Doctor of happiness
AN ART ESSAY
SUKRITI VADHERA KOHLI is the founder of Doctor of Happiness, helping young people with depression and other mental conditions through her art and online platform. Here she speaks with VANESSA PATEL about what inspired her to open up this forum, and what a difference art can make to our well-being.
Q: Hullo Sukriti, can you please tell us about yourself and your organization, Doctor of Happiness?
SVK: When I started teaching, about 10 years back, I was interacting with a lot of young people. My students were aged 18 and 19, and I realized there were a lot of mental health issues in the country. Our students are facing a lot of pressure, and the pressure isn’t just about studies, it’s from multiple, complicated situations that young people are dealing with. To say that “College life is the best life” and “Youth is the best time” may not be true for everybody.
I began thinking that there has to be something that can be done for the mental health of Indian youth. I don’t have a psychology background; I am an artist. When I was in school, I was also in a very dark space and art helped me cope, so the thought came to me, “Why can’t I create a platform?” Before this, there were so many things I wanted to do but they never worked out. It took me three years to come up with the idea that art can inspire people. Can art be the reason for people to become hopeful?
So on January 2, 2018, I started my first online post and the idea was to reach out to as many people as possible. I also researched and discovered that there are a lot of artists working on mental health all over the world. They were doing a lot of dark stuff and I felt, “What is the point if I’m already in a dark space, and I see a dark illustration and I’m pulled into it? It doesn’t help. In fact it pulls me back.” So, consciously I decided that I would not use colors in my illustrations, only black and white in a minimalistic way. I would say something very profound in a simple way, so that it didn’t complicate, it didn’t overwhelm, it didn’t create more anxiety, it was not gyan, only something which would bring smiles to faces. I make a conscious effort to make positive art. It is very difficult, actually, for a subject like mental health. I had to really rack my brain and research a lot.
I make a conscious effort to make positive art.
It is very difficult, actually, for a subject like mental health.
I had to really rack my brain and research a lot.
Q: You use art to tell a story or convey a message. Your illustrations also have a quirkiness, although that doesn’t take away from the somber topics you’re addressing. How do you inject that little bit of lightheartedness and still make the point?
SVK: It’s really a big challenge, but I believe one thing: unhappy people make other people unhappy, and happy people make other people happy. To be very honest, with the challenges we face in life, it’s difficult to be happy all the time. To make art like that I need to become happy first. I’m a mother of a six-year-old, I have my family to look after, I have my work to do, so sometimes it’s a challenge to make myself happy.
But I’ll tell you one thing, the secret lies in dealing with daily problems. Because I cope with them I know how hard it is, and I overcome them and illustrate that. Whatever I’m dealing with I’m illustrating, so the quirkiness comes from the fact that the problems are there but I’m going to overcome them. I have illustrated many books, but for the first time in many years I have been able to use art for something that creates value in other people’s lives.
My quirkiness remains the same, but what I create for Doc of Happiness is very profound. Sometimes, even I am encouraged by my illustrations – when I look at something I have made 6 months back.
Q: I don’t see your work touching on anything topical or political because that’s an entirely different subject.
SVK: Well, I want to work purely on mental health, but I do sometimes touch upon what’s going on and how to survive it. For example, when all the protests were going on around the country, a lot of people with anxiety were not okay to participate. And that was seen as a sign of cowardice. I wrote a blog and so many people responded. I supported them not to let anyone convince them they were cowards. It was their choice; they could still be at home and support the process. So, while I don’t really illustrate on those topics, I do have interactive sessions regarding what is going on right now.
Q: You’re helping them to handle peer pressure because there is so much burden on the youth to be politically correct all the time.
SVK: Yes, absolutely, and it is the need of the hour.
My quirkiness remains the same,
but what I create for Doc of Happiness
is very profound. Sometimes,
even I am encouraged by my illustrations.
Q: Your Instagram account tagline is “A Reservoir of Hope & Encouragement.” How does this help you to connect with your followers?
SVK: I wanted to create an online platform which is a reservoir of hope. And when I went for the recent Spokenfest in Mumbai, I had so many followers come to me – people with whom I had interacted through direct messaging, but who I didn’t know. They told me that when they’re in a really dark place, they search Doc of Happiness and look at my illustrations, and that is their online reservoir of hope.
Nowadays we are using our mobile phones constantly, our eyes are always on the phone. So when there is a space like Doc of Happiness, which is not negative or gossipy, and it’s not just humor, it’s something meaningful, then I see that it is a reservoir of hope. It was the followers who told me this, so I only recently changed the description. Earlier I thought I illustrated to empathize and give hope. Now I realize that it’s actually beyond that. There is a bank of goodness lying somewhere which anyone can tap into whenever they wish, like an ATM.
A lot of my followers get in touch with me through direct messaging and, let me tell you, there is so much loneliness out there. Even though they may have many followers on social media and many real life friends, deep down they feel very lonely. They don’t have anyone to express what they’re feeling.
