As one enters the dull yellow two-storey building of Lumbini Park Mental Hospital near Bosepukur, the dreary reception area leads to a narrow passage. In the male ward on the right of the passage, listless bodies lie on shabby cots. A television plays in one corner, with few watching. Unkempt men, some very young, hover around a collapsible gate at the entrance of the room, searching for known faces. The upper floor, equally dismal, houses female inmates.
It is difficult to imagine violence erupting from these inert, supine bodies. But activists are livid with the way “violent” patients are being treated at Lumbini, which houses 110 patients.
The authorities say that certain measures are inevitable, given the lack of infrastructure.
Lumbini Park is one of the six government hospitals for the mentally ill in the state, all of which are in a deplorable state.
The hospital building once belonged to Rajsekhar Basu (Parashuram), the writer of some of the greatest humour stories in Bengali. But because it was originally a residential building, it is ill equipped to be a hospital, let alone one for mental patients.
The NGO Anjali, which works for mental health rights, points to a recent incident in which an inmate was beaten up by an employee.
The injured, Amanulla Mandal (name changed), sits brooding in a corner of the male ward on the right, nursing a blue-black bruise on his right arm. He was allegedly beaten up with the back of the handle of a spade by a group D employee.
The incident took place late last month. The group D employee was trying to separate two fighting patients, one of them Mandal, when Mandal assaulted him. Anger and humiliation led the employee to return with a spade and hit Mandal.
“He told me that nobody came to my rescue when I got beaten up,” claims another group D employee. The accused employee will be subjected to a departmental inquiry.
Hitting patients is unpardonable, accepts the hospital authorities, but they plead helplessness.
“In the past we had physically strong group D staff, who knew how to control violent or quarrelling patients. Now we are badly short-staffed,” says Kalidas Dutta, the superintendent of Lumbini.
If that sounds like a lame excuse, the authorities, as well as other group D employees, claim that this is a one-off incident. At the same time they claim that patients fighting among themselves and attacking staff is a recurring event.
Recently a doctor was punched and badly injured by a patient who thought the former had asked his family to not meet him. “My mother was not coming to visit me. I thought the doctor was behind her absence. I made a mistake,” says the patient.
Ratnaboli Roy of Anjali points to another incident at the hospital that indicates the way authorities view the inmates. The recent setting up of a grille in the male ward by the authorities to ward off violent patients makes a prison out of the ward, she feels.
In September, the hospital authorities set up the grille in front of the bigger male ward. It is a wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-ceiling grille that cuts the ward off from the rest of the floor when the collapsible gate that it frames is closed at night. It had cost the authorities around Rs 40,000.
The hospital authorities, insisting that the grille was necessary, said it was put up because nurses felt “afraid” while walking past the male ward at night.
“The nurses and doctors had been pressuring me to set it up. It hardly restricts the movement of the male patients who can walk in and out through the collapsible gates any time. The grille was mainly constructed to provide free access to the nurses when they are attending to critical patients who need to be taken to better-equipped hospitals through the passage,” says Dutta.
“The male patients have normal sex drives. They often get excited on seeing young female nurses. The latter feel apprehensive during night shifts. Hence, a grille would make their work easier,” stresses Goutam Banerjee, a senior psychiatrist with the hospital.
Psychiatrists not attached to the hospital also agree with such a measure. “All mental hospitals have violent patents. Some can also suffer from ‘command hallucination’ and may want to attack someone unprovoked. So, restraining him is often for his own good,” says Jayranjan Ram, a city psychiatrist who had once worked with National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS).
The state health department had sent an inquiry committee to Lumbini for an inspection on November 2. It is yet to submit its report but feels that the grille was necessary. There is a feeling that too much is being made out of a trivial matter. But Roy says it exposes the rot in the system. “How do we address the psychological impact that results as a fall-out of this sort of incarceration? The patients, given the condition they are in, may end up hurting themselves against this grille. Are we equipped to handle an emergency?” she asks.
The authorities’ attitude upholds the truth about Lumbini: that nothing really matters when basic infrastructure is lacking.
According to their nurses’ superintendent Bimala Bhakat, many freshers are not trained enough to handle mental patients. Violent incidents could have been prevented if there were more male nurses. But when, of the 65 male and 45 female patients within its claustrophobic walls — many of whom have been languishing here for years, abandoned by their family — some lack clothes and even go hungry, who cares whether there are male nurses?
“Now the food allowance for the patients is a mere Rs 33 per day. Such a pittance can hardly get them four square meals a day. Given the kind of medicine they have to take, many need more food than what is dished out,” says Dutta.
“Please send me home,” says an inmate standing near the collapsible gate. Others want money for a cup of tea or maybe a sweet. Hospital authorities can only hope for a better future when they shift to their new building in a nearby plot “soon”. Talks are on to also raise the food allowance to Rs 50 a day.
Says Sachhidananda Sarkar, the assistant director of health service (mental health), “This is hardly a hospital. We hope to move to a new compound with better facilities soon. These problems won’t remain there.”