In India, a country of one billion where almost seven crore people suffer from mental illnesses, there are only 5,000 registered psychiatrists and psychologists. Now if that figure was not alarming enough, the WHO estimates that about 13 per cent of disability and physical ailments are caused by mental illnesses, and it will rise to 20 per cent in the next five years. With the state turning a blind eye to this ever-growing issue, it seems like an uphill task to bridge the gap with no financial resources either. It was an issue that Dr R Srinivas Murthy, who retired as the head of the department of psychiatry at Nimhans, had watched in close quarter during 40 years of his varied service.
So when he won the prestigious Juan Jose Lopez Ibor award for his work in the field — he is the first Indian to achieve the feat — he did not think twice before donating the entire price money of 40,000 Euros to the Association of the Mentally Challenged to create a support system for the affected people. “If money is the constraint for helping these people, why not help them with it?” was his take on the matter.
“We have no support system for these parents who have an uphill task of taking care of their children with disabilities. Whom do they call for help in the daily situations they face? That is why I wanted to set up this helpline,” say the man who was the chief editor of the World Health Report brought out by the WHO in 2001. His plan has a three fold objective — create help groups where older parents become mentors of the younger ones, have a telephone helpline for these families and using technology to spread awareness and information and the final one being to get the state to take up the matter more seriously.
RSM, as he is popularly called, says that families with special needs children have everyday challenges that cannot be solved by professionals. “It can be related to eating, exercise or even basic hygiene training — which does not need professional help. What these self-help groups should do is have other parents mentor the new members. A mother taught her son who suffered from cerebral palsy to exercise his fingers by putting five types of grains together and asking him to separate them, another parent taught his mentally retarded son to stop unzipping his pants by making him wear it back to front. These are improvised remedies, which work fine,” says Dr Murthy, who was the first psychiatrist to visit Bhopal after the gas tragedy in 1984 and create a manual to help with the mental problems of the residents. He still continues that work.
The man believes that IT and mobile link should be used to spread information about the issue “We cannot have professional care only at the level of Nimhans. We need to create tiers of this and make them available to all across the state.”
But the doctor is quick to add that the state must do its part as well. “They have stopped pensions during the past few years which has made it very difficult for these families. Getting a disability certificate is very difficult because parents of these children are made to run from pillar to post by corrupt officials. So we are working towards conducting camps where the district administration comes down along with mental health professionals so they can get everything in one go,” he says. But can this be done? “It has worked in Bhopal and can be replicated in our state too. The silver lining is that families are now slowly accepting these children are neither bad, mad nor sad. We need to help them make the society understand this as well” he says.