Cured but nowhere to go

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Twenty months ago, all was going well in the life of 24-year-old Sohini (name changed), as she moved from Bardhaman in West Bengal to make it big in the city of her dreams Mumbai. She joined an insurance company; started living in a hostel and things seemed to go well. But her low salary was a concern and soon she was unable to afford even basic necessities. Eventually, she couldn’t bear the hardships of the city, lost her mental balance and landed up in a mental hospital.

After being treated for a year and a half, she is absolutely fine, but now the biggest tragedy of her life is that her mother doesn’t want to take her back and has asked the mental hospital to keep her with them. Sohini is not the only one who is facing the brunt of social stigma towards people being treated for mental disorders. There are many like her who have been abandoned by their families and are living in a hope that someday their family members will come to take them home. TEHELKA talks to many patients of Thane Mental Hospital, some new, some old, all waiting in a false hope that someday someone somewhere will want them back.

It is a regular day in the 115-year-old Thane regional mental hospital stretched over an area of 70 acres in Thane district, a satellite city near Mumbai. It’s around 1pm and inmates in female ward wearing the blue uniform are having lunch. Neeta Singhania (name changed), a fellow inmate is serving the food with poise. She was admitted to the hospital as a wandering lunatic three years ago. Although now she is fit to go back, her relatives refuse to take her back.

Neeta while narrating her story to TEHELKA said, “I am from Ulhasnagar and was living with my father. After his death, I got mentally ill and was living on the streets. I was treated here and have gained control over my illness. But not once in three years, have any of my two sisters paid me a visit. I am alright now but they don’t want to take me back.”

Neeta was admitted by police to the mental hospital. “I have a one-room accommodation where I used to live with my father. I can survive on my own by making and selling papad. Although hospital authorities are doing their best to convince my sisters to take me back, it seems they are wary of keeping any relation with someone having a history of mental illness.”

The stigma attached to the mental disorder is not subjective to one religion but is a pan-religious, caste, creed phenomena. It, in a way, unifies the society in casting out the one, who ever had a tryst with any form of mental disorder.

Suraiya Akhtar (name changed), 35, has spent more than half her life in remand homes. At the age of
12, Suraiya’s parents sent her to a remand home in Dongri, Mumbai, as they were unable to look after her. Over the years, she was transferred to various remand homes in Mumbai, Solapur, and Hyderabad. She was finally brought to the mental hospital by the authorities of Government Reception Centre, Karjat, in 2008.

Suraiya’s family is untraceable in hospital records. Neither has anybody ever visited her. Suraiya still believes that her parents will accept her. “My parents live in Mumbai; their address is mentioned in the register of Solapur remand home. I want to go home to my parents,” said Suraiya.

“Mala ghari jayacha aahe (I want to go home),” says 44-year-old Kavita Muley in Marathi (name changed). Kavita, a resident of Vikhroli in Mumbai, was admitted in July 2015 by a local NGO. She is fine now but her two sons are not ready to take her back. They have changed their previous address and are untraceable.

She said, “My boys are good looking but they are of no use. They don’t want their own mother back home. I don’t want to go to any shelter provided by NGO or anyone else. I just want to go to my home.”

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While some hope against hope to leave the hospital and live with their family, there are a few who find comfort in the anonymity that the mental hospital provides. One of them is an HIV patient Bhanumati Bai (name changed) from Khandwa Madhya Pradesh, who doesn’t want to return to her home. Her family visits her once in a while. Speaking in Nimadi language, she says without explaining the reason, “I don’t want to go home, I want to stay here.”

Acceptance of the mentally-ill is not just a problem of the poor but even the educated and the affluent class doesn’t want the shadow of mental illness in their family.

Shoma Ray (name changed), a resident of Neelamban Street in Kolkata’s Shyam Bazaar area, is living in the mental asylum from last one year. She is a divorcee and has two children who live with their father. A failed love affair found her taking a train to Mumbai only to be left alone and fending for herself. She was found wandering in the red light area of Kamathipura by a social worker and was admitted to the hospital. “I want to go back to my house but my mother is wary of taking me back. Please help me to go back to home. I don’t want to stay here,” she pleads in fluent English.

Shoma’s mother won’t accept her back despite repeated requests from mental hospital authorities. According to her mother, she cannot afford to keep her daughter so it’s better to keep her in the hospital.
The story of patients declared fit (under medication) in the male ward is no different from the story of patients in the female ward. The 62-year-old N Prabhakar, who lives in Elderly Ward, was once a businessman in Secunderabad. He has a sharp memory and when asked tells aloud the name, address and contact number of his relatives. Prabhakar was abandoned by his wife and kids 25 years ago. He spent 23 years of his life living in the premises of Venkatadri Theatre in Dilsukhnagar area of Hyderabad. Two years ago while he was going to Shirdi, he got down at Mumbai and was found wandering in the railway station from where he was brought down to the mental hospital. His condition seems to be sober now but his relatives don’t want to take him home.

