Published: 14th December 2017
India's first female psychiatrist Dr Sarada Menon still giving her all to the mentally ill at 94
Dr Sarada Menon, a Padma Bhushan awardee, has worked tirelessly to end the stigma that still looms strong on the topic of mental illness'
"So, what exactly do you want to write about me, other than the fact that I'm nearing 95 and I still go to the clinic?" asks Dr Sarada Menon. Dressed in a perfectly draped Kerala kasavu saree, she sat upright in her chair at her clinic in Kilpauk, Chennai. For obvious reasons, Dr Menon is no ordinary woman!
Millennials, you and this nonagenarian are three generations apart. And after all these years, mental health is still considered a taboo. Could you even deny that? But here's someone who has spent all her adult life understanding that it is something that shouldn't be ignored. Dr Menon, a Padma Bhushan awardee, is the first female psychiatrist in the country. She is the founder of SCARF (Schizophrenia Research and Care Foundation), a WHO recognised organisation for the rehabilitation of the mentally ill.
In a conversation over a good cup of filter coffee, she takes us back to 1955. A female psychiatrist? People would have frowned back then. Gynecology and Pediatrics were the sections 'allotted' to a female doctor. That was the time when Dr Menon saw the condition of patients in the asylums, which came to her as an absolute shocker. "There was no treatment for mental illness. The condition of the patients was deplorable. They wouldn't eat or listen to others. And there were no drugs," she recalls, painfully. That was when she found her true calling in helping the mentally ill. Soon, she found herself attending a specialisation in Psychiatry at the All India Institute of Mental Health (now called NIMHANS) at Bengaluru.
Mental illness is like any other illness. The response to treatment should not be sidelined from the mainstream of Medicine. If treatment is not given properly, relapses occur
Dr Sarada Menon, Psychiatrist
Upon completing her course, Dr Menon was deputed by the government to the Institute of Mental Health in Chennai, where she worked for 18 years. "For a very long time, there were no drugs to treat the patients. In 1957, Chlorpromazine was introduced, which was very effective in calming down schizophrenic patients. But drugs are just a part of the treatment. It also includes proper recreation, food, sleep and living in a friendly environment," she states.
Dr Menon also stresses the importance of rehabilitation of patients and the need to strive for it from an early stage. "A psychiatrist's job is to make sure that the person affected can live their life normally again. If the patient is a homemaker, she must be able to go back and take care of her home and family," she says. And rehabilitation is exactly the reason why she founded SCARF 23 years ago. "We aim at keeping our inmates occupied. There were even times when we would make bread for hospital supply, and cake and desserts for functions," she recalls.
Award time: Dr Menon receiving the Padma Bhushan from the then President Pranab Mukherjee
Dr Menon is obviously happy about the increase in awareness and the fact that more people are seeking help for their troubles. "Five decades ago, people would invite me for weddings, but they wouldn't want me to attend those. They wouldn't wish to publicly accept that they know a psychiatrist. But that isn't the case now," she says.
But though she has reasons to be happy, Dr Menon is also concerned with the number of people falling prey to depression. "The stress and strain of modern life is obviously not healthy. Everything is fast," says the expert. She also advises people to make sure that they engage themselves in productive activities. "Many people are still silently suffering. If you're in trouble, please seek help," she requests. Considering the amount of experience she has, if you think you’re troubled, you might want to take her advice seriously.