India: Women fully or partly recovered from mental illness, abandoned for life by State & family Print E-mail

 Magazine | May 17, 2010

Of vacancy Baljeet Kaur regained her mind to find her family had left her (Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Permanent Hole

They lost their minds once, their chance for rehabilitation forever

By Chandrani Banerjee
Thirty-two-year-old Lachia from Garhwal ran away from home when she was five. She was picked up by the police in Delhi and, since she was found to be suffering from mental illness, a metropolitan court ordered that she be sent to the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) in Shahdara. Lachia recovered from her illness in just a year, but has been at the hospital ever since. Since there is no one to take custody of her, she cannot be discharged. And so she has been an inpatient at the IHBAS for the last 25 years and works at the institute without pay.

Lachia hopes her brothers Kanniyya and Babloo find her whereabouts and come to her rescue. She does not remember her address, just that home is somewhere in Uttaranchal. She also remembers neighbours Bakshu and Phoola but realises it’s too little to work on: “It won’t be enough to track down my address.”

Kali, an inmate at IHBAC

Lachia’s isn’t an isolated case. A survey conducted by the IHBAS found close to 5,000 homeless women languishing in mental hospitals across the country. They might have required treatment once but have been of sound body and mind ever since. But with nowhere to go to, they’ve continued to stay in the hospitals. Delhi alone has 35 such women.

They are perhaps more fortunate than women in institutions elsewhere in the country. Says Dr Nimesh Desai, director, IHBAS: “Delhi is much better in terms of the situation across the country. At least we have activities here to involve them. Lachia, for instance, is teaching women how to paint. They’ve responded well to treatment and some have even recovered to an extent. They need to be engaged in activities to put their mind to work.”

An IHBAC survey found 5,000 women to be languishing in mental hospitals countrywide, 35 of them in Delhi.

Life only becomes harder, however, for women after they recover and discover their families aren’t coming back for them. Currently, Sudinalay is the only half-way home in Delhi for recovered patients. But given its limited resources, it can cater to very few patients. Currently it provides shelter, food and medicare to 30 women who get a chance to live in an open community. But one Sudinalay can’t cater to many such cases; more such half-way homes are needed. As Dr V. Mohinigiri, who advises Sudinalaya, points out: “Across the country, in each government-run mental health institution, there are 50-80 abandoned women living there for anywhere between five and 30 years just because the family members have disappeared. There is no government policy to rehabilitate these hapless women. The state government is merely expected to establish rehab shelter homes for them equipped with occupational therapies and other rehab tools in partnership with voluntary organisations in the mental health sector.”

In the absence of facilities to house recovered patients, these patients continue to make hospitals their homes. Outlook met with some of the women who have recovered fully but live on at the hospital because they have been abandoned. Some of them have been been left here despite coming from financially well-off families. Smriti Nath, a Delhi University graduate, is one such person. “I used to stay in Green Park,” she tells me. “My mother is annoyed with me, hence she has left me here. If you’re going to write my story, then please write it in such a way that it brings tears to my mother’s eyes and she decides to take me back home.”

Lachia teaching how to paint

Baljeet Kaur is another such person. Left at IHBAS by her family, she was treated for mental sickness and has been fine for the past five years. However, there has been no word from her family. She constantly enquires if her brothers have contacted the hospital staff for her release. Mentally fit, she wants to live with her family. The hospital administration has given it in writing that she has fully recovered but Baljeet’s family doesn’t want her back.

“People’s mindset about mental sickness is at the root of many problems,” says psychologist Dr Aroona Bruta. “Families don’t want themselves to be identified with mentally sick people. They need support from their family and friends. The cases we are talking about largely involve women. A woman with mental sickness is not acceptable in our society. Change is required in the thinking pattern of people to improve the situation.”

In 2008, after model Gitanjali Nagpal was found on the streets in a mentally unstable condition, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi government to evolve an action plan for homeless and mentally sick women. The court directed the social welfare, family and health welfare departments along with the Delhi Development Authority to develop a strategy to assist the state in framing a policy for such abandoned people. “Active judicial intervention is essential to discharge these individuals from an institutional set-up to a community-based rehabilitation programme,” says Sreerupa Mitrachowdhary of Sudinalay. “It is also necessary to re-establish their identity as free citizens. They should be given voter ID cards, BPL/APL cards and access to NREGA programmes for work as well. The idea is to utilise the resources in the mainstreaming of such people.” Only when the rest of society has the right frame of mind will it be able to put restless minds at ease.