–Kakali Das |
Movies have this typical depiction of what a ‘mad’ person looks like, and our society’s understanding of mental illness begins and ends there. But WHY? In the Atharva Veda, mental illness is said to be caused by ‘divine curses’, and in Ayurveda, by ‘evil spirits’. What we now classify as mental illness was viewed around the ancient world as possession by evil spirits, and treatments often involved charms and amulets with magical powers, that would ‘tame’ the possessed person. This notion that a person with mental illness needed taming shaped treatment practises for years, from the Bethlehem Hospital that isolated ‘the insane’ in the 13th century, toSalpêtrière Hospital in the 17th century, where patients were chained and placed in small cells like prisoners. In the 18th century, this attitude did change in the west. European reformers like Dr. Philippe Pinel, William Tuke advocated therapy focused on an uplifting, healing environment, while physicians began to question the mainstream understanding of mental health, arguing for the first time that illness could be psychological. It was this approach to treatment that led to the formation of India’s first ‘asylum’ in 1745 in Bombay, followed by Calcutta in 1784.
Though some of the asylums followed more humane treatments, most were still structured to isolate patients with mental illnesses from the rest of society, because they were considered ‘dangerous’. Although there has been a gradual shift towards community care and more compassionate treatments, even today, mental health advocates criticise institutions for ill-treating patients, not giving them enough agency, and reinforcing the idea that the person with a mental illness must be taken away from society, to control their disorder. Added to this stigma in modern medicine is the popularity of some traditional healing practises which continue to propagate the notion that mental illnesses are a product of evil spirits. And such beliefs inform popular perceptions of mental illness.
A study by Quartz India in 2018 found that 60% of people believe that those with mental illness “should have their own groups to avoid contaminating healthy people”, and 68% believe that they shouldn’t be given any responsibility. From Bollywood movies that mock mental illness, to sensationalise news reporting that foregrounds violence, the media further reinforces these negative perceptions. People with mental illnesses are portrayed as violent, murderers and unpredictable, and are often blamed for their own conditions. All this shaming in the media, in our healthcare systems, and in our interpersonal relations not only harms those suffering from severe forms of mental illnesses, but also makes us deny its common forms like depression or anxiety. But the fact of the matter is 1 in 10 Indians has a mental health condition, and 1 in 20 is depressed. So, instead of denying that mental illness can affect our loved one, who has ‘no good reason’ to be depressed, or instead of claiming that ‘it’s just a phase’, or ‘attention-seeking behaviour’, maybe it’s time we start taking mental illness seriously! Let’s take a cue from mental health advocates and activists, and start talking about mental illnesses, in our schools, colleges, our homes and workplaces. Let’s finally recognise the agency and experiences of people living with mental illnesses, and let’s work towards ensuring that people seek help, and can access it.