Q: There are more deaths today through suicide than from wars, murder and natural disasters put together. With depression becoming so prevalent, how effective is your reach amongst the youth? Is social media a legitimate means of seeking and finding support?
SVK: I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I’m a complete believer in medical science, but I also believe that with medical science we need some kind of meditation philosophy, some kind of support system. When we put both together then we can solve things. Whenever I talk with someone who is going through a mental issue, I request them to consult a doctor. And because they trust me – of course I have to build that trust – they may approach a doctor. There are people who have started therapy as a result.
I also believe that with medical science
we need some kind of meditation philosophy,
some kind of support system.
When we put both together
then we can solve things.
As long as Doc of Happiness is helping people overcome their fears, and removing the stigma, then it is working, even if it is online. My dream is to one day create a place where people can check in and really take care of themselves through organic foods, meditation, prayers and art or music therapy. I’ve never seen a place with this concept anywhere in the world, so maybe someday I will be do it, because nothing is impossible.
Young people are lonely and they’re seeking. I’m learning every day that people are wanting help, and they are waiting; they are not closed to the idea. I used to think people were closed to advice, but everyone is seeking answers. I conducted a workshop on mental health at a college in Mumbai. I told them that I wanted it to be an interactive session, so I encouraged the students to ask me questions about their mental health. Not a single person put their hand up. I asked them to take a piece of paper and write their question on it, without putting their name. At first, I got two questions, then slowly they trickled in, and by the end the session had to be extended. I realized that just because they didn’t have the courage to ask me questions, it didn’t mean they weren’t seeking advice, or that they were fine. I know that people are ready.
I’ll tell you a crazy thing – twelve top publishers have refused to publish my book because they feel it won’t work. I wanted to make a book that costs only 100 to 120 rupees so that anyone can buy it. Illustrations do work. So, I decided to self-publish and started printing diaries. My orders are not stopping, which means that there is a real demand. Maybe someday the book will also get published; I don’t know how long that will take but I’m in no hurry. I’m observing these things and really reflecting. People want to know, but publishers don’t understand because there’s still a stigma. It happens the minute I mention mental wellness.
That’s why I responded to you, because I feel your magazine truly understands the need and knows there’s a demand. It may be slow, it may be at a snail’s pace, but even if one percent of readers are encouraged from your magazine, you’ve achieved the purpose. If you save one life, you’ve done it.
People connect to real life experiences,
people connect to things
which are spoken from the heart.
Q: How much of your own life experience has led you to use this means of creating awareness and reaching out to individuals who find it difficult to open up about their mental issues?
SVK: I have been invited to conduct workshops on mental health at various colleges and students usually message me or ask me to talk at these festivals, so one leads to another and it becomes a chain reaction. After my sessions, faculty members usually tell me that even they can connect with what I was saying, or they tell me to take a session for the teachers and staff. There is so much stigma attached to mental health issues that people feel only a psychologist or a psychiatrist is eligible to talk on the subject and they make it very technical and scientific.
I think it’s about the heart. People connect to real life experiences, people connect to things which are spoken from the heart, and then I think maybe together we can remove the stigma from it.
Q: In most parts of the world, women hold a secondary social status across all economic backgrounds. How can we encourage the women in our life to tap into their inherent potential?
SVK: I had made an illustration for Women’s Day in 2019 where I showed a woman peeping inside her own self and light is coming from within her. What I meant to depict is that we really need to believe in our own potential. All these years we’ve been conditioned to believe that we cannot survive in our own light. So, I think we need to tap into this inner potential, and start believing that we are capable enough to overcome anything. There is no other way. Male bashing will not help – we need to realize our own potential. We can keep blaming, but we must believe we are good enough. Also, I know a lot of men who completely understand, so let’s not make it generic. I feel we need to look deep within and ask, “Am I enough?” When all of us are able to answer this with a yes, then we will overcome it.
To me, it is paying a debt
of gratitude to my mentor,
because I have survived with
the help of his writings and my art.
Q: You are a mentor to many people. Do you have a mentor, someone who you look up to and wish to emulate? What is it about that person that inspires you?
SVK: I practice Buddhism and I’m most inspired by the writings of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, a Japanese philosopher who is also an author and a photographer. He is somebody who has had many dialogues with people all over the world regarding world peace, and his writings are a reservoir of hope for me. So, if Doc of Happiness is a reservoir of hope for others, he is my reservoir because his writings point me in a positive direction, they show me what is correct and incorrect, and how can I improve myself, again through his life. So, yes, he’s my mentor, and I have written to him about this platform. To me, it is paying a debt of gratitude to my mentor, because I have survived with the help of his writings and my art. Doc of Happiness is truly for him.
Instagram & Facebook: @docofhappiness
Art Essay by SUKRITI VADHERA KOHLI
Interviewed by VANESSA PATEL
May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020