Psychiatrist Thara Srinivasan and actor Rohini on mental illness and the media
It is easy to understand their anger. As a long-practising psychiatrist and director of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), Thara Srinivasan has treated a number of mentally ill persons. And, actor-activist Rohini has considerable knowledge about mental illnesses, thanks to her long association with SCARF and Banyan, which houses destitute women who are mentally ill. The two are unhappy with stereotypical portrayals of the mentally ill in films because they reinforce negative notions about such illnesses and those afflicted with them. In their own ways, they try to create greater awareness about mental illness and remove the stigma attached to it. At various forums, Rohini has spoken about the need for sensitivity and right information while dealing with mental health issues. Thara and her team of dedicated medicos organised an international film festival and are in the thick of a conference on schizophrenia at Chennai from October 13 to 15. The two paired up for a Take Two and PRINCE FREDERICK recorded the conversation. Thara: The entertainment media plays a big role in spreading information about mental illnesses. In a SCARF study involving a thousand respondents, over 60 per cent said their understanding of such illnesses was largely shaped by portrayals in films and television serials. In 2001, a survey carried out in Australia revealed a similar situation. So, the media has the responsibility to present accurate and reliable information on this subject. It is absolutely essential to portray the mentally ill in proper perspective. Misinformation can wreak havoc, which is what Erwadi taught us. Rohini: A scriptwriter might possess some knowledge about a particular mental illness but may not see the need to look beyond what he knows. He might not be open to the idea that a little bit of research would make his knowledge complete and his presentation authentic. Then he could be tempted to exaggerate the illness to create the necessary tension in the story. A person of unstable mind going on a killing spree is often born out of this cinematic need. It is debatable how close to reality such characters are. Thara: We appreciate the cinematic value, but we deplore the lack of intellectual depth in such characterisation. We at SCARF are always ready to provide inputs that would help sketch such characters authentically. In India, a very small percentage of schizophrenic patients is violent. But the portrayal on screen is quite different from this finding - someone with a mental illness is shown walking with a belligerent mien, bashing everyone up. Or sometimes as a woman who always clings to a doll. They come across either as aggressive or childlike, helpless and weak-minded. There is no via media. These stereotypical characters only add to the misinformation that is prevalent. There are many who go to religious healing centres, instead of seeking treatment. Rohini: I believe in faith healing but I know it is not applicable in this case. Whose faith are we working on here? The mentally ill person's? Is he stable enough to exercise faith in supernatural healing? Thara: Just as there is mild or severe fever, there are degrees of mental disorders. Faith healing might be effective in the case of minor depression or just plain insecurity or anxiety. A few comforting words from a priest might effect a turnaround. But in the case of illnesses such as schizophrenia, there is no substitute for treatment. Rohini: The challenge is indeed formidable... A mentally ill person is often mistakenly believed to be possessed or a victim of voodoo or witchcraft. All this prevents him from seeking treatment. Thara: A person who suffers from schizophrenia is in an unstable frame of mind and it is the family that decides whom he should go to - a psychiatrist or a faith healer. Sometimes, the family decides on an extreme step. They act on the premise that marriage could cure someone of mental illness. With marriage calling for a shift in thinking and a lot of accommodation, the patient is often faced with additional stress. Rohini: You can blame the unlettered but what when you find the educated displaying a deplorable lack of understanding of schizophrenia? For example, split personality disorder is used interchangeably with schizophrenia.Thara: A person with schizophrenia has a problem in his brain and if this disease runs in the family he is extremely vulnerable to its virulent effects. He'll break down during stressful times. The disorder will show up as hallucinations. He might hear imaginary voices or take it into his head that people are out to get him. Parveen Babi was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. For months on end, she would not venture out of her flat fearing someone might attack her. When she died, nobody knew for a long time that she was dead... You did a good job as a woman with paranoid schizophrenia in the film Marupadium. Rohini: First, the director knew what the illness was all about and as an actor I too aimed at an authentic portrayal. Moreover, I have always felt a responsibility towards the mentally ill, having seen this problem at close quarters.