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Stigma of disability

DECEMBER 3, 2003 is World Disability Day and all disabled people will have at least that one day in the year when the public at large will empathise with them.

When I say all do I really mean all? No! There is one group of disabled persons who remain skeletons in their family's closets. These poor souls are talked about in hushed tones, amid their own close kith and kin and there is a "somatisation" of their illness in understandable physical terms such as "she gets terrible headaches," or "he has a lot of trouble sleeping."

Why do I speak with conviction? I know, because I suffer from a mental illness. This has not prevented me from being the best I can possibly be and succeed to a remarkable degree. But, can I openly say that my doctors are eminent psychiatrists? Of course not, I have to talk in veiled terms of "medication prescribed by specialists".

The leading Chennai psychiatrist and social worker, Dr. M.Sarada Menon, re-iterates constantly that "all mental illness is due to some imbalance in the brain, just like physical disorders are caused by irregularities in other organs." "There is no need to `stigmatise' the patient and family for this. When all other illnesses are `accepted' why aren't mental illnesses?" she asks passionately.

The first step has to be taken by families. I can recall in the early days of my illness, I was rather amused when my caregiver and I were in the psychiatrist's waiting our turn when a friend walked in. My caregiver instantly volunteered the information that we were the doctor's family friends. The insinuation was that we were there just on a social call! The friend too muttered something to the same effect. Whom were they fooling? Why this façade? It is this shroud of secrecy that weighs heavy on our shoulders.

In the developed countries and even in some developing countries, patients (mental health consumers) are their own advocates. They fight for their rights and ensure they are accorded their due status in society. It is not as though all is smooth sailing there either. There is a phenomenon called Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY). This is the protest that greets announcement of a site for a halfway house or day-care centre for mentally ill people who do not need hospitalisation. We want to isolate our mentally ill people in our Kilpauks and our Erwadis and not let them integrate into society.

This Disability Day, let me entreat you to understand that mental illness is "just another illness" and the mentally ill just need some care and medication and they can be very productive members of society.


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