It would happen when I least expected it. Suddenly, I would have to find a quiet corner to myself to break down and cry.
Once, I was on the set of a film I was working on. We were shooting a song sequence, and the cast’s energy was high. Everyone was happy and in a celebratory mood. I was surrounded by so many people, yet I felt lost and alone. I ran back to my trailer, locked myself in the bathroom and started crying.
Over the course of my career as a Bollywood actress, I have played many different characters, from bubbly party girls to beautiful queens to grieving widows. But the role that truly changed me was one I had to take on in real life — as a person struggling with depression. Being able to define my condition was an important first step in my path to recovery.
I started experiencing symptoms in 2014. It was mid-February, and I had fainted after a long day of work. The next morning, I woke up with an empty feeling in my stomach and the urge to cry.
On paper, that should have been a great period in my life — I had just starred in four of my most memorable movies, my family was extremely supportive and I was dating the man who would later become my husband. I had no reason to feel the way I did. But I did.
I was exhausted and sad all the time. If someone played a happy song to cheer me up, it only made me feel worse. Waking up every day felt like a huge endeavor. All I wanted to do was sleep. When I was asleep, I didn’t have to deal with reality.
For months I suffered silently, not knowing what was happening to me. I was unaware that many people around the world — more than 300 million, according to the World Health Organization — were facing the same challenge.
Then my parents came to visit me in Mumbai. For the duration of their stay I put up a brave face. But as they packed their bags before heading to the airport, I broke down in tears.
My mother looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong?” But I had no answer. She asked me if I was having issues at work. She asked if my partner and I were doing O.K. All I could do was shake my head. After taking a moment to herself, she said, “Deepika, I think you need professional help.”
The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was clinical depression. I had been so desperate that as soon as the doctor said, “This is what you have,” I felt immediate relief. Finally, somebody understood what I was going through. Not knowing what I was experiencing had been the biggest struggle. The moment I had the diagnosis, my recovery began. One of the kindest things I did for myself was to accept my condition. I didn’t fight it. The doctor prescribed me medication and recommended some lifestyle changes, prioritizing sleep, healthy eating, exercise and mindfulness. The process made me a lot more aware of who I am.
As I recovered, I started to reflect on my experience. Why did I not know anything about this illness? Why had no one — with the exception of my mother — recognized the signs? And why had I been so reluctant to voice my own feelings? Those questions led me to the decision to go public with my condition. If even one person struggling with mental health issues read about my story and felt they were not alone, it would be enough.
My team and I decided to do it in a way that would reach the largest number of people in India: an interview with the Hindustan Times, followed by an appearance on national television. It was 2015.
I didn’t think about the consequences — whether it might cause me to lose movie roles or product endorsements. I just wanted to be honest and share my story. Sure, I had a little apprehension. A few people wondered if it was a publicity stunt. Some suggested I was being paid by a pharmaceutical company to speak about the illness. But the impact I was able to have on the people hearing my story was what mattered most.
Luckily, I received a lot of support. What I had been through resonated with many people.
Everywhere I went — an event, a film set, the spa — people wanted to share their mental health struggles with me. It was as if this secret that had been hidden at the back of our shared closet had finally come out.
The more that people reached out to me, the more I realized I was not finished. I felt I needed to do much more. So I set up the Live Love Laugh Foundation.
Mental health issues are largely taboo in India, even though they are pervasive. Almost 57 million people across the country struggle with depression, a 2017 W.H.O. report estimated. A 2016 survey commissioned by the Indian government found that 85 percent of people with common mental health problems do not receive adequate treatment for them. For a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a shortage of mental health professionals and a population of 1.3 billion, this is extremely worrisome.
Over the past four years the Live Love Laugh Foundation has worked to increase awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness in India. We have run public health campaigns, started school programs, conducted studies, partnered with doctors and launched a mental health care project devoted to rural parts of the country.
Our main goal is to remind people that they have a chance for a better life. That is why we named the foundation “Live Love Laugh” — it’s about what a person feels as much as it is about the medical aspect of treating their illness. We are committed to giving hope to those affected by mental illness, and a big part of that consists of teaching people to be kinder to themselves.
More than ever, we need to remind ourselves to be vulnerable, human and sensitive — authentic, in one word. Recovery is about finding a sense of balance. On a personal level, I think I have finally found that peace and comfort within myself. I surround myself with people who are honest with me, and I take care of myself without any guilt.
Not a day goes by when I don’t worry about relapsing. Still, today I know that my struggles have given me a deeper connection to my mind and body. If I ever find myself dealing with a bout of depression again, I know I’ll be strong enough to face it.
© 2019 Deepika Padukone. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group