“You have worked with the mentally ill and the marginalized for many years. Surely you have had many experiences where you personally witnessed stigma faced by them.” These words of my friend, a psychiatrist jolted me. I was in a conference, designed to commemorate the world mental health day. A journey I began almost thirty five years ago with the mentally ill and covered the marginalized began to take shape. A journey where I witnessed a stigma, a discrimination that the marginalized, those on the fringe go through in silence. As one memory after another began to pour out breaking the denial where I had caged them in, the memories that defined me as a caretaker, one who often had to come forward to protect their rights.
The first thing that comes to mind is that stigma is banal. It doesn’t have fangs. It is woven minutely in time, hidden from our eyes so that we take it as so normal that it fails to shake our conscience. It is as one puts it, both seen and unseen at the same time to different people separated by people’s definition of what is normal and what is not. Cloaked by our desire to call ourselves different from the marginalized, we have erected barriers that are impossible to categorize, to give them a meaning with words.
Stigma covers everyone. The mentally ill, the victim of rape, the family whose son or daughter committed suicide, the refugee who ran away facing persecution, the boy or girl from LGBT community who cannot bring himself or herself to say ‘I am not straight’ to the man tortured and imprisoned falsely, the list is endless. Each group on finding themselves at the edge of society devises ways by which to make themselves invisible so that they may be seen yet unseen in the eyes of people.
“Maybe that explains why at our psychiatric clinic meant for the disturbed youngsters, one of the first of its kind in northern India, many of us youngsters get down from the bus far away, then take a long path through the forest behind the institution to jump over the back wall so that we are not seen entering the place. Rather than enter like everyone by the front door we would take the path less travelled, one through a forest and full of danger. It is the gazes of the passerby, the guards that seem to fragment us to pieces as if asking us why we are not like others.”
The shame of stigma cuts you down to a million pieces, one that never joins together to be whole again and never heals. Maybe that is why when as a clinical psychologist, I went with my team to do a research on rape, we found that the victims had changed residences never leaving a forwarding address. We had no problems finding some of the perpetrators who told us brazenly that their status in their peer group had indeed gone up while telling the story of rape to their friends.
There are three major kinds of stigma, one of them being stigma by association. An equally painful and one that labels us, bringing us into the orbit of the shamed, it leaves the family, the friends vulnerable and helpless in front of a society that hasn’t as yet learnt to show compassion. Maybe that is why Vineeta, (name changed) a medical student who had a mentally ill brother committed suicide. One day she was coming back from college with her friend when they saw her brother behave in a bizarre manner at the entrance of the colony. He was laughing to himself and shouting. “Oh my God, what you have to go through. Poor you,” her friend had said looking at her brother. “God forbid if such a person is a member of someone’s family.” Vineeta couldn’t say that he was her brother and she goes through it everyday. The words began to haunt her and she decided to bid goodbye to her life leaving a suicide note that said, “I want to find peace.”
Stigma comes with insight. As many a patient gets on the path to recovery, realization dawns of what society thought of them and will think of them now. Prabhat (name changed) was a recovering schizophrenic. He was part of a group of members who had been taken for an outstation trip. He had been high thinking of the time he was normal and on the last day of the trip had spoken of life he was going to have after his recovery. Yet tragedy awaited everyone. Three days after the trip, his father informed that he had committed suicide. In a suicide note he had written, “People are telling me what I had become and asking me how on earth could I do all those crazy things. The mental illness may have left me but not the stigma. I am taking my life because I cannot keep on answering people’s questions.”
How does the public, the society at large view the mentally ill? Not so long ago, some of the more functional members of a center could be taken to a famous coffee shop. Members who had behaved functionally over the week would go as group, sit down and sip coffee on the sidewalk and after an hour’s rendezvous would go back with a belief that one was coming back to normal. Yet one day the owner of the place requested not come there. The reason. “People have begun to call it a ‘looney’ joint where the people who are cracked come. Look this is affecting my business. Please go away,” he had said with folded hands. “I will give you free bottles in exchange every week but don’t bring them out here. The teenagers, the families, the couples all have stopped coming ever since you all started coming here.”
“But the group doesn’t do anything. They don’t stare. They sit in one corner and go away,” I had said.
“It is not what they do. It is their very presence. Seeing them, these people feel they would become like them, catch the disease.”
The group never went back there. I told the group a lie that we will go to another place but they understood.
How can we end stigma? As I write these two images come to my mind. One is that of an autistic boy, ten years old. His mother had taken him to a playground. There were two swings and he was trying to get on one of them. From the other swing another boy gets down. His mother is motioning him silently to move away. I could see the heartbreak on the face of the mother and the autistic boy. At a deep subliminal level they knew they were being rejected, forced to stay on the periphery of existence where they were told they belonged and a threshold they shouldn’t cross.
Another is where I was walking with a group of refugee children in Jammu and Kashmir. A group of local children passed by, calling them ‘camp wallas’ and making faces at them. I understood why they were doing so. By shaming them, making them aware that they were worse off, they felt a delight, a vicarious pleasure that they didn’t belong there.
The history of the world tells us of different groups have faced stigma at different times. It is not only the one undergoing the stigma but those who cause and propagate it, suffer too, a suffering that they leave for their descendants to bear, from the burden of guilt to the shame that comes from knowing that they are carriers of inter-generational legacy that leaves no survivors.
On this World Mental Health Day, let us Pledge that we will eradicate the stigma of the mentally ill and the marginalized.
A Pledge we may take sooner than latter so that we can prevent many more Vineeta’s and Prabhat’s from taking their own lives.
Psychologist, Speaker and Author of ‘The Infidel Next Door’