Increased awareness and improved attitudes are required to empower the mentally disabled and help them lead fulfilling lives, writes Dr. R. THARA.
No need to trudge a lonely path reach out to the mentally ill.
PERSONS with difficulties in walking, moving around, hearing and speaking and seeing are immediately associated with the term disability. So are children with mental retardation characterised by low intelligence and poor social maturity. What are the disabilities of persons with mental illness?
The accompanying story is an account of the symptoms of a major mental illness called schizophrenia, which affects nearly 7-8 million Indians. Called the "greatest disabler of youth", this condition produces disability in the following spheres:
Every day activities such as self-care including grooming, dressing, bathing, keeping self and environment clean and looking after one's health.
Social relationships including communication skills, ability to form relationships and sustain them, getting along with people and feeling comfortable in a crowd.
Occupational functioning or ability to acquire a job and hold it. Lapses in attention and concentration, inability to work along with others can all make it more difficult for a mentally disabled person to continue in a job.
Cognition and executive functions: Persons disabled by disorders of the mind may retain their intelligence, but encounter problems with attention, concentration, some forms of memory, planning and executing a task and judgment.
The third area of functioning is especially important since it affects livelihood of the patients, especially those between 25 and 45 years. Unable as they are to hold a job, they are entirely dependent on their families, who face untold suffering and burden, which are physical, emotional and financial.
Although the law is in place, its implementation with regard to the mentally disabled is yet to gain momentum. So many disabled persons are yet to benefit from welfare measures such as travel concessions, job opportunities, transfer of pensions, insurance schemes that are accorded to other disabled groups.
The mentally disabled also have to face institutional discrimination. They are not eligible for LIC policies such as Jeevan Adhar, meant for the disabled. Moreover, medical insurance does not cover treatment of mental disorders, which are often prolonged and sometimes expensive.
Insensitive and incorrect portrayals in the visual media have made the situation worse. To add to this, there is the burden of stigma and discrimination.
Even seeking psychiatric help is considered a stigma as a result of which many go to traditional healers and religious centres. This delays the onset of treatment, intensifying the symptoms and the disability. The key aspects of stigmatisation such as labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination, have to be dealt with by a group of people who traditionally had little power to resist or challenge the labels attached to them by others, or to resist the social processes (rather similar in many ways to institutional racism) which have severely limited their opportunities.
However, there is a silver lining. States are coming forward to recognise this disability and some have started programmes for the mentally disabled. Family support groups and consumers have come out in the open breaking the shackles of stigma and fighting for their rights.
A three-part programme put together by SCARF and telecast recently by DD-Podhigai channel featured, for the first time, a heterogeneous group suffering from schizophrenia, their family members, employers who had given them jobs, NGOs, media personnel and mental health professionals. Increased awareness and improved attitudes will hopefully, make way for less discrimination, stigma and empowerment of the mentally disabled and their families.
December 3 is the International Day of Disabled Persons.
The writer is Director, Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.scarfindia.org
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