x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

India's mentally ill left to rot by their families

Patients disowned as relatives feel shame over illness which remains a great taboo.

NEW DELHI // In the dimly lit lobby of a homeless shelter for the mentally ill, a former teacher sat reading the tattered printout of an email from her brother.

She scanned every word, hoping to spot a phrase of acceptance. Her brother, who lives in the United States, disowned her even after her recovery from mental illness. In the letter, there was no sign that he had changed his mind.

The news came as a blow. She misses her family, fights the rejection, but is trying to come to terms with the fact that Sudinalaya, a homeless shelter for women in north Delhi, is likely to be her home for the foreseeable future.

"My family has refused to accept me even after recovery. I have nowhere to go," she said. She did not want to identified because of the shame linked to mental illness.

"These women here are my family. I cook here and talk to friends."

She was found on the streets in August last year and was treated at the Delhi government's Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) before coming to the shelter.

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, there are more than 70 million people with some form of mental illness in India and about a quarter are homeless. Experts say family apathy and society's general shift in attitude towards the mentally ill have pushed millions of recovered patients on to the streets.

"A shelter home cannot replace the emotional support provided by a family," said Sreerupa Mitra, Sudinalaya's director. "I will file a petition in the high court asking whether and how much penalty can be imposed on families who abandon people in our society, put them in utmost misery and render them homeless."

According to Nimesh Desai, the director of IHBAS, a major concern is rehabilitating those who have recovered.

"Generally, the outlook towards people with mental illness has improved. But homelessness of millions of mentally ill is a major concern because of the changing face of society," Mr Desai said.

All too often, Mr Desai added, relatives take advantage of the mentally ill by taking over financial affairs after forcing the person in an asylum.