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Patients Kept Naked Because They’re ‘Retarded’: How Much We Value Mental Health

By Val Resh:

Ten days since the ‘progressive’ Mental Health Bill 2016 was passed by the Rajya Sabha. Numerous articles have been written by various people and groups in support and welcome of the Bill. But a friend and I had a different opinion of course – because we are both women living with said diagnosis of mental illness, expressing that the Bill has nothing to do with care for us. You see my friend has actually been one of those women who has been forcefully ‘thrown in’. Although she got out, there are hundreds… no thousands like her who don’t know what freedom, rights, care, love, support and humanity even means in a world that has failed people with mental illness and tried us for centuries.

But, though I have this friend now, I lost another one in 2008. When I first met her in 2002 at a support group – I felt she was the only one who ‘got’ me despite her being 15 years older. She accepted my smoking, tattoos and different ways of being even if we came from different economic, family and religious background. To my dismay I found out that she was sent to an institution. Our paths crossed again in 2010, when I returned home and to mental health advocacy after having disappeared myself.

I spotted her at a conference and ran up to her to give her a hug – not more than 5 seconds because tears were rolling down our cheek. She said ‘Don’t cry cause then I will cry and they will give me unnecessary ECT thinking I am having a symptom’. So we forced and forged huge smiles on our faces to stop our eyes from tearing up and our bodies from shaking.

“Give me another hug please,” she said adding, “I know you have issues with touch and hugs but I don’t know when I would get another hug ever. We are not allowed any of that.”

We had only 5 minutes and I had so much to ask her, but I could see the warden standing in the corner calling her and others by numbers. She smirked painfully, “See they count us like sheep. At least the sheep get to graze on grass. We don’t even get that.”

I tried so hard to hold my tears back but I couldn’t so I looked down and sniffed as she squeezed my hand saying “Don’t or you’ll make me cry. I better go now or they’ll yell at me for influencing the others in the bus.” I had to ask “Why did you choose this?”

She said, “I can’t fight them anymore. It is tiring with the meds and ECT also. When I say yes to ECT and obey, they don’t punish me and force inject me so I rather just take it once a week so that they shut up. The walls are my friends now and it’s okay. It keeps my parents happy as I am not demanding my rights and it is better that I don’t have to see them anymore. This is my life, I accept it.”

As I walked with her towards the exit, I spotted another acquaintance in the same ‘sheep line’ who was thrown in for being lesbian. I first spotted her in a known hospital in Mumbai where she passed a comment on rape and abuse going on within the walls of the asylum. And now, here she was transferred to another ‘less abusive and rapeful’ center. She is supposed to be grateful for this apparently: an institution with less abuse and rape.

These are just two I know of personally, who are clothed and sent to ‘furnished’ institutions. But the stories I’ve heard are not something they make up. No one ever believed them including their own parents who took sides with doctors in accepting that ‘crazy people just say anything to entertain themselves inside’.

I don’t know what has happened to either of them, but like them I am sure many people must have heard ‘crazy’ stories but none of you ever believed it – because that is the extent of what society thinks of us. Of course, our stories can be painful, depressing and difficult for you to bear but don’t condemn us for having them. We didn’t choose to be ‘crazy’ or to be thrown in. Don’t ignore what is happening in the backyards of your own country while you speak of humanity on social media. We could be related to any one of you – or maybe we are!

Educated people who have access to this article who are questioning and getting into armchair activism themselves have stereotyped the likes of my friends, patronizing comments like ‘Oh these people are so and so…how would they know the difference between real and unreal…’ suggestive of how incapable you think we are in making choices and decisions which in turn reinforces what the Government and unethical business driven professionals have been selling about us. When was the last time you couldn’t make a simple decision or choice about what you want to watch on television or eat?

Youth who are well read and studied in various disciplines especially psychology and psychiatry have stereotyped these women (and kids too). Parents and other caregivers themselves have stereotyped and thought my friends are making things up because they are ‘schizophrenics’ ‘pagal log kuch bhi bolte (mad people say anything)’ is one of the statements I have heard over a decade. “How can you be sure of what your friend tells you, Resh? They are different in schizophrenia than what you have. You are coherent and articulate.” – suggestive of how expressive qualities stereotypes who is mentally ill and deserving of a particular human right, reinforcing the ideas around mental illness that allows psychiatrist, goons and the Government to continue treating us like waste products of society because society themselves have no place for us.

We are living in the year 2016, right? Where in the welcoming of the 21st century in the year 2000 had each one of us, young and old being super excited about what the 21st century would bring us – scientific achievements, genome mapping, research being made possible on the moon and mars, the list doesn’t end. That was 16 years ago, the ripe age of a teenager too (all of whom are falling close to a mental health diagnostic label which is very different than the experience of a mental ‘discomfort’).