Prabhakar belongs to an affluent family and has seven sisters and one brother, who don’t want to be associated with him. “I was in the business of groundnut oil and kerosene; I also owned a petrol pump in Secunderabad. I worked for 17 years but when I got mentally ill everyone abandoned me. I used to stay near a cinema hall in Hyderabad and survived on whatever people threw. Since last two years, I am staying here. In all these years, none of my family members ever came to meet me,” said Prabhakar with a smile on his lips.

Surekha Wathore, Psychiatrist Social Worker in Thane mental hospital said, “Prabhakar belongs to a good family but none of his family members are ready to take his responsibility. We are not able to trace his wife and sons; however we got in touch with his nephew who claimed to pay for him when he was living in a theatre but he also doesn’t want to take his responsibility any further.”

Daljit Kumar, 35 (name changed on request) is a resident of Teera Kharda village of Arariya district in Bihar. Kumar used to work as a labourer in Haryana and was about to board a train when he lost his mental balance and boarded a wrong train to Mumbai. He was wandering around the station and was later brought to the hospital.

Kumar is in the hospital since past one and half years. He said, “I left my wife and children at my in-law’s place in Nepal and was about to go to Jakhal Mandi in Haryana for work. While boarding the train I lost my mental balance and boarded the wrong train. I have given my uncle’s number who has been contacted by hospital authorities but still haven’t received any answer from him”

Gopal Ghodke, a psychiatrist social worker handling the case of Kumar, said, “Kumar got well in a months’ time, but still he is here as nobody from his home has ever contacted us. His father died during this period while his mother remarried and moved to Haryana. That’s why we are not able to contact her. However, we have contacted his uncle and asked him to get a letter from the village sarpanch, mentioning that Kumar belongs to their village and has a home there. But still haven’t received anything from him. He is absolutely fine and should return home as soon as possible,” he added.

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TEHELKA contacted the family of a few patients to know why they are not accepting their own relatives.

Mother of Sohini said, “I am unwell, my eyesight has become very weak. I am unable to take care of her. Hospital authorities should keep her there and get a job for her somewhere.”

Her uncle said, “Her mother is very poor and her health is not good. I have requested hospital authorities to get her a job in Mumbai. We are poor people we cannot take her back, let her do a job there only.”

Nephew of N Prabhakar, who used to give money to him during his days at Venkatadri theatre, said, “His wife divorced him due to his mental illness and left him. His brother has occupied his property and doesn’t keep contact with him. I am just a relative. How should I take care of him if his close ones have left him.”

It is important to note that Thane mental hospital has 1,500 inmates, out of which 290 are fit to go back to their families. Wathore (PSW), who is working in Thane mental hospital for past 30 years and has sent over 1,000 treated patients to their homes said, “Mental hospital is the last resort for the people to get their relatives treated. They initially try to treat them with the help of superstitious activities, then with the help of a private psychiatrist. At last, they come to us. Because of this delay, which can extend from 2 to 20 years, the patient gets chronic mental disorder by the time he or she arrives here.”

“A stigma is there in our society towards mental patients. People always hide if they have mental patients in their homes or hospitals because they think that it’s going to affect their social status in the society or will spoil their reputation or nobody will make relation with their families. That’s why people don’t want to accept back mental patients who are treated,” she added.

Wathore said, “In our patriarchal society, male patients are readily acceptable in comparison to female patients. Also, poor families easily accept their mentally treated relatives in comparison with the middle class and rich families, who are always in denial mode to accept their own.”

Occupation Therapy department of Thane mental hospital, which concentrates on redeveloping the skills of patients, is working in cooperation with Tata Institute of Social Service on a project to rehabilitate patients whose mental condition has been improved. The project named Tarasha was started by TISS in this regard in 2011 and has rehabilitated 15 women patients till now, who are working in different walks of life.

Ashwini Survase, Counsellor of Project Tarasha, said, “Out of 15 women we rehabilitated, 11 are working in the business of printing press and retail/sales. Two are with their families and two have been readmitted as they require further medication.”

Survase explains about the project and said, “We go to a mental hospital and take the individual as well as group sessions with female patients to assess and analyze them. After getting feedback from the psychiatrist and occupational therapist we get these girls discharged from hospital and send them to working women hostels. We made them attend a course in psychosocial recovery for around four months at a community-based rehabilitation center in order to boost their morale. After which they do a course in vocational training for the same period and on the completion of the course we get them a job.”

Rajendra Shirsath, the Medical superintendent of Thane mental hospital, said, “Patients are not accepted by their families because of the incidents they had committed during their state of mental illness. Plus, there is a social stigma towards these patients. It’s very important to create social awareness about mental illness so that stigma towards it can be removed and patients can easily get back to their family.”

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