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Making of a horror story

Social stigma- Depression, self-starvation cases are not uncommon in affluent neighbourhoods

delhi Updated: Jul 02, 2012 01:53 IST
Sidhartha Roy
Sidhartha Roy
Hindustan Times

“My daughters don’t like going out of the house and eat in very small quantities. There is nothing else wrong with them,” said Nirmala Devi (70), while sitting outside the ICU of Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital in Rohini.

Her two daughters, Mamta (40) and Nirja (29), were rescued from their house in Rohini’s Sector 8 last month after their relative found the two were under acute depression and malnourished and their bodies had started to rot. The sisters were a bag of bones when brought to the hospital. Returning to a normal life still seems a long way ahead.

The NCR has witnessed at least five such horror stories in two years where depression, self-confinement and starvation have resulted even in deaths. These are not cases of the destitute mentally-ill but educated people living in middle-class or affluent pockets. In one case, a 44-year-old unmarried man died due to self-starvation at the upscale Greater Kailash-II.

Every 10th Delhiite, said a 2009 survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research, suffers from psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. But this is one area that is afflicted most by a high treatment gap due to the social stigma attached to mental illnesses, lack of awareness and resistance to treatment by patients.

In most cases, patients turn reclusive and often starve themselves to death, while neighbours prefer to look the other way. While the horror stories of Rohini, GK-II, Noida or Saket are an extreme, many people, belonging to different social strata, continue to live in self-denial and let their illness become severe even when it is completely curable.

“Incidents, such as the one in Rohini, are a wake-up call for the society and official machinery,” said Dr Nimesh Desai, Director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS). “Once a person sets out on a course of isolation, it becomes self-sustaining. We have failed in reaching out to these people,” he said.

Desai blames the stigma attached to mental illnesses for 80% patients not getting proper care and treatment. "Unlike any other ailment where we rush to the doctor, people with mental illness feel ashamed. In most cases, even if the family senses there’s something wrong, they are reluctant to take the patient to a mental health professional," said Dr Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist, VIMHANS.

“People also have the misconception that once you are mentally ill, you will remain so forever. Unlike severe illnesses like schizophrenia, other illnesses are completely curable through medicines,” he added.

Sharma said that the family of a patient may also get affected either genetically or due to intense emotional distress and burn-out while tending to the patient.

But Desai said that it was the duty of the neighbours, resident welfare associations and police to identify such patients and ensure they get treatment. “Our sensitivity regarding the privacy of a neighbour is getting modified as we gain a more Western outlook. But since the benefits outweigh the risks, neighbours should bring help to such patients,” he said.

Case studies-

They wasted lives in depression

Anuradha and Sonali, Noida

Rescued on: April 13, 2011

Noida: It was the stench from the Bahls' flat in Noida's Sector 29 that forced the neighbours to complain to the police. What the police and social activists unearthed after forcibly entering their house was shocking.

The two sisters, Anuradha (43) and Sonali (38), had not left their house for six months and Anuradha had not eaten for three months. The two were rescued but Anuradha died the next day in the hospital. Both sisters were highly educated and working till 2008.

Their flat had no telephone, electricity or water supply. Sonali was found wearing woollens in the heat of April. The neighbours too stopped bothering themselves as the sisters disapproved of their enquiring after them. The grocer too had stopped providing them food items after they didn't pay the outstanding bills.

The sisters lost their father in 1992 and their in 1995. After their younger brother married and moved to Bangalore, they withdrew into their shell and became recluse.

The case showed how two individuals could simply waste away their lives due to depression while life around their house moved at a dizzying speed.

After treatment, Sonali's life is back on track and she is now looking for a job. "She wants to forget her past," said Dr GR Golechha, who is treating her. (Sidhartha Roy)

She lived with mother’s body

Shalini Mehra, Saket

Rescued on: Sept 26, 2010

New Delhi: It was a story that sent a chill down the spine of even the most fearless. A 45-year-old mentally challenged woman was found in a flat in the upmarket Saket with the decomposed body of her octogenarian mother, who had died six months ago.

It was the story of Shalini Mehra.

Mehra, a British national, had been living with her mother Vinodini Gupta for the past 15 years after separating from her husband. Her elder sister lives in Hauz Khas and her own daughter was pursuing MBBS in Bangalore.

In September 2010, a DJB employee knocked on Gupta’s door to note the reading on the water meter. Nobody answered. He suspected some foul play and informed a neighbour who in turn called the police.

When the police broke open the door, they found Shalini sitting inside, near Vinodini’s decomposed body.

She appeared delusional and claimed the body was not her mother. She said her mother had died in her sleep in 2009 and was cremated.

Shalini would not go out and ordered pizza occasionally.

She is currently under treatment at IHBAS. Dr Nimesh Desai, IHBAS director, said Shalini has shown lot of improvement since she was admitted to the institution. (Sidhartha Roy)

Relatives avoided them for 6 yrs

Mamta and Nirja, Rohini

Rescued on: June 15, 2012

New Delhi: Sisters Mamta and Nirja, two weeks after their rescue from six years of confinement at their Rohini home, are curious about visitors.

The women are in an intensive care unit, but family members who had avoided them in the past six years are now streaming into the Baba Ambedkar Hospital to meet them.

“They only talk to their mother. If someone goes to meet them, they get conscious and begin asking questions. Mamta restrains herself from reacting, and it is Nirja who talks to visitors,” a family member said.

Doctors at the hospital said that though they are showing signs of improvement, it will take time to restore normalcy in their lives. “Mamta weighed only 15kg while Nirja was above 20kg. A lot of counselling will make their lives normal,” a doctor said.

There were four persons cooped up in the home — 40-year-old Mamta, her 29-year-old sister Nirja, their mother Nirmala Devi and Mamta’s 15-year-old son.

Neeraj, Mamta’s cousin, said the four members of the family were attached to each other and would always remain together.

“Even in summers, she would cover herself in a blanket. She remained at one place for years and when she was forcefully taken off the bed, there was blood all over,” the 15-year-old boy had earlier told HT about her mother. Faizan Haider

They’re back to a life of seclusion

Dolly and Poonam, Kalkaji

Rescued on: Aug 26, 2007

New Delhi: Two sisters had been living in a Kalkaji flat with their sister’s body, till help came. It’s been nearly five years since they were rescued, but life for Dolly, 48, and Poonam, 46, has gone back to being one of seclusion. They keep to themselves and hardly step outside that flat.

Five years ago, the two had been treated for depression. Once starving, they now bear a healthy look. When HT visited their A-331 double-storey flat in Kalkaji, the neighbours said that the two were in a better condition but were hardly seen up and about.

When we knocked, one of them came at the window but refused to talk. “We don’t want to talk to anyone. No one helped us,” she said.

“We, the neighbours, brought their plight to police’s notice and that is why they are alive. Though they still don’t interact with us much, we are happy they are living a healthy life,” said Suraj Kumar, a neighbour.

While recalling the incident, an NGO member said, “Dolly, the eldest one, resisted and refused to believe that her sister had died. The house was stinking and the youngest sister Neeru’s decomposed body was lying on the bed. The other sister, Poonam, was almost on the verge of collapse".

The two sisters were sent to a shelter home, where they spent some time. Almost a year later, they returned to the same house.

A police officer, involved in the operation, said that the three sisters were unemployed and poor. "They had gone without food for weeks. One of them died of starvation. The other two would have met the same fate had the neighbours not informed us in time," he said. (Faizan Haider)

First Published: Jul 02, 2012 00:19 IST