Mental Illness: It is far more common than we believe

it is estimated that 2% of the population suffer from serious mental disabilities

Mental Illness: It is far more common than we believe

Uttam Sengupta

Two of my close friends committed suicide. A third friend, an IAS officer who retired as Chief Secretary of a state, has ended up in a mental hospital. He never tried to take his own life but in college had lunged at me once with a knife. A close relative attempted suicide in Australia but survived because of timely help. Both the friends who killed themselves were bright, if not brilliant, and were successful in their chosen fields. They were hugely popular and to our envy had several accomplished women eating out of their hands. They were happily married though and we spent lot of time together.

That they were troubled occurred to some of us when one of them darkly claimed there was a CIA conspiracy to kill him. We laughed at him. He began to avoid us, claiming that we had joined the conspiracy against him. He was forced to consult a psychiatrist and put under medication. He recovered in about four months, joked that he had returned from the brink and we celebrated. A few months down the line, he was dead, having drowned himself. He had tied a brick to his ankle before jumping into a lake.

The relative, when he was brought back from Australia, would initially say nothing and stare vacantly at us. I made it a point to spend an hour with him every day and for the first week or so, delivered monologues, shared jokes, read out from newspapers and chatted about food, music and films. There was no reaction. After a time, he began to sit up when I approached. After some more time he began asking questions in monosyllables. Why? How? When?

It took a month before he began confiding. He could hear what others were thinking, even when they were far away. He was suspicious of everybody and reluctant to step out the Indian embassy in Beijing, China of his room. Ten years have passed since then. He has completed his Ph.D. from one of the IITs after doing a mater’s course engineering. He has worked in one of the IITs and at IISC, Bangalore. The best part is that he can share with friends what he has gone through, admits freely that he is under medication and laughs away all suggestions that he get married. “Had it been a daughter, would you have allowed her to marry someone like me,” he asked his parents.

Unlike in Hindi films, which have done a great disservice by depicting mental illness as comic, in my experience most of the mentally ill have been skillful, intelligent and kind. They had their bouts of doubts and delusions. An elegant lady, I remember, was convinced that she was having an affair with filmmaker Satyajit Ray. A handsome England returned dude from an industrialist’s family would lose his mind whenever he saw photographs of Queen Elizabeth in the newspapers. But by and large you couldn’t make out they had any illness.

Mental illness is harder to bear. Hiding inner demons at home or the workplace is often unbearably difficult. Even more ‘normal’ feelings of fear, insecurity or jealousy need to be cloaked lest they evoke ridicule. Mental pain cannot be seen. A common cold can make a sympathetic boss send you home. But a panic or anxiety attack is more likely to be seen with suspicion.

Psychiatry is still in its infancy. But it is now known that genes and chemical imbalances are responsible for delusions and paranoia. If diagnosed and treated early, most of the victims can lead fruitful, even successful and normal lives. But it is useless to expect the Government to put together an effective system and structure to deal with mental health. People need to mobilise themselves to spread awareness, remove the stigma and help the needy.

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Published: 20 Jul 2020, 8:18 AM