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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

“The voices will not stop”: filmmaker Deepa Mehta on talking about mental illness

Deepa Mehta
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta

Oscar-nominated Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is used to talking about the arts. But on this morning, she’s speaking to a room full of scientists, researchers, clinicians and other mental health professionals about something very personal: her favourite cousin, Chitra.

“She talks about scientists who speak to her about curing cancer. She’s really concerned about the environment. But it’s the voices, she says, that are driving her absolutely bananas. The voices will not stop.”

Deepa’s cousin was studying to be a psychiatrist in New Delhi when she had a breakdown. Chitra’s father, also a psychiatrist, recommended she continue her studies in New Jersey. Once there, she had another mental breakdown. A year later, Chitra was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Chitra spent eight years living in a halfway house, her weight ballooning to 300 pounds.

“My image of Chitra during this whole process was the night before she went home to the halfway house. I visited my aunt’s home and she was standing in front of a mirror with a scarf in front of her head and she was talking to herself,” says Deepa. “That image was so scary because at that point I knew we had lost her. And to this day I cannot forgive myself for not taking an active role to make sure that she’s at least comfortable.”

Deepa was the keynote speaker for the second day of the Going ‘Glo-cal’ for Mental Health conference, co-hosted by CAMH and the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry, held at the U of T’s Hart House. The three-day conference is meant to bring together an international audience to strengthen global mental health initiatives from a Canadian perspective.

Deepa’s personal experiences with mental illness touched her deeply, and she echoed that message throughout her speech, as well as a question-and-answer session held with CAMH Psychology Department Research Analyst Gursharan Virdee.

“I asked (conference co-chair and CAMH Senior Scientist Dr. Arun Ravindran) why am I here? He said it’s because if people express that they care, and maybe ten people hear that, that’s half the battle. And I care because what happens in mental health, how we deal with it, how empathetic we are, how we know that it could happen to us.”

That fear of being different and the stigma of mental illness is certainly a global experience, and telling stories is a way to touch those universal truths, says Deepa. “My favourite director said something that always stays with me. He said, ‘the very minute we are particular is the very minute we become universal’. So if you tell a particular story from a particular context, you’re bound to hit the whole world.”

And so she shares her story of Chitra, with her permission. Deepa recounted Chitra’s words when she asked if it was ok that her story be shared. “I’m tired of being uncomfortable,” Deepa remembers her saying about a month ago during a visit. “The family never spoke about it and perhaps that is the tragedy of Chitra and many like her. We have to talk about it.”

“Just because I’m sitting here doesn’t mean I can’t get cancer tomorrow, or go into deep depression. It can happen to all of us. We are all vulnerable and that’s what makes us part of the whole family, the family of humanity. That’s why I’m here.”

Going ‘Glo-cal’ for Mental Health: Global Lessons for Local Benefit runs until May 8. Visit their website for more information.

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