Cycling for Sanity

Iris C F Gomes

Rohan Sabharwal, who has been misdiagnosed three or four times since the age of 17 and medicated with a slew of wrong drugs, acknowledges that cycling has changed his life for the better. It was only at the age of 35 that he was finally given the right diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Rohan’s trials did not end at this revelation. In the end it was the purchase of a cycle that proved a saviour to the now 37 year-old Rohan. The filmmaker is on a mission now to spread the word on the state of mental health awareness and treatment in India through a web series titled Spreading Cycology.

This alumnus of the London Film School already has a body of work that establishes his talent as a filmmaker. Besides winning the Kodak Student Commercial Award in 2006 for an advertisement edited for Cancer Research UK, Rohan has had his documentaries nominated and screened at major film festivals such as the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. His short documentary on the Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru was shown at the Festival de Cannes in 2009. His latest feature length documentary on the Jewish community of Cochin is doing the rounds of film festivals.

Rohan’s own battle with mental illness has produced CraYon Impact, founded by him and his partner Rachana Iyer. CraYon Impact aims to sensitise people and grapple with the stigma attached to mental illness, disability and gender with the aid of stand-up comedy, spoken word poetry, theatre and music. Here mentally ill and disabled people are given the opportunity to perform and reveal the day to day issues they have to deal with. ‘For one of our events, Sex and Sexability, India’s first ever stand-up comedy show with people with disabilities performing stand-up comedy, it took us 62 days to find a venue because in the whole country there is nothing that is completely accessible,’ says Rohan.  

Rohan is also the editor of, an online source that carries mental health related articles from India and around the world.

Rohan speaks candidly about substance abuse during his early years after being misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder at 17. Believing his manic phase to be part of his base personality, Rohan focused on the depressive phase which led to this diagnosis. After a suicide attempt at 24 he found himself face to face with a psychiatrist again. He says, ‘Unfortunately I was with my father and I could not talk about the illegal drugs so I lied. I said I had been hearing voices and I was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.’

He was treated for a year and went on to film school and successfully started up his own production company. But then there was another suicide attempt. Rohan says, ‘There was no clear reason for it. No one had said anything to me or done anything to me. I just felt really empty and I didn’t feel motivated enough to do things.’

Rohan was at the top of his game, working with top companies like Unilever and Yahoo! India. ‘I was basically creating things that did not exist before. Those annoying video banners that you see on websites when you open them, is my fault,’ says he. Nonetheless, feeling unable to cope with clients and keep up the pace of work, he decided to shut down the company.

In 2014 Rohan suffered a mental breakdown and cut his arms open with a serrated knife. He has no recollection of what happened. This time he received proper medical treatment as he was admitted to a mental institution rather than a regular hospital as had been done earlier. The electroconvulsive therapy he was given here made him lose memory of the whole of 2014. Two years of medication induced diarrhoea followed, leading him to stop his medication for bipolar disorder.

Just two months ago, Rohan followed Rachana in buying a cycle and taking up cycling. He kept increasing the number of kilometres he would ride every day. He says, ‘It was like that movie Forrest Gump, where he starts running and just doesn’t stop. It was sort of like that. I had so much of energy in my manic phases that I find this is the only thing that has ever worked for me.’ Even in his depressive phases, he finds that once he motivates himself to get on his bike, he feels much better.

Spreading Cycology emerged from an idea to cycle through villages to glean stories of mental health issues faced by people at a grassroots level. The social angle attached to this expedition was to give a voice to these individuals who struggle to obtain mental health facilities and generate interest in information that is usually relegated to a state of facts and statistics. Rohan, along with his support crew, will be moving through villages between Mumbai-Goa-Cochin-Bangalore as well as Raigad, Sindhudurg, Malvan, Padukone and some other areas, covering 2500 Km non-stop. Rohan says, ‘The thing about cycling is that you can never zip past a story… You get to see every bit of the terrain. You get to stop and talk to each and every person on the way…’

One monumental hurdle was the dearth of producers to make this web series a reality. This challenge was surmounted when Rohan met with the Bombay Berlin Film Productions company which has produced The Road to Mandalay and Loev. The producers were well-acquainted with mental health issues and one of them was a cycling enthusiast himself.

In the villages that Rohan has visited, he has found few or no social workers despite the fact that there are institutions like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences spewing out social workers by the dozen. In the village of Mazagaon (Maharashtra) he found some people had taken it upon themselves to do something about the problems of mental health. These are people who have no education in the subject or understanding of therapy but are trying to help in their own way. They use the arts to create awareness on social issues. The village has no access to a general practitioner within the village, let alone a psychiatrist or psychologist. Rohan estimates that of a population of 1500 people about 10 percent suffer from some form of mental problem. The reaction to mental health problems and disabilities is to lock such people up in the house. They are, at times, even stoned. The situation was not much better in other areas.

The plan is to present all the information recorded during this journey to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to inspire idealistic students and certain NGOs, especially NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) in Bangalore, and implore them to devise and provide resources to reach out to these less fortunate individuals who have to struggle to gain access to mental healthcare and pay high fees for it if they do.

Rohan talks about an amusing but telling incident when he tried to call a suicide helpline. The first time he called he was told to call back the next day. The second time he was told the person who spoke English was not available. He says, ‘I found it so funny, I forgot about committing suicide.’ But in reality the situation points to the apathy of this country towards the many who are in need of aid for mental illness. This is something Rohan is hoping to change with his web series and subsequent presentations and drives to spread awareness.


**All photographs are courtesy of Spreading Cycology.

This article is based on Rohan Sabharwal's talk at the Kokum Design Centre, Porvorim.