Throughout the history of mankind (personkind?), the mentally ill have been reprimanded for no fault of their own. In the old times, the mentally ill were said to be possessed and stoned to death. There were numerous occasions when the ill were chained and separated from all human civilization for fear of them spreading their lunacy. In my opinion, we cannot really blame the people of those times. The understanding around mental illness or science itself was scant at best in those times. The solution to every problem was sought in god and every action was supposed to have a divine retribution. Human rights didn’t even exist and whatever the priest decided was the right call; no questions asked. It is hence something that we should ask ourselves, in the centuries that have passed since, have we really accepted the reality of mental illnesses? The answer would disappoint some.
If we focus on India, there are many hospitals which are more like prisons than hospitals. Patients are given small, dingy rooms. They are often chained even without the presence of psychotic symptoms. It seems like the focus of these hospitals is on keeping these people in, away from the public. It should ideally be about treating the people inside so that they can be productive members of the outside society. Unfortunately that seems like a distant dream as it stands. Human rights seem to be the last concern of the administration when it comes to mental hospitals.
Despite the various laws that are in place to protect the human rights of the mentally ill, the implementation of these is nowhere to be seen. The human rights violations don’t just stop in mental hospitals. They are prevalent even in home settings and in educational institutes. I am sure many of you have heard jokes about the Paagal Khaana ( Mental Asylum) of Agra. The jokes about it and how it is a place for lunatics and outcasts never stop. Stigmatization may also play a role in the educational opportunities for those with mental health issues as reflected by the high incidence of dropouts. Students with mental illness can face teasing, harassment, and prejudice from their peers, and arguably, their teachers (WHO, 2010).
When the educated are so distant from giving the mentally ill the treatment they need, the uneducated populace is even less likely to exhibit compassion to the mentally ill. The prevalence of religious beliefs often leads to people performing “exorcisms” to remove the demons in a person’s body. These “exorcisms” sometimes include being slashed by metal rods in the hopes of “beating the demon away.” The stigma attached to most mental illnesses leads to a grim reading for the present but things are not all that bad.
With the success of public institutes like NIMHANS, Bengaluru and IBHAS, New Delhi, treatment for mental illnesses has been made affordable for the masses. The masses are becoming more aware of the rampant demon of depression. Slowly we can expect more awareness to lead to a more educated populace. The Mental Health Care Act, 2017 also reinforces the importance of protection of the human rights of the mentally ill. Some investigative journalists have carried out pioneer investigations exposing the ill treatment rampant in many hospitals.
India, much like the rest of the world, has a long way to go but we are getting there slowly. Mental health has found its mentions in the Bhagavad Gita as well (I will talk about it soon) and it is important that we strive to be more aware with each passing day.