End of the road for mentally ill?

Arita Sarkar

Chennai, June 7, 2012, The Hindu

Patients who are not claimed by their families continue to live in the wards and are employed in the industry therapy unit

Two months ago, 26-year-old D. Sundar Raj, a patient at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), craved for his family’s attention to such an extent that the desperation drove him to climb up the terrace of the ward and escape the premises, only to get accidentally hit by a passing lorry. This unfortunate incident sends out a strong message about the lack of social support and growing negligence of the patients at IMH.

A 206-year-old institution, IMH is the only government residential facility in the State for the mentally ill. The institute has about 1,300 patients, housed in eight wards designated for women and 12 wards for men including one for male criminal patients.

S. Ambika, a social welfare officer at IMH, said, “There are six units at IMH and on an average, every unit comprises 70-100 patients. In each unit, a maximum of ten patients get visitors on a regular basis.” In the third unit that she supervises, there are only two patients who have family members that visit occasionally.

“After the first few months, most people stop visiting their relatives admitted here. As a reminder, the families are sent postcards and letters at least once a month persuading them to visit the patients more often,” she said.

In some cases, the families give fake addresses making it difficult for the hospital officials to track them down. A 35-year-old patient, admitted at the IMH for five years, was in a similar situation recently. “After his treatment, when he was sent home with a male attendant, the address turned out to be a fake one. He was brought back here,” said Ambika.

Patients who are not claimed by their families continue to live in the wards and are employed in the industry therapy unit where they learn how to stitch uniforms and bind books.

According to the on-call psychiatrist and associate professor, V. Sabitha, “No matter what the illness may be, there is always an improvement in the condition of the patient within six to eight months. Most of them are then fit to be discharged.”

Though advised to come between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., the families will categorically visit after working hours so as to avoid meeting the medical officer since most of them have no intention of taking their discharged family member back home, she said.

Highlighting the importance of the presence of families in the treatment of patients and discouraging the prolonged stay of a patient after treatment, Dr. Sabitha said, “After being healed, if one continues to stay in the same environment, then eventually, their condition will deteriorate.”