We have progressed so far but not in our humanity. Our humanity is a fashion statement for social media and other awards. When it comes down to the real thing, very few dare challenge themselves and question their own failings as a human person. This is evident in the current issue surrounding Mental Illness since the beginning of August 2016 that Anjali Mental Health and few others have been raising. Here’s a walk-through of the events suggestive of how much attention it is getting and it isn’t considered ‘valuable’ enough compared to other social issues and hype over humanity:

August 2nd 2016: Goons ordered by psychiatrist to pick up a woman at 11:30 PM. Punched her, fingered her vagina, sedated her, tied her and ‘escorted’ her to hospital in an ambulance. Upon questioning, the professionals played the ‘violent’ card over her. Doctor said she was ‘agitated‘ so restraints were necessary.

August 6th 2016: Commemorating the Erwadi tragedy that happened 15 years ago in 2001 where 25 people with mental illness were burnt to death (charred) because they were tied in chains and couldn’t escape.

August 8th 2016: “Empty chairs and empty tables are witness to the passing of India’s Mental Health Care Bill. Priorities…!”

August 14th 2016: On the eve of India’s 70th Independence ‘azaadi’ for persons with mental illness means;

  • Three women huddled on an iron cot, without any clothes. Mattress removed to provide them respite from bed bugs. In the adjoining ward for male inmates…
  • When authorities were questioned, their reply – “because they are ‘mentally retarded’ and do not want to keep their clothes on”. Prejudice and stereotyping of ‘mentally retarded’ as being ‘idiots’ which is regressive and insulting for persons with disability. How can ‘mental retardation’ justify keeping men and women being naked?
  • Cover up: ‘We discard clothes because they are infested with bugs and lice’ No fumigation process undertaken by the authorities of the hospital in the last 6 months.
  • Medical officer of health: “I do not entertain calls at night. I’m listening to music now. I won’t speak even if you consider it as an emergency,” – when journalist from Hindustan Times contacted him on why patients are being kept naked at Bahrampur Mental Hospital

If you carefully study each link shared, it should be enough to pinch your heart and shake you up concerning the plight of mental illness in the country (which is no less different in other countries).

The trouble here isn’t just about what the authorities are supposed to do. I’ve sat in many such rooms where I’ve heard feedback given from the Government  – ‘their own families don’t want them. Where are we going to put them?’, or ‘society doesn’t accept these people, what else are we to do?’ There’s absolutely no choice left then because when we argue or debate with them we are at a loss all the time since we cannot answer for what society does and why persons with mental illness are rejected.

I can only hope that people wake up. Stop calling names out at those you see wandering. Stop someone else from doing it too. Have you seen how none of them are being violent towards anyone on the streets but it’s the motorist, beggars, and ‘coherent’ people who are abusing one another? Why are you rejecting us so much for nothing we have done?

The reasons why persons with mental illness are even suffering within the walls of the institutions or their own homes is because you, my dear society, refuses to accept us as one of yours. Are we some ‘illegitimate’ beings? In fact, those living with ‘mental illness’ who are given care, encouragement, support and acceptance go on doing more for society than even the ones considered ‘normal’. I am not the only one with that story, nor am I boasting about our abilities. There are several of us all over the world.

The reasons why the Government won’t budge is because society isn’t the least bit concerned about the likes of us. We aren’t your problem… until you begin experiencing the same, or you have the heart of humanity and the mind to accept anything different than yours (which is rare in respect to mental illness).

The trouble here isn’t one of just stigma. The trouble here is not wanting to confront what scares you and shakes you of your own reality of life, making you question your own ideas of normalcy and madness. It makes your look real hard at yourself as a parent, a child, a sibling, a partner, a friend, a doctor, a professional, a citizen, a stranger about your own mental health and the uncertainty of life.

Persons experiencing mental illness bring uncertainty at many levels into their own homes and relationships – not as people but because of the nature of the experience of mental discomfort they are having. And people cannot bear what is uncertain – the very irony of life because this is the truth. So you rather ‘do away’ with those who challenge your predetermined ideas of what life should be and call them mad.

Persons experiencing this mental discomfort called ‘illness’ shows you the mirror, indirectly forcing you to look at it – telling you that you could experience the same because ‘mental illness’ doesn’t discriminate others. There is no such vaccine or prevention that medical science can promise you. It can affect anyone at any point due to the nature of what life is.

So dear society, stop living a lie and face us. Face yourselves because each one of you knows someone in your own home or circle who is experiencing some sort of mental discomfort every other day. Until you accept your own, will you then be empowered enough to do something and raise your voice for those like me and my friends. And until that happens the Government and such officials and psychiatrist will keep getting away with the decade old tricks and ways.

No amount of hospitals, therapist, doctors, institutions, counselling, helplines, treatment, surgeries, awareness campaigns, laws will make much difference until you decide to accept us as one of your own. Because the truth is when we had to get my friend out, we had hundred over strangers sign a petition showing the Government that they believe in humanity and accepting people for however different their stories are. It worked. She was saved.

My question remains: What are you going to do about this rise of mental health and all of these other strangers in the asylums around the country? They were once someone’s friend, child or parent. Now they have no home and only a place that treats them worse than…( I have no words for it.)

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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