More often than not, Indians here take mental illness as a joke. We don’t think twice before calling our friends ‘loose’, ‘nut kalandurichu’, ‘screw loose aayiduchu’ or, ‘yaaru petthe pilleyo, ipdi loosa thiriyuthu.’ In reality, mental illness is on the same platform as physical illness and there is cure for it.
My first experience with mental illness happened when I was 14. The English Club of my school organized a day trip to Hospital Bahagia, Tanjung Rambutan. Of course I was a tad apprehensive and intimidated at the sight of the inmates there. Some were talking to themselves and some were awfully quiet and withdrawn, not noticing us, visitors.
One of the inmates there plucked a bougainveilla flower and presented it to one of my classmates with flourish. She took it from him and he became very happy. That’s when I learnt that many people with mental illness are like little children.
Understanding the difference between mental illness/disorders and congenital disorders
First of all, we must know that mental disorders differ from congenital disorders and mental retardation. One cannot be born with mental illness. Mental illnesses are developed at any point of a lifetime of a person. Cerebral palsy, dyslexia and autism are not mental disorders – they are congenital disorders and sometimes are genetic. Mental retardation like Down syndrome and all are congenital and genetic disorders, not mental disorders.
But, mostly autistic people have adaptive problems – their communication and interaction skills are ineffective as seen in Elliot Rodgers who went on a killing spree because girls wouldn’t date him. He suffered from Asperger’s syndrome which is a form of autism and he kept his dissatisfaction to himself, bottling it up, became a mental disorder and one day it exploded.
The human brain is a very complex and hypersensitive organ and scientists are still studying how it works.
Mental illness is not something to be ridiculed, feared or stereotyped
Okay, now let’s take a look at our Indian attitude towards mental illness. More often than not, we are content to call people with discernible mental anomalies as ‘gila kaarichi’ or ‘gila kaaren’and think all mentally unstable people are lunatics who belong to mental institutions and asylums. We fear people with mental illness more than we fear murderers. We jeer at them and think that since their brain is out of whack, we are superior than them.
Perhaps the most famous Tamil movie denoting mental illness is Sethu. Next to it, is Moonu. And another one worth mentioning is Anniyan. All three films tackle different types of mental illness and showcase how mental illness can make one grow withdrawn and oblivious to the world around them (Sethu), have murderous and suicidal tendencies (Moonu) and extreme behaviourism contained in multiple personality disorder (Anniyan) to the clueless Indian mass. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Mental conditions affect the body. Notice how when you are extremely happy or extremely sad, you won’t feel hungry. That’s the connection with the mind and bodily functions.
[c5ab_box type=”alert-warning”] I was hospitalized after my dad passed away and my diagnosed illness was depression. There was one annoying Indian nurse who kept at rubbing in that I was indeed a mad girl who should be chained in an asylum. I was in first class ward room at the 8th storey of the building and one night the nurse told my mum to close the windows because I might jump out. I felt like I was slapped.
I have large, dark eyes and thick, dark eyebrows and I suppose when I’m contemplating something, my eyes grow larger and my eyebrows meet each other. My mom and grandma would ask, “Yean moonja apdi vechirukke?” I’ll say, “En moonjiye apdithan.” I heard the dialogue now in the movie Velai Illa Pattathari. During the time of my hospitalization, the nurse would point at me and say to my mum,”Athode kanne paarunggeh, evelo perusa irukku, confirm paithiyam than.” Perhaps the nurse is a cognizant in diagnosing illness just by looking at the eyes of a person. If having big eyes means one is crazy then Genelia and Aishwarya Rai are crazy. In exasperation and anger, I would open my eyes larger and glare at the nurse, freaking the shit in her out. I didn’t give a damn.
One day, I had just finished combing my hair and I was picking up my stuck and dropped hair one by one out of the comb and off the bed. The nurse eyed me intently and told my mom that only someone really crazy would pick up their own dropped hair. I was like, “What the eff..” Cleaning my comb and bed off dropped hair means I’m crazy? I don’t know from where did the nurse got the idea of that being symptomatic of acute mental illness. I certainly knew what I was doing – I was cleaning up my own mess.
Several Malay nurses behaved like the Indian nurse and my mom, instead of protecting me, scolded me and told me to act normally so that the nurses would stop their commentary that I’m a lunatic. DEFINE NORMAL. I was very much aware of my surroundings and alert. Is that not normal? I got extremely sorrowful of my sudden loss and I was there to get out of my overwhelming anguish via some health care aid. That’s all. [/c5ab_box]
The problem is that mental illnesses are almost always brushed aside, especially in Asian culture which is inclusive of Indian culture, mores and attitude. They are more afraid of having their child/sibling/spouse who are diagnosed with mental illness get labeled rather than helping them get better. We’ve been taught that if we can’t handle what goes on in our head, we are weak lunatics.
The sad thing is that sometimes those who seek help for their mental illness actually get abused and shaming as others come to know about it like how I went through. And, the family of the person would go to far lengths to conceal the fact that one of their loved one is affected by mental illness.
It is high time that all forms of mental illness be given attention. Many of those involved with severe violence have shown to have symptoms of mental illness earlier on which have been ignored or left untreated. Most of their anger against society stemmed from being ignored or misunderstood at any point of age as well as their own inability to communicate their emotions well or cope with life. Our brains are wired differently.
The extent of how misunderstood people with mental illness are can be seen in the nurses I mentioned above. If the individuals in the medical profession themselves behave like that, what more laymen?
Mental illness is the same as physical illness and there is cure for it. 99% of people affected by mental illness are harmless. Stop stereotyping people who are mentally unstable. Just like how our physical body can malfunction so does the mind and it’s far complex than our body.
Would we laugh at or demean a person who had cancer and got treatment for it? No? Well then, it should be the same case for mental disabilities.
The next time you are tempted to call anyone who display mental non coordination ‘gila kaarichi’ or ‘gila kaaren’, do know that they have their own story which may not be their fault and just like how accidents that injure the body happens, accidents that injure the brain functions happen. Just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t meant that it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t mean it WON’T HAPPEN TO YOU.