Ignorance and shame keep India in the dark over its mentally ill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 2010, 12:00am

Retired Brigadier Jagdish Desai has spent the last 15 years of his life and much of his life savings trying to find someone who can treat his daughter Asha's schizophrenia.

He rarely leaves his home in Ludhiana, northern India, because his wife, who suffers from arthritis, cannot restrain Asha when she starts hearing voices and becomes violent or, as he puts it, 'turns into a demon'.

Only when his son is at home does he venture out to buy groceries and pay the bills.

'I curse being born in India,' he says. 'If we had been anywhere else, I'm sure my daughter would be leading some sort of a normal life because of a proper diagnosis and proper treatment.'

Brigadier Desai's family is among millions in India struggling with mental illnesses in a country where it is widely believed that there is no treatment for depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, or other psychiatric conditions.

He has tried having Asha (known in the family as 'rani' or princess) admitted at three different government hospitals but every time he has brought her home, unable to bear leaving her in inhuman conditions.

Once, a doctor urged him to take his daughter home, saying she would not survive the unhygienic conditions and neglect.

Most of the country's 65 million people who suffer from psychiatric illnesses never make it to a hospital, leaving it to their relatives to cope with them at home.

For India's population of 1.3 billion, there are only 3,500 psychiatrists - three psychiatrists per one million people, compared to 150 per million in many developed countries.

There are only 43 government hospitals for the mentally ill in India. Private hospitals offer better and more compassionate treatment but costs tend to be prohibitive.

Many families opt for homes run by charitable trusts such as Pingalwara in Punjab which is currently looking after over 1,000 destitute people with physical and mental disabilities.

'The problem in India is that no one understands what mental illness is. And there is a fatalistic belief that it can't be treated, that it's best just to lock them up and forget about them,' said Surjit Singh Basra, a volunteer worker at Pingalwara.

Ajit Rathore, consultant psychiatrist at Chandigarh Hospital, also in Punjab, says he is shocked at the way families give up so easily and assume that their ill relative will either need to be locked up or reduced to a vegetative state by medication.

'They have no idea that it is possible for them to lead a relatively normal life, depending on the illness,' he said. 'They are also scared of the shame. They become lepers among their friends.'

In Meerut, two hours' drive from the Indian capital, garment exporter Nikhil Bhatt and his wife take it in turns to spend a night in a local hotel to get a good night's sleep away from the derangement of their 35 year old son, Akash, a paranoid schizophrenic who has hit them countless times over the past 12 years.

With doctors unable to prescribe any useful medication, Bhatt plans to take his son to Atmashakti Vidyalan, an institution run by Father Hank Nunn in Bangalore.

Here, care includes therapy, yoga and meditation as well as medical treatment. 'I have lost most of my friends in this nightmare and I'm about to lose my business. Bangalore is my last hope. My dream is to see my son's face peaceful and affectionate again,' said Mr Bhatt.

In India no one understands mental illness. And there is a fatalistic belief that it can't be treated

Volunteer worker in a privately-run home for the mentally disturbed