Three-month old Ahuti Joshi died of cardio-respiratory failure brought on after she had been severely battered by her mother, who was young, frustrated and possibly suffering from post-partum depression.
For once, this has not led to moral outrage, but an acknowledgement of mental illness, perhaps because we can no longer pretend it is an aberration. Around 13 crore Indians suffer from some sort of mental illness — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Suicide is fast becoming the leading causes of death amongst young people.
Illustration/ Amit Bandre
Perhaps it has taken this degree of despair, besides the tireless efforts of health and disability activists for a new Mental Health Care Bill to come about. Our abysmal health care system is symbolised by ‘pagal khanas’ or insane asylums. These are places where patients are abandoned by relatives who cannot or would rather not cope with a relative’s illness, compulsorily tonsured, barely fed, frequently chained to their beds and routinely abused by underpaid, untrained carers. In 2001, over 20 people died in an institution in Erwadi, when their chains prevented them from escaping a fire. Controversial treatments like electro-convulsive therapy and forcible incarceration are common more as a non-updated default than an actual, if debatable, medical choice. And suicide is still, technically, a criminal offence, if you don’t succeed in dying.
Health activists are critical of the bill, because they feel it still does not really recognise the rights of the mentally ill, is strongly influenced by the business interests of private players in the health care system and contradicts the Draft Rights of People with Disabilities.
As with many issues, we are forced to remain, here too, at the most basic level of discussing rights. Given the sub-human treatment of the mentally ill for so long, how can we not discuss this. In such a situation the real goal — to lead and create an actual discussion on the contexts and attitudes to mental illness and to move towards better mental health — becomes a far away thing.
Ahuti’s mother said she battered her baby because she did not know how to stop its incessant crying — it was, in a sense, driving her crazy, leading her to do something she didn’t actually want to do. The father said he had no idea this had happened, and at the time, he had gone to see the Ganpati visarjan.
Without allocating blame, the story tells us not only how clueless we may be about things like post-partum depression, but also, how casual we are about another person’s agitation in our society, how we don’t really take it seriously. A woman is supposed to find some inner font of maternal peace to deal with a new child and her husband has not been taught at any point that he might need to be sensitive to her frustration, the difficulties of her new role and help out with the parenting.
These assumptions run riot through the increasing isolation of urban life, the increasing instability and push to do more, have more or unendingly suffer having less in the new economy. Why wouldn’t we go slowly mad? But we seem far away from a discussion about social health as the real basis of widespread mental and physical health.
Instead words like kindness and well-being will be dismissed as touchy-feely stuff that has no bearing on systemic change, when really, it should be the basis of any system we seek to create.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.
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