Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Back through all the formative years of my life in the old country, I recall being feeling troubled and helpless when coming across, to use the new country language, "special" people.  For instance, across from grandmother's home was a guy who had mental health issues.  As a young boy I was then, I was even terrified by the sounds that came from him across the street--he was perhaps only ten or fifteen years older than me.  Or, the classmate whose older brother had serious mental health issues and visiting with my classmate meant I had to figure out how to navigate my own issues with him.  Or, the family friend's son, who was my age--he was such a good looking fellow, but with mental health problems that could not get resolved despite all the efforts of his physician grandfather who consulted with all the experts of the day.

So much was I bothered by these, that when I heard about something called Down's Syndrome and that a large forehead is one of the physical symptoms for it, I worried that my big forehead doomed me into a life of a பைத்தியம் (literally, mad.)

The question always remained: whatever happens to kids and adults with mental illness?

My life is now in the United States and my professional life allows me to pursue such questions for my own understanding, though even here we don't talk about the mental health issues responsibly and honestly.

These are not easy issues to inquire into and sometimes I avoid reading up about them, for my own peace of mind.  Thus, I intentionally skip some news items, like this one in the NY Times.  But then the friend's email compelled me to read it.  So, I did. I watched the video too.  I tweeted about it.  No, it was not about how India handles its mentally-challenged population, but about a different part of this world--West Africa.
Every society struggles to care for people with mental illness. In parts of West Africa, where psychiatry is virtually unknown, the chain is often a last resort for desperate families who cannot control a loved one in the grip of psychosis. Religious retreats, known as prayer camps, set up makeshift psychiatric wards, usually with prayer as the only intervention.
You might think that "camps" are good.  Except that many remain "chained by the ankle to a tree or concrete block":

Good estimates of the number of West Africans with mental illnesses living in chains are not available, in part because people are shackled out of sight — by family members, traditional healers and at prayer camps.
For all the affluent country that the US is, we do not treat the mentally ill with care and respect all the time.  Many of the homeless on the streets have varying levels of mental health problems.  Like the one described in an op-ed in today's local paper:
During my most recent visits he demonstrated truly schizophrenic behavior, shouting at imaginary demons with a continual spiel of disjointed thoughts. As time goes by, his mental condition seems to worsen.
The op-ed writer argues:
We will conclude that some form of coercion, bordering on incarceration, in a mental health facility is really not politically incorrect, but is what a civilized society should do. 
I suppose it is easier to ignore them on the streets.  I suppose it is easier to chain them to trees and hope that the lord will treat them.  But, if that is how we will treat the mentally ill, then we certainly have some atrociously screwed up understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to belong to humankind!  We humans are idiots!


3 comments:

Ramesh said...

It is a serious and sad issue and the numbers of people who seem to be affected with mental health problems seem to be on the rise all the time. Perhaps it was always high and we only notice it now.

Most often there is no "cure" and its only a sensible management of the condition that is possible. Often those with mental health issues deny it and treatment, even if possible, is practically impossible. It places enormous burden on those around and therefore the examples you quote from West Africa are at least understandable, though not acceptable.

Ramesh said...

By the way, I am a fan on Jon Oliver's show. He tackles serious issues every week, although his is a comedy show. Its a wonderful way of examining issues of importance.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Jon Oliver is doing a fantastic job of discussing serious issues without commercial breaks--thanks to the pay channel that he is on. Because HBO gets money from its subscribers, people like me don't have to pay a nickel to watch it on YouTube.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this--while it raises awareness of the serious issues, it is also equally possible that we laugh it of and that laugh is where it ends. A court jester format works only if the emperor will then correct his ways ...

This subject, like many that I blog here, are all a part of defining what it means to be human. The way we deal with the mentally ill is also a measure of how "civilized" we are.

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