played a truth or dare game that got us into a small tiff with a girl who thought we were hitting on her (only passably attractive) boyfriend, and we were out in a minute, cackling with laughter. As we held our sides, we ran into Sushant Singh Rajput.

As a third culture kid growing up in Singapore, Pavitra Rishta was a sacred evening TV tradition, a way my family kept in touch with our roots. I stopped watching when he left the show in 2011, but I continued following his work on the dance reality shows and films that would gradually bring him success. I always thought any and every kind of TV was cringey (although I watched plenty of it) and people on TV could not possibly be self-respecting. Although I was a fan of his talent, I thought it was totally fine to give him (quite rudely) my unsolicited opinions. “Why would you do TV!? How do you live with yourself!?” I asked.

“Well,” he shrugged. “I live with it in a fancy apartment and tons of money.” (Rephrased from memory).

Burn.

I deserved it. After I got the news of his death, I felt a stinging, searing guilt. Later in our conversation, I learned that Rajput was passionate about physics and astronomy and that he indeed had a life outside of his career. One that was colorful and full of varied interests.

Courtesy @itsSSR/twitter.com
Courtesy @itsSSR/twitter.com

Sometimes I am shocked at how easily I managed to say such a thing to his face. The thing about celebrities is that it’s so easy to suddenly forget that they’re human, that they’re more than moving images or pin-up boards. And they most easily fall prey to utterly humiliating invasions of privacy. Up on their pedestals, they’re possibly the most vulnerable among us.

Seeing things play out with Chakraborty, it makes sense. It is far too easy to hurt, and too difficult to be kind and empathetic. To be the kind of society where mental wellness can flower. One can only imagine the mental health fallout of this traumatic experience she is going through. Watching the saga unfold, one is only filled with foreboding for a mental health crisis to come.