‘People didn’t understand mental illness’

In the 1930s, the Good Shepherd School had no uniforms. There were so few students that my batch was the senior-most. We were about half-a-dozen girls, and we were their first Sixth Standard batch, then when it was time for us to move to the Seventh, that was created and so on.

We followed the Junior Cambridge syllabus, and our teachers were Irish and Scottish nuns. But I couldn’t complete my schooling at Good Shepherd. They didn’t have enough students to start the Senior Cambridge syllabus. Most of my classmates had dropped out of school by then — to get married. We were about 15 years old. Then, I heard Church Park School was doing the syllabus. So I completed my last year there. By then, I had just four or five classmates.

At the Madras Medical College (MMC) women students didn’t have to pay fees. There were quite a few women — about 30 students in all. Classes were hectic. We worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a half hour break for lunch. But we were very happy.

I was interested in psychiatry — in why people behave the way they do. For me the unknown is far more fascinating than the known. But there was no department for psychiatry at MMC in the late 1940s. Since I was interested in the field they took us to see the mental hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health) in Kilpauk. There were about 1,800 patients there, and it was a closed institute. Patients were admitted not for their sake but more to protect the public.

Patients were abandoned by relatives who would give the wrong address and leave. People didn’t understand mental illness, and there was so much stigma attached to it. There were no medicines. Just one injection, and it was very painful.

So, nothing much could be done. It was just about management. Patients were very difficult to control — so they had to be physically restrained. They were kept in cells, and locked up. Now it’s all open wards and no one is locked up. The drugs for treatment are also easily available now. But, then, hospitals had no other choice.

Also, there were no specialists — general doctors were looking after the patients. Nobody was interested in pursuing this field because there was so little information available. Other specialities seemed much more interesting. Most of my classmates from MMC chose fields such as cardiology and neurology.

I went to NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences) in Bangalore to study as there was no department for psychiatry in Chennai.

When I began working at the Institute of Mental Health in 1959, it was overcrowded, with 2,800 patients, and understaffed. Patients had nowhere else to go. By then two batches of students had passed out of NIMHANS so the country at least had a few trained psychiatrists.

By the time I joined the hospital only one new drug had been discovered. No drugs for depression though. Or schizophrenia. In those days our only option was counselling. I remember a lady once consulted me for schizophrenia, and all I could do was hold her hand and comfort her. Depression then was seen as natural. Doctors did not diagnose it as sickness. If someone had constant fatigue, wouldn’t eat and sat around doing nothing, they were seen as lazy.

As superintendent of the Institute of Mental Health, I started to employ social workers to bridge the gap between doctors and patients. They took care of the psycho-social aspect of treatment.

We had just four psychiatrists in the hospital then. It was very difficult to manage. Then gradually Stanley Medical College started a postgraduate course in psychiatry. Next we started a department at the Kilpauk Medical College. Then came the out-patient programme — till then that was not an option. Eventually, we opened psychiatric centres in all the district hospitals of Tamil Nadu. Everything is so much better now.

As told to Shonali Muthalaly

SARADA MENON Born in 1923, she founded India’s premier mental health NGO, Schizophrenia Research Foundation (popularly known as SCARF) in 1985. One of India’s first woman psychiatrists, she was also the first woman superintendent of the Institute of Mental Health, Chennai. She went on to help establish a variety of organisations to fight the stigma of mental illness, including Chennai-based Aasha, a non-profit NGO promoted and run by the caregivers and families of patients. She was also vice-president of the Red Cross Society, and has served on various national committees, including one involved with prison reform.


Every time we had a bet in medical college it would be for a Peach Melba. It was everyone’s favourite treat — for high marks, coming first in class or any prize. We would take the bus to Elphinstone theatre, which used to be at Anna Square. For 14 annas, you would get a huge, delicious Peach Melba in a tall glass.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 1:58:14 PM |

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