Volume 3 Issue 11 - June 01, 2005

There are no laws that protect the rights of persons with mental illness: Dr. Abdul Mabood

Mental health professionals are very often uncooperative and unwilling to reach out to those who need their services,says Dr. Abdul Mabood, Director, Snehi, in conversation with Kanika Sinha.

Picture of Dr. Abdul Mabood

When was Snehi formed? What was the motivation for its formation?

Snehi was set up in 1994 with no financial support, and since then has grown into a voluntary, community-based organisation. As a student activist and leader, while doing my research at Jawaharlal Nehru University (J.N.U), I frequently interacted with students from a background that was very similar to mine - hailing from small towns, living away from their families for the first time with no support systems, but great hopes, dreams and ambitions. I found students at institutions such as J.N.U, Indian Institute of Technology and Delhi University under immense academic pressure. That, coupled with a breakdown of relationships due to the lack of social support systems, often led to depression as well as suicidal tendencies among many students.

People found it easy to confide in me, and I found that those who could share their emotions and stresses were able to come out of their depression, and those who did not, sometimes turned to suicide. Such incidents occurred with two of my very close friends early in my professional life. While one of my friends agreed to take the help of a counsellor and was able to resume a normal life, my other friend succumbed to depression and we lost her. At this stage, a friend, who is a professor of Psychology at Delhi University and I decided to set up Snehi, as an organisation that would provide psycho social support to those who need it.

What is Snehi’s primary area of work?

The primary area of work in Snehi involves counselling services and outreach programmes directed towards the youth. The idea is to protect the right to positive mental health of every individual. With the breakdown in social structures in today’s society, Snehi serves the purpose of a support system that is absolutely essential, especially for children and youth as they are in their formative years.

Could you explain Snehi’s role in supporting people with mental illness?

I have found that mental health professionals in this country are very often uncooperative and unwilling to reach out to those who need their services. Snehi provides face-to-face counselling services, as well as telephonic counselling. In fact, Snehi developed the concept of Helpline in India. The focus is on prevention and intervention, and a lot of time is spent on advocacy and awareness programmes in schools and colleges. Every year Snehi trains at least 80-100 people, in order to equip them to provide social support to others.

Your focus is on young adolescents. Is it a general belief that the youth have greater ‘problems’ to deal with - more anxiety, vulnerability, and greater pressures?

Today’s youth are in a state of flux. With changing values and lifestyles, they are yet to ascertain their identities. With the breakdown in family structures and lack of support system, children do not develop coping skills. The maximum changes take place around children and adolescents. They see a sudden rise in social expectations and pressures, yet they are weak because they are dependent on their families financially, emotionally and psychologically. Added to that our education system is rotten and the academic pressures are unreal. Children and adolescents are the most challenged by norms and attitudes, and have less life skills to cope with pressures, and are therefore the most vulnerable group.

What has your experience been in this field? Are people open to sharing their problems, given the taboos associated with ‘mental illness’?

The situation has improved in recent times. Taboos still exist, but people are far more forthcoming. This is also due to the fact that problems related to mental health are rising, and people have no one else to turn to.

Mental illness is quite a neglected issue. What facilities are there in our country for rehabilitation for persons with mental illness?

There are very few facilities available in India to deal with mental health issues. It is a highly neglected area, especially given the lack of visibility and taboos associated with it. Statistics show that 12 per cent of the cause of disability is mental health. Yet there are few qualified professionals in the field. The attitude taken is a very ‘medical’ one, while it should be viewed as a social issue. The training should be counselling oriented, but the current orientation is from the lens of psychiatry. The professionals in this field, as mentioned earlier, are not necessarily cooperative or sensitive to the issues.

The biggest problem that our country faces is the dearth of resources and qualified professionals. There are not many institutions to provide counselling training, and the ones that exist are non-functional bodies like the Psychiatry Authority of India.

What laws are available in the country for protecting the rights of people with mental illness? Are they getting implemented? Are they adequate?

Once again, there are no laws that really protect the rights of persons with mental illness. The Mental Health Act exists, but, if anything, the law is being misused. We have heard of stories where mental health professionals have provided fake documents to twist the law in favour of those who pay them to do so. People are declared ‘mad’ or ‘of unsound mind’ for other peoples’ personal gains. The law needs to be looked into once again, and such loopholes, that only go on to reiterate the existing stigmas associated with mental illness, must be rectified.

What measures would you suggest to ensure that people with mental illness are mainstreamed in the society?

The biggest problem is lack of awareness and sensitivity. People need to recognise mental health as a social issue. The government needs to encourage organisations like Snehi and put more resources into the sector. It is a known fact that people with mental illness become unproductive if timely help is not provided. It is therefore in the interest of the nation to take the issue up at a mass level and recognise it as social issue, since the problem is rising to the proportion of an epidemic in society.

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