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Snuffout syndrome may be genetic, but help is not at hand

Nobody will ever know what depths of unhappiness drove P. Chatterjee (name changed) to suicide last month. Psychiatrists, however, point out that you need not have a reason to take the ultimate step; it could all be in your genes. In this case, a sharp and sensitive man in his forties, Chatterjee had led a comfortable life. An ancestral house, a flat on rent, a working wife and three delightful children, besides his own career and varied interests — what more could a man in his position ask for' His friends were fond of him; he was witty and had a puckish sense of humour; a sharp observer of the world around him, he regaled his audience with one-liners, anecdotes and jokes.

Nothing, therefore, had prepared the family and friends when he finally shot himself. No suicide note was left behind. There was no indication that he was upset over something. What prompted him to take the plunge' It will never be known.

The world has come crashing down for another family that lives in south Calcutta. The only son, an engineering graduate who went on to obtain a Master’s degree, had just completed a year working for a well-known IT company in another city. He would not smoke or drink, except very occasionally. His only weakness appeared to be good food and ice-cream.

Recently, word reached the parents that there was something wrong with the young man — he had withdrawn into a shell, was suspicious of others and was suffering from a persecution complex. The worried parents flew out to his place of work, to be confronted with their troubled child who claimed that his innermost thoughts were getting transmitted around him and that everybody seemed to know what he was thinking. Luckily, the parents rushed him to psychiatrists, who concluded that he suffered from a genetically-induced mental disorder, a chemical imbalance, and needed strong medication.

The case studies serve as a grim reminder that in this city alone there are thousands of such cases — of seemingly normal and even successful people suffering from serious mental disabilities. But there is hardly any safety net. Only 3,000-odd psychiatrists are registered in the country, most of them confined to the metros and bigger cities. Only 40,000 hospital beds (that is the higher end of official estimate, with the lowest estimate putting the figure at 20,000) are available. The National Mental Health Programme, apparently, covers only 27 out of the 593 districts across the country.

This, despite the fact that around two per cent of the population, which means more than 2 crore people, suffers from serious enough mental disorders to require hospitalisation. Around 15 per cent of the population is estimated to suffer from neuro-psychiatric disorders. A quarter of the population, a staggering 25 crore, suffers from one mental aberration or the other and around 40 per cent of the patients seeking treatment at OPDs in government hospitals are believed to be suffering from emotional or psychological problems.

Yet, mental health remains a low-priority area, with most of the medical colleges ignoring the departments of psychiatry. Newspaper reports suggest that the department at SSKM Hospital has virtually folded up. The female ward has been shut down; the male ward has four or five inmates and nobody turns up at the OPD. The few psychiatrists the city has seem to have a roaring practice. Mental health of students is seldom checked, making it impossible to take remedial measures at early stages. Most school principals and teachers can easily identify students who are habitual liars, kleptomaniacs, possessive, shy or lacking in confidence, bullies and those who are violent or display an obsessive interest in sexual fantasies.

But no system has been evolved to test the mental health of students, with both schools and guardians choosing to turn a blind eye to the problem. The negligence is criminal. The city has more than its share of the mentally sick. But how long can it afford to brush this under the carpet'

A late start appears to have been made, with the Union government increasing allocation for mental health programmes from Rs 20 crore in the previous plan period to Rs 190 crore in the Tenth Plan. Even this provides less than Rs 40 crore annually — just about a crore-and-a-half for each state!

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