The report of a 77-year-old man (Aurobindo Dey) and his son (Prasenjit) living with corpses of his daughter/sister and two dogs in Kolkata was enough to unsettle anyone. But it also holds up a mirror to mental illness in our midst, which many of us fail to, or do not want to, recognise.
The police are yet to come to any conclusion on this but on the face of it both men seem to have had serious psychological problems.
According to reports, the 77-year-old man and his son lived in the city for over six months with the skeletons by creating an “alternative world”. The police got to know about this after Aurobindo Dey allegedly immolated himself. The father and son would leave food next to the skeletons because, according to Prasenjit, they believed the woman — who died in November last year — consumed the food.
Lack of proper information about mental illness has ensured that most cases stay under wraps. Despite this, the number of mentally ill people is quite substantial. There are at least 70 million people with psychosocial disabilities in India but there are only 4,000 psychiatrists.
There are only 43 government mental health hospitals and of those only 25% of hospitals, clinics and mental health professionals are in rural areas, where 70% of the population live.
The conditions in the mental health hospitals are terrible. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report has documented involuntary admission and arbitrary detention in mental hospitals and residential care institutions in India. In these, women and girls with psychosocial disabilities experience inadequate access to general healthcare, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual violence.
In October last year, India unveiled its first mental health policy, which aims to reduce the treatment gap by providing universal access to mental healthcare. But experts feel the government must move from an institution-based approach to a community-based one. India, they say, needs smaller, local clinics that people can access when the symptoms first manifest themselves.
Along with all these, there is one important factor that needs to change first for things to improve: Society must stop treating people with mental illness as outcasts. With timely medical help, counselling and compassion, many of them can be pulled back from the brink.