Jul 31, 2012


New Delhi: In the dimly-lit lobby of a shelter for the mentally-ill homeless, she sits reading the tattered printout of an e-mail from her US-based brother. The 55-year-old scans every word – her brother has sternly refused to accept her following her recovery from mental illness.

It’s a body blow but she refuses to give up. After a long and hard battle against mental illness at Sudinalaya, a shelter for such homeless women in north Delhi, the doughty woman has drawn on her inner resilience to carry on living. She misses her family, fights the rejection, but is trying to come to terms with the fact that the shelter home is perhaps her refuge – for the foreseeable future.


“My family has refused to accept me even after recovery. I have nowhere to go, so now I have to accept this shelter home as my home,” the former schoolteacher, who is not being identified for fear of further taint, said.

“These women here are my family. I cook here and talk to friends,” the economics graduate from Nagpur, who was found on the streets last August and was treated at the the Delhi government’s Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), said in a determined voice.

Tragically, she’s not the only one.

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), there are over 70 million people with some form of mental illness in the country and about a quarter of them are homeless. Experts say familial apathy and an attitudinal shift in society are pushing millions of recovered mentally-ill people into homelessness.

“A shelter home cannot replace the emotional support provided by a family,” said Sudinalaya director Sreerupa Mitra.

“I will file a petition in the high court asking whether and how much penalty can be imposed on families who abandon people in our society, put them in utmost misery and render them homeless,” Mitra told IANS.

According to Nimesh Desai, director of IHBAS, a major concern is rehabilitating those who have recovered.

“Generally, the outlook towards people with mental illness has improved. But homelessness of millions of mentally-ill is a major concern because of the changing face of society,” Desai said.

“There have been cases where the family members corner property worth crores and throw the individual into a mental asylum,” he added.

“It is frustrating to see such active deprivation of economic and social rights even in well-to-do families. Are the families falling short of physical space in their apartments or do they lack emotional space?” Desai wondered.

Interestingly, families declining to accept a loved one with a history of mental illness have been more evident in “urban and economically well-off families”, said experts.

While “legal persuasion” could be applied on families to support a patient, more often than not, patients are left with no option but to struggle in custodial asylum or languish on streets – both of which are worse after recovery.

Back at Sudinalaya, lunch is over and the utensils have been washed and put away. The now recovered woman, hoping to get back to a teaching job, heads for the carom board for a game she excelled at when in college.

“If no one comes for me, I will stay here and teach the other women this game,” she says.