Dr M Sarada Menon, India’s first woman psychiatrist, is remembered for reforms, and kindness

The co-founder and vice chairman of Schizophrenia Research Foundation, Dr R Thara, discusses her mentor’s lasting legacy

December 11, 2021 11:59 am | Updated 07:02 pm IST

Dr Sarada Menon, India’s first woman psychiatrist passed away on December 5, 2021

Dr Sarada Menon, India’s first woman psychiatrist passed away on December 5, 2021

In the 1940s, a young medical graduate from Kerala was firm that she wanted to train to be a psychiatrist — a specialisation that was never a woman’s world then.

The family had no choice but to agree. This was the beginning of Dr Sarada Menon’s life long journey with mental health. In 1959, she obtained her diploma from NIMHANS (The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences), Bengaluru. She soon joined the Kilpauk Mental Hospital, now renamed the Institute of Mental Health, Chennai.

In 1961, ‘Madam’ (as she was fondly referred to) was appointed as Superintendent of the KMH and this marked the advent of an era of reforms in patient care: from improving infrastructure to introducing psychosocial rehabilitation. The number of innovations she brought in had far-reaching effects and included, among others, the appointment of professional social workers, starting of post-graduate courses, and out patient centres. Realising that medication alone is not enough, and rehabilitation is required for people abandoned by their families she started the Industrial Therapy Centre to keep patients engaged and facilitate the development of skills.  

I first met her when I joined the Department of Psychiatry, General Hospital, Madras in 1977 where I was a senior resident soon after I got my medical degree. I was testing the waters and undecided about specialising in psychiatry. She was the Head of the Department and would visit everyday for clinical work. While I was at first intimidated by her stern discipline, I was gradually inspired by her commitment to those in distress, her personal attention to their problems and her clinical acumen. When she selected me for the post graduate course, she told me firmly that I should not leave the course for more fancy subjects, stating, “Thara, Psychiatry needs more women.”   

Right from her early years, Dr Menon displayed a great penchant for teaching and inspired several bright young people to take up this discipline of psychiatry. Even now her students — many of whom have distinguished themselves — recall with great appreciation her clinical acumen, clarity and enthusiasm.

After her retirement, she became restless realising that there was much more to be done to fulfill her ambitions in integrating rehabilitation with mainstream mental health care. In 1984, we founded the NGO Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) along with Dr Sadanand Rajkumar.  

Running a not-for-profit organisation meant constant mobilisation of funds, human resources and advocacy for a cause that was ill-understood then. While her reputation stood her in good stead, fundraising for mental health is no mean task. I have myself seem some of her close friends actually close their doors to her appeals. But she remained unshaken and would often tell me that in order to work for the good of the community, one must remain insensitive to insults and rebuffs. 

Gradually, SCARF from very modest beginnings has now become a nationally and internationally recognised organisation in mental health. Challenges were abundant, but I learnt from her never to cow down to pressures and remain steadfast in working towards one’s goals.  

Dr Menon broke the stereotyped opinion that doctors stop with prescribing medicines. She spent a lot of time with her patients, identified stressors in their lives and spoke to their families. As one family member wrote to us “ her loss is irreparable. She was an incorporation of kindness in the treatment of patients. She listened to us, gave us solace and even helped us get medicines”.

Not surprisingly, many awards came her way, including the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1992 from the Government of India. In 2016, she received the Avvaiyar award from the Government of Tamil Nadu. She was also elected regional vice-president and secretary general of the World Association for Psychosocial Rehabilitation (WAPR), and founded their Indian Chapter.

Dr Menon wore every one of these accolades lightly. From her perspective, more important than the personal recognition, was that each of these awards drew more attention to mental health issues.   

On a personal note, on my next birthday, I know I will greatly miss her birthday wishes, at 8 am sharp — she never forgot! For those of us who have worked with Madam and been mentored by her, it has been one of the greatest privileges of our lives.  

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