Middle-aged Prabhu is taken to a government hospital at least five times a month for treatment of self-inflicted cut injuries.

A day or two later, he is back to his abode — the streets and bylanes of Triplicane.

“He is mentally ill and must be about 35 years old. He always manages to get hold of a blade or something sharp to cut his hand or throat with. Once, he even cut his tongue. We often get calls from the public that finds him lying in the middle of the road,” said D. Chandrasekar, an emergency medical technician with the Triplicane unit of 108 ambulance.

Prabhu is not a case in isolation. Several such persons are found wandering city roads, especially near Central and Egmore railway stations, and Parry’s or residential areas such as Vepery, Triplicane and T. Nagar.

The Chennai Corporation runs 10 homes for the homeless but none for the mentally ill. After Anbagam, a non-governmental organisation, opted to pick up the wandering mentally ill from the road and care for them, it was provided space in the Communicable Diseases Hospital. It has 30 beds but D. Kotteswara Rao, a mental health consultant, who works with the organisation, said at least 30 more are needed.

The recent case of the arrest of a quack in Parry’s who kept mentally-ill persons in a lodge, under the guise of treating them, and made them beg, is proof of lack of care, support and security for such persons.

The 108 ambulance rescues at least 100 to 130 unknown citizens a month and takes them to government hospitals for treatment of seizures, injuries, dehydration, wounds and fever, said an official.

“Since many of such persons are from other States, it is difficult to rehabilitate them as they have no family here. We have 67 patients currently and have rehabilitated 19 so far,” Mr. Rao said. Many of these persons hail from parts of north India and are sent away in trains or abandoned at pilgrim spots.

It doesn’t help that admission to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in Ayanavaram is a long-drawn procedure. IMH maintains quite a few patients who cannot return home. Lalitha (name changed), who was brought to the institute 10 years ago for treatment, has not returned as her sisters refused to take her back. She lives on the campus and has been taught to knit, sew and make soft toys at the industrial therapy centre.

“I learnt to knit from Nepali patients. Many of them come and go,” she said. Though she gives the name of her hometown, she does not talk of her family. She earns her keep by selling her creations at exhibitions held by IMH.

Mr. Rao said it is important to have dedicated ambulances or at least train staff in picking up the mentally ill from the roadside. Mental health professionals, however, said it is important to start more homes.

R. Sathianathan, professor of psychiatry, Sri Ramachandra University, and former director of IMH, said, “Medical college hospitals and headquartered hospitals in every district could have one centre offering outpatient, in-patient treatment and rehabilitation for 100 to 150 persons. This should be the focus of the government,” he said.

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