Society and mental health

Symposium on history of psychiatry in India

White Swan Foundation

The oldest recorded case history of a mental health patient at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) dates back to 1867. The first file was opened in the year 1899. It was in the year 1922 that mental asylums were renamed as mental hospitals.

These and several such interesting historical anecdotes were revealed at the two-day symposium on the history of psychiatry in India held at NIMHANS on June 15 and 16.

The symposium was inaugurated by Dr SK Chaturvedi, dean of behavioral sciences, NIMHANS, who touched upon the various developments that he had witnessed in his experience of over forty years as a psychiatrist. Notably, Dr Chaturvedi pointed out that up to four decades ago, homosexuality was considered an ‘illness’ and ‘treated’ by psychiatrists.

In her presentation on working with mental hospitals, Ratnaboli Ray, the founder of Anjali, a mental health rights organization, spoke about the dehumanization of patients in mental health facilities across West Bengal and proposed that governments and courts should intervene to ensure that mental health facilities are not overcrowded, so as to ensure quality treatment to patients. Ratnaboli pointed out that a transformation was required to address the problems at various levels - etiquettes of care, social destitution, discourse on sexuality, rights and medication.

In a positive report, Dr Sudipto Chatterjee, consultant psychiatrist at Parivartan Trust and Sangath, spoke about the influence of the INCENSE (Integrated community care for meeting needs of vulnerable persons with severe mental disorders) initiative, which is based on the idea of collaborating with mental hospitals to implement services that are need-based, contemporary and locally relevant, in Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Regional Institute of Mental Health in Tezpur, Assam. Dr Chatterjee, who is the program director of INCENSE, while supporting the suggestion of community care for persons with mental illness, also indicated the need for quality and stigma-free care for those who require hospitalization and more intensive treatment.

The second day of the symposium had presentations by speakers – Dr Melukote Sridhar from SVYASA, the yoga university, and Dr Rajani Jairam, dean of student welfare, Jain University. Dr Melukote, referring to the Ramayana, spoke about an instance in which Kaikeyi asks for her two boons which pushes King Dasharatha into dukha, which is sorrow, distress, unhappiness, lament and thereby mental dysfunction. He emphasized that the epic characters projected various forms of emotional or mental distress in the form of shoka, dukha, aarta, chinta, manoraga, vilaapa, etc. 
Talking about mental illness in Mahabharata, Dr Jairam described characters in the epic and their behavior, such as Ashwatthama, who she referred to as 'an angry young man' who had suicidal tendencies along with mental unrest. Sage Vashishta, who was saddened by the death of his children, tried to kill himself by jumping into river Vipasha (now Beas), but wasn't allowed to die by the river. She said that while there are no references of diagnosis of mental illness in this ancient text, there were references to counseling and psychotherapy.

If you would like to know more about the history of psychiatry in India, do visit the Heritage Museum at NIMHANS, Bangalore.

White Swan Foundation