A recent BBC report highlights the gender disparity in mental healthcare. It is revealed that women in mental health wards are far more likely to be abandoned by their family following the diagnosis of a mental illness. This comes in the wake of a World Health Organization study indicating that around 7.5 percent of Indians suffer from either depression or anxiety, questions have surfaced regarding the quality of care between genders.
The reason behind this disparity in the treatment of males and females is said to be social stigma. There is a prejudice in India against those with mental illnesses., However, this bias seems more pronounced within the community against women. Those admitted to mental health wards in particular, are regarded by their community with caution.
Pagal-khaana, or madhouse, is a term used in India to describe these mental health wards. A study conducted by Human Rights Watch found that, in India – a country still in the process of providing equal rights to women – a diagnosis of a mental illness means a reduction in social status. This results in both family and the police committing women to the mental health wards without their consent on a frequent basis.
The BBC article follows the stories of a number of these women forced into the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) in Delhi. Photographer Cheena Kapoor both photographed and listened to the stories of a number of patients, many of whom had been there for twenty years or more.
“The male ward is always filled with anxious faces waiting for the sons to return home, while the daughters are so easily forgotten,” Cheena Kapoor says. Many families will cut all ties with those in the ward. Some will acknowledge they exist – in one example, a box of sweets was sent on Diwali. However, they do not make any attempt to take the patient home.
Many of those in the institute are the victims of rape. Vimal, a mother of two, was kidnapped from her village. She can no longer recall its name. She remembers being raped and thrown on the streets of Delhi. The likely diagnosis in the case of Vimal is of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which seems to be recurrent in many of the residents.
Many are left in the institution because they have no family. Others have simply been abandoned. The conditions in many of these institutions, the Human Rights Watch study says, are often substandard. While laws such as the National Mental Health Policy in 2014 have, in theory, begun to improve India’s situation regarding mental health, little effect from these laws has been seen in practice.
This may be an issue that will take many years to resolve as it is largely linked to a societal view of women. While laws are changing to reflect a more modern view of mental illness, old prejudices remain the same.