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September 10, 1999


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Issues 99/ Vandana

'The more educated the people are, the less empathetic and conscientious they become'

Vaishnavi and myself started The Banyan six years ago. If you were to ask me whether the attitude of the society towards the mentally ill had changed over the years, I would say, yes and no. Yes, because when we started our focus was rehabilitation. We were very successful in our attempts and we felt happier as most of them were from the villages.

When we went to the villages with a cured woman, the initial reaction of the villagers was, "My God, this woman is absolutely fine. How did she become all right? Earlier, we used to take her to a church or a mosque or a temple because we thought it was a curse."

So we were quite happy that the reaction was positive and they accepted the person with warmth and love. The attitude to learn, empathise and accept is there in the villagers. The minute you tell them that it is an ailment and it is rectifiable with medicines, emotional and community support, they accept it positively. That is why our success rate with those who got back to the villages is very high.

We are sad because of the lack of awareness that still prevails in the villages on psychiatric-related illnesses. We are sad because there is not even a primary healthcare centre there. We are sad because the villagers look at it as a curse. Not even one in thousand or one in two thousand knows that mental imbalance is a psychiatric problem.

One of the symptoms of mental illness is that the sick person wanders aimlessly and constantly. If you go to a village, you find that most of the villagers are working, so you can't expect them to be with the mentally ill person. While they are working, this lady wanders. She just walks off or gets into a bus or a train and reaches wherever the bus or the train takes her for no fault of hers or her family. So, all those whom we picked up from the streets are not from here; they are from far away places like Pratapgarh in UP or even from Nepal.

We had rescued a woman, Sukanya, from Bangalore. She was chained in her home. When we came to know that she was chained, our first reaction was, "God, how cruel can anyone get?" It is actually very easy for us to get judgmental and say, how terrible! But her family of construction workers chained her because she used to wander and that was the only way they could protect her. As she was young, in her early 20s, her parents feared for her safety. One day she broke the chain and began wandering and reached us. When we took her back after she was cured, the reception was very warm.

While these women are on the street, alone and helpless, it is very sad that they are raped and ill-treated. Many get pregnant. They are mentally ill, and the trauma of sexual harassment aggravates their illness. Even if a woman falls off from a bike, her first instinct is pull down her sari. It means a hell of a lot to a woman, even to an absolutely disoriented person. The physical and emotional battering in the form of rape shatters their stability completely. One young woman who came here refused to climb up the stairs and when she was okay, she told us that she was raped after she climbed up the stairs. Another woman was always counting numbers on her fingers and after a while, she would start shaking. She was raped by a group of men.

I don't know why men are so cruel to a sick, insecure person who is alone in the world. The guys must be really desperate. It is a very animalish act, I would say. It is not that you don't know the person is sick. Despite that, if a man is ready to do something like that to an unstable woman, it is very animalish.

Indian society has two faces, that of the village and the city; the rural and the urban. If it is poverty and lack of awareness that are the reasons for the way the mentally ill are treated in the villages, it is the stigma attached to the mentally ill that the urban India is scared of. Our experience tells us that the more educated the people are, the less empathetic and conscientious they become. That is why the urban families prefer to dump a sick person in some institutions. In our society, psychiatric problems are still talked in very hush-hush tones. But we are against leaving the mentally sick in institutions.

The first time we picked up a woman from the street here was six years ago. She was lying on the street not because nobody wanted to help her. It was because people were scared of her and many thought she would be violent and they also didn't know where to take her. Now, thanks to the level of awareness, thanks to the media, people are coming forward to inform us if they see a mentally ill woman wandering around. We get so many calls these days; at least one call a day.

It is remarkable that when somebody sees a sick woman wandering, s/he thinks of The Banyan. Over the past six years, people of this city have become more aware and more sympathetic to the mentally ill. It needs an effort, a responsible mind to find our number and call us. That is why I say that the level of responsibility and the level of humanity are increasing. I am saying this in good faith. Rather, I am hoping for that. But I must tell you from our experience that the villagers respond much better than the urban people and they are compassionate, they are responsible and they are responsive.

But we are in a dilemma. We are still in the same 2,500 square feet house. Yes, we have bought a plot and soon our own home will come up there. Initially, we thought we would restrict the members to 50 but it never happened. We didn't want the quality, the level of care to suffer because we would be having 50 people from the street in battered condition suffering from so many different kinds of ailments, and it is not an easy task to manage them. But when you see a lady on the street, you just can't leave her there. She also becomes our inmate.

One thing we have noticed is that these women are very brave. Once they are cured, they don't look back and feel bad about it. Seventy-five of those who got cured from here had the courage to say, "Yes, I was ill. So what? I will take medicines and lead my life." And 95 per cent of them are not educated and are from very poor background.

We still cannot forget the day we reached Pratapgarh in UP to return a woman back to her family. She had been wandering all over India for several years and her family believed she was dead. It was the principal of a school there at Pratapgarh who helped us contact her family. The day we reached her home, her daughter was getting married. And she still remembered her daughter as a small girl and in fact, she had bought some frocks for her too. Their emotional reunion was a moment we will never be able to forget.

The ideal situation in a society is when the families take care of the mentally ill. But if that is not possible, institutions are necessary but we are against institutionalisation. It should be the last resort. We do not want to open branches anywhere but we are encouraging people to start units especially in villages because they are the people who really need help.

Mental illness is a very neglected issue, a stigmatised issue all over the world, but the stigma attached to it is more in our country.

Vandana, the co-founder of The Banyan, spoke to Shobha Warrier in Madras.


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