The new Mental Health Care Act, passed yesterday by the Indian parliament, has been winding its way slowly through the Indian legislature since 2013, and replaces the Mental Health Bill of 1987. On the one hand, advocates celebrate its passage, realizing that limiting the use of electro-convulsive therapy, addressing the immense shortage of mental health experts, decriminalizing suicide, increasing the legal autonomy of people experiencing mental health problems, and mandating that mental health services be affordable and available are parts of the picture.
The narrative that picture is embedded in is one that we should take a closer look at and consider. It is the catchy narrative that explains mental disorders as a medical condition that requires specific address by treatment. A comforting and easy way to see mental illness, for those of us who like neat thought packages, as we tend to do. At its least nuanced, this creates a mental picture where we see a sickness, and see medication as the first answer, and confinement as a strategy while the medication is adjusted. Neat and clean.
Of course, simple solutions can mislead when the true problem is complex and hard to unravel, and, no doubt, the context in which mental disorders exist is truly complex.
If it is true that mental illness is inextricably linked to poverty, then this complicates the picture. We know that people experiencing major mental illness are nearly always poor. Do they become so because of the mental disorder, or does poverty “produce” mental disorder? The frustrating answer is, of course, yes to both.
If it is true that gender oppression is inextricably linked to mental illness, the picture complicates further. Deeply devalued widows rejected by family and thrust out into poverty and homelessness, women subjected to brutality at the hands of family and strangers, and the picture blurs even more.
If it is true that performing jobs that are torturous for human beings to do, jobs that are reserved for the poorest of the poor, with little hope of relief, causes people to lose their bearings, retreat, and lose their clarity of thought and memory, again, the picture needs to be refocused.
The above inconvenient truths reveal that simple solutions to “bring people with mental disorders back on track” only address a part of the problem, and may create unanticipated problems, at least for affected people. If indeed, a society “manufactures” people with mental illness as a result of poverty, oppression and associated brutal life conditions, at least in part, we need to keep that in our minds, and more importantly, our mindsets.
For me, it is helpful and important to remember and even embrace the complexity of the interplay between social and environmental factors. The medical model of illness will never fully answer the question of how to address the big questions raised by the issues of mental disorders.
Meanwhile, people with mental illness languish in mental hospitals, beggar’s homes, and on the streets. We can celebrate a legal framework that offers people support, assistance, control, and recognition of their humanity and value. There is something to be said for helping people to get “back on track”. Don’t think, however, that it will be enough.