“When was the last time you cried?”
“Either yesterday, or day before.”
“That’s super unusual for a guy.”
“I suppose.”

This exchange kicked off a recent episode of Marbles Lost & Found, a new podcast that takes a deep dive into the complex, often stigmatised, subject of mental health in India.

In the episode, the podcast’s co-hosts Zain Calcuttawala and Avanti Malhotra discuss hypermasculinity and the bearing of rigid gender roles on mental health. Calcuttawala, who lives in Mumbai, has first-hand experience of the subject – he battled depression for over a decade before realising that he needed help. In a compelling post on Facebook in November 2016, the music producer wrote about wrestling with feelings of worthlessness and the difficulty of having conversations about mental health without feeling judged or embarrassed. It was a call to action – he was looking for people who could join him in raising awareness.

Malhotra, a psychotherapist in Pune, was one of the first to reach out, drawn by the frankness of Calcuttawala’s post. “Since I work in the business of dialogue, it felt natural to reach out,” said Malhotra. “I’ve always been open about my own experiences with depression, so it was gratifying to see someone else do it so publicly.” They exchanged ideas for the better part of a year before deciding upon a podcast.

India’s mental health situation is woefully inadequate. Nearly 150 million Indians need mental health care services but less than 30 million are seeking it, according to the National Mental Health Survey, 2015-’16. The World Health Organisation puts India’s mental health workforce at 0.3 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 people. There are only 0.07 psychologists and 0.07 social workers for the same size of population. Mental health issues have always been steeped in shame and cultural taboos.

In 2017, in a widely welcomed move, the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 was passed by the Lok Sabha. Under its provisions, universal mental health care is now a justiciable right. While policy changes develop gradually, there have been attempts to change the narrative. In addition to Marbles Lost & Found, another podcast titled The Alternative Story is also attempting to put the focus on mental health and start conversations around it.

Finding marbles

Zain Calcuttawala (left) and Avanti Malhotra.
Zain Calcuttawala (left) and Avanti Malhotra.

For Calcuttawala and Malhotra, the real challenge was zeroing in on the appropriate format. The subject was sensitive, and they didn’t want the podcast to sound clinical or appear to be a substitute for therapy. “We did a fair bit of research,” said Calcuttawala. “Frankly, the ones [podcasts] that were explicitly to do with mental health were dead boring.” They wanted their podcast to flow like a conversation between friends. “Therapists don’t really do advice, but [focus on] exploration, understanding, questioning, challenging and integrating,” said Malhotra. “I wanted to bring in those elements.” The rest of the Marbles team include Shadaab Kadri, Nisha Vasudevan, Ujaala Chaudhuri and producer Priyanka Ganwani.

The weekly episodes, about 20 to 25 minutes long, analyse mental health through various prisms – experiences, caregiving and therapy, apart from conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. A two-part series focuses on pop culture and the inadequately representation of the problem in Indian films and television. There’s a debate on the Hindi movie Dear Zindagi – “if nothing else, it presented the idea that therapy is actually a thing” – and the upcoming Kangana Ranaut-Rajkummar Rao starrer Mental Hai Kya, whose very title suggests a possible flawed understanding.

Malhotra says there is a level of awareness and sensitivity expected from people in positions of power. “For too long now, entertainment has meant staying away from realistic portrayals of life,” she said. “But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive…see Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the language used, to the jokes made [and] what is derogated subtly. Those are the cues that stay with audiences – like venerating macho masculinity or hyper-sexualisation of girls.”

The podcast features guest speakers for more nuanced conversations. Music producer-composer Gaurav Malatkar, popularly known as BLOT, discusses his battles with anxiety in an episode that focuses on the relationship between professional success and mental health. “Definitions of success have changed over time and there’s so much pressure today,” said Calcuttawala. “Avicii, Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell and more recently, Anthony Bourdain…all of them were so conventionally successful in their respective fields, and yet, they took these drastic steps that left the entire world shocked. Gaurav has been in the electronic dance music industry for over a decade, and his experiences brought in that perspective.”

The tenth episode of Marbles Lost & Found was released on August 21, capping off the first season. Malhotra says that the response has been encouraging. “There’s also been some criticism on the style, which we can understand as it’s not really scripted. Overall, it’s been positive and people have been writing in to say that the podcast inspired them to reach out for help, and has helped them gain perspective that feeling a certain way has root causes that need to be explored.”

Digging deeper

The Alternative Story was started in June by psychologist Paras Sharma to offer counselling, both online and offline. Having worked in the mental health and social sector for seven years, Sharma was particularly mindful of one aspect – the cost of therapy, and its inaccessibility for people from marginalised backgrounds. One-third of all counselling slots at The Alternative Story are offered on a pay-what-you-want basis. “The idea is that nobody should be held back from seeking help because of the cost,” said Sharma, a resident of Bengaluru.

The Alternative Story’s DIY-style podcast (there’s no production budget, formal scripting or editing) on Soundcloud was started on a similar principle. Sharma’s Twitter threads around mental health got a lot of traction. Instead of turning them into a paid workshop or session, as many private practitioners tend to do, he wanted the content to remain as accessible as possible. He was also concerned that most of the discussion around mental health – videos, self-help books – predominantly came from a Western perspective, leading to a lack of context. “The idea is to introduce concepts to people who would otherwise not access therapy,” Sharma explained. “And instead of being just an intellectual exercise, the podcast becomes an awareness building and self-help tool.”

Unlike the more conversational tone of Marbles, The Alternative Story’s podcast is more academic. In the first episode, for instance, Sharma turns a critical eye on mental health by delving into capitalism. He gives a brief history of psychology before speaking of how capitalist culture influences people’s state of being. The other two episodes look at practising self-compassion and mindfulness, and dealing with anxiety. “Two things my therapy is constantly calling out are capitalism and patriarchy,” he said.

Paras Sharma.
Paras Sharma.

Sharma created one Twitter thread on mental health among startups and bad human resource policies, and a lot of people shared it. Unsurprisingly, he says, most were from either established IT companies or startups. “If all of them are saying that this work culture is problematic and sharing horror stories, then it’s larger than one company, one bad boss or one bad HR,” he said. “It’s a systemic issue.”

Sharma gave the example of how one organisation at a recent press conference to announce the large tranche of funding it had received, joked about its 10 am to 6 am work timings. “Maybe an employee was putting in these hours for a certain period of time,” he said. “But if the same employee comes and says they need three weeks [leave] for their mental health, would the organisation give that?”

Sharma picks the theme of the episodes based on the suggestions and feedback he gets on Twitter. Currently there’s one episode out every month, but he wants to increase the frequency to one every fortnight. “I don’t want to sit here and tell people this is depression, and this is what you should do, without talking about social determinants. It has to be a commentary on the state of affairs as much as it is on the issue itself.”