“I found him near TVS tollgate, with a bag into which he dropped everything that he thought would be useful to him: rice that someone offered him, half smoked cigarettes and beedis he picked up from the road, and anything else he fancied in the garbage dump,” said R. Rajkumar, who is a Master of Social Work (MSW) student from Bharathidasan University. Part of a social experiment that hoped to observe a sample of the city's wandering mentally ill, Rajkumar and seven other youngsters spent 24 hours tagging those deranged men routinely shunned or ignored.

Formulated by Anbalayam, a voluntary organisation that works for the mentally ill, the experiment was aimed at bringing about a transition from sympathy to meaningful empathy in society. “I have come across cases of men from well educated and reputable families, who have ended up on the streets because their families ignored their illness in the name of superstition or broke down under the enormous pressure involved caring for them,” said T.K.S. Senthil Kumar, founder president, Anbalayam.

Reliving their experiences, the eight participants narrated incidents that revealed that deranged people walked continuously when they did, or sat at spots for hours together; begged for food using gestures or refused food that was offered; talked to themselves or never spoke at all; urinated and defecated where they sat, drank sewage water, mixed mud with their food or drink and slept and awoke in bouts.

“The person I observed at the railway station seemed to be talking to himself in what sounded like Hindi, but when I asked him what his name was in Hindi, he didn't even acknowledge my question,” said Steffin Joseph, MSW student from Holy Cross College. On the platform, many seemed to think he was from West Bengal and had got kicked out of a train before he wound up on the platform this way, he added.

“The Mental Health Act, 1987 states that those who are mentally ill have to be admitted to an asylum by either those known to him or by the Police through a judicial magistrate,” said Martin, a senior advocate and regular at Anbalayam activities. “By this, the very act of neglecting a mentally ill person is a crime.” He also felt that the society has denied them their fundamental rights as Indian citizens.

On the impact this experiment would have on psychiatry-related research work, Antony Stephen, Assistant Professor and Head, Department of Social Work, Holy Cross College, said: “Most of the scales we use today to measure the extent of the mental illness have been developed abroad. There is a need to bring forth an indigenous scale.”

He hoped that participatory research techniques like such case studies would be made the base for teaching psychology and/or social work.

The eight participants in this experiment are: S. Senthilkumar, E.J. Rubenraj, P. Ganesh Kumar, T. Thangatamizh, R. Rajkumar, Dextor Fernandes, Venkatesh Prasad and Steffin Joseph.