In 2009, one of India’s most prominent mental health institutions located in Ranchi published a list of 98 patients who had been abandoned by their families. One of the patients was Lakshmi Jaiswal who, in an interview with the BBC, revealed how she had been deserted by her family and left in the institute for over 20 years after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. About 80 women consider the female ward at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences in Delhi their home.
This isn’t uncommon in India, where mental health is stigmatised, where words like ‘paagal’ and ‘mental’ are loosely thrown around without realising the impact they hold.
This stigma impacts awareness about mental health issues and the diagnosis and treatment of mental health patients. Consequently, mental health patients in India not only suffer from judgement and a lack of empathy but are also often shunned by society. According to a 2018 national survey report by The Live Love Laugh Foundation, around 62% of the 3,665 respondents across 8 cities in India used derogatory terms like ‘retard’, ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ or ‘stupid’, to describe people with a mental illness. The study also showed that 71% of the respondents who showed awareness about mental illness portrayed stigma towards it.
According to the WHO, mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders are more common in women. Given the gender inequality in India, women are more likely to be abandoned by their loved ones when diagnosed with a mental illness. According to Cheena Kapoor, a photographer who documented the women at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, “The male ward is always filled with anxious faces waiting for the sons to return home, while the daughters are so easily forgotten.”
Gender discrimination also makes life after the treatment challenging. “Many mentally ill women are not of any use to the household. On the contrary, they become a burden on their families” says Reni Thomas, a researcher who has studied women’s mental health in India. Even after they are stabilized, the women are almost always abandoned, even, making these mental institutions and hospitals their homes for the rest of their lives.
Making it worse, India doesn’t have adequate capacity of mental health institutions and the facilities aren’t of the best quality. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, women with mental and psychological disabilities are ‘treated worse than animals’, facing abuse, violence, and unsanitary conditions.
Things need to change, and they need to change fast. According to the WHO in 2020, around 20% of Indians will suffer from mental illnesses. But for all these patients there are less than 4000 mental health professionals in the country. In addition to increasing the number of mental health professionals, we need to drive awareness of organizations like The Banyan, Sangath, and Manas Foundation which already exist.
For example, The Banyan is a Chennai based organization that works across three states to help mentally ill and homeless women by providing everything emergency medical and social care to shelter-based services to long term support for patients with high support needs. In addition, the government needs to fund and promote more organizations like The Banyan with a special focus on the welfare and care of mentally ill women.
These organizations can provide an important way for women with mental health issues to get access to proper treatment and get their lives back on track after they are stabilized.