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India’s First Woman Psychiatrist Dr. Sarada Menon Talks About Our Mental Health Crisis

  • IWB Post
  •  May 16, 2019

The 95-year-old Padma Bhushan awardee Dr. Sarada Menon is the first woman psychiatrist in India who founded India’s mental health NGO, Schizophrenia Research Foundation (Scarf), in Chennai in 1985.

Dr. Sarada Menon

The topic of mental health has been ignored for quite a while and is considered a taboo in India, but now this issue is on the rise with many people struggling with depression and stress in their everyday life.

Talking about this, Dr. Menon shared, “Today, the biggest health issues in India are depression and schizophrenia, while in the coming years, newer problems due to addiction to drugs, mobile phones, and electronic devices will emerge.”

According to the WHO, depression affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all countries and at worst it can lead to suicide.

“In women, the major culprits are hormonal imbalances, lifestyle changes, social stresses, including cultural demands, and difficulties with child rearing. On the other hand, men can also develop depression primarily due to pressure at work, financial stresses, peer pressure, and family responsibilities,” shared Dr. Sarada.

According to her, depression first needs to be detected and then requires immediate medical help. “The most important thing is to detect depression from unexpected changes in daily functioning- routine work, social responsibilities, communication, grooming, recreation, etc. The next step is to seek, medical help!”

The family members can only help the patient by, “’Approve, Appreciate, and Acknowledge’ the improvements made by the patient. Encourage yoga, meditation, and other methods that promote optimism.”

Talking about what she witnessed with people battling mental illness, she recollects, “I encountered ‘mental illness’ during the final year of my medical training in 1959. I had witnessed a number of people abandoned by their relatives, who would give the wrong address and leave. These ‘patients’ were ill-clad, naked, posturing, gesturing, talking to themselves and unaware of everything, out of touch with reality. They were irritable and violent, and we had no access to them. There was no definite treatment, apart from restraint and sedation with medicine, administered orally or parenterally. Personal care, nutrition, sleep and communication, all needed attention. Training was needed to tackle this serious problem.”

She also recalls, “a new drug for mental illness called Chlorpromazine had just entered the market. It was through this that we witnessed several positive changes in the last 50s.”

During the next few decades, several key developments in mental health services took place and training programmes were developed for the staff, psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric social workers, counselors, and occupational therapist.

“Moreover, specialisations for psychiatrists were being conducted. It was during this time that each hospital started to have a psychiatric out-patient ward with inpatient beds; research started being conducted on various mental health issues, and the National Mental Health Programme was intensified,” she shared.

Several hospitals, NGOs and medical practitioners are working towards tackling these issues in India, but roadblocks remain, leading to a gap between the need for treatment and its provision. She shares that there is an inadequacy of trained personnel at different levels of service requirements, and there is a difficulty in the acceptability of treatment by the patient and their families due to social stigma. There is also an inadequate interest of the government which has been treating the subject of mental health on a low priority.

Talking about the rehabilitation practices in India, she says, ”Disability as a result of mental illnesses needs to be attended through rehabilitation practices. While there are several islands of activity, interest and approaches in this regard, it hardly covers the number of mentally-disabled in India. We have to create wealth from this waste.”

H/T: The Better India


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