How India's First Female Psychiatrist Transformed Our Approach To Mental Health

How India's First Female Psychiatrist Transformed Our Approach To Mental Health
(L) Re:set ; India Today (R)

The phrase ‘women have it tough’ did not originate with no context – in social, economic, political, and various other spheres, women have had to prove their worth by going above and beyond. Where ideas and talent seem to be looked at through an unequal lens, women have had to scream where others speak and run where others walk.

Having lived a path-breaking life, Dr Sarada Menon did much for not just the field of psychiatry in India, but also the approach people took to mental health.

Born in Mangaluru in 1923 and at a time when women were looked down upon if they simply wished to receive education, Dr Sarada made her way into medicine. Later on, in 1957, she chose to specialise in psychiatry at Bangalore’s India Institute of Mental Health (now NIMHANS). She earned the title of India’s first female psychiatrist when she began working at the government Kilpauk Mental Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health). Clocking in over 18 years with the institute, she was also its longest-serving head.

In 1984, after she retired from the institute, she founded the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) which works in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1996 to work toward research and training for mental health. Dr Sarada stepped down in 1995 but remained an advisor to the organisation thereafter.

“I thought it was worth the while to work on this road less well taken and try to understand, treat, and plan rehabilitation, recovery, and restoration of these unfortunate persons.” 

— Dr Sarada Menon in conversation with Mathrubhumi.

During her time, popular approaches to mental health were rather radical – involving sedation, shock therapies, and patients being restrained often unnecessarily. The focus was placed on curing them with methods that guaranteed no positive outcome. Where Dr Sarada thought differently was that she placed more importance on rehabilitation; working through mental issues through processes that involved understanding and caring. The way she approached it invited others to realise the importance of holistically addressing mental health issues, rather than viewing them as ‘abnormal’.

This is clearly seen in her approach to running the Institute of Mental Health. While earlier more like an asylum, it was transformed into a space where mentally ill patients could find solace. The Indian Express reports that an outpatient department was set up, and along with a daycare centre catered to families. They also mention that it is believed that psychiatry OPDs were set up in district hospitals due to her efforts.

Not only was Dr Sarada successful in bringing about change in treating mental health, but she has also inspired an entire generation to pursue psychiatry.

In 1992, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contributions to society, the effects of which may even be felt today. The reduction of the social stigma around mental health, as many may believe, did not begin just a few years ago. It began around the time Dr Sarada took it upon herself to change the perspective with which mental illnesses are approached and when she encouraged the medical fraternity to do the same.

Dr Sarada Menon passed away in December 2021, having left behind years of work that has given people dignity, autonomy, health, and hope. For that, she will always be remembered fondly.

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