Political tussles are neither new nor uncommon; they are an important part of a vibrant democracy. Politicians are supposed to attack each other (verbally, ideally) and disagree with each other’s ideologies. But too often, they cross the lines of decency to make a cheap point. This too, can be ignored, if the attack is centred and focussed only on the individual. Say, for example, one leader talks about the expensive cars the other leader drives while talking about poverty. But when allegations become statements, or judgements, against an entire community, it deserves to be called out.
And as a mental health professional, I take great objection to our state’s Chief Minister’s recent comments on Sivasagar MLA and KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi.
“He (Gogoi) was informed that he is not in a sound mental state. He is getting treatment for psychological issues. He is getting treatment on emotional imbalance and mental disease,” the chief minister had said in the assembly on Monday, the last of a three-day session.
It is even more shocking that such a statement was made by Dr Sarma at a time when so many of us are already struggling with mental-health issues amid the worst pandemic in our lifetime.
What is the controversy about?
Dr Sarma’s comments stoked controversy, and rightly so. Gogoi’s party Raijor Dal and main opposition party Congress attacked Sarma, but again, the ensuing debates and discussions failed to address the moot issue: the underlying public attitude towards mental health.
Assam, no different from the other states, has witnessed a long history of discriminatory and derogatory behaviour and attitude towards those citizens who are different from the socially exclusive standards of being ‘normal’.
Mental health conditions constitute a wide range: from acute to chronic behaviour-related conditions, treated and managed under different departments of medical science, rehabilitation approaches, and socially inclusive processes.
Psychiatry, psychology, rehabilitation, and special care of the differently-abled are amongst the specialised fields to deal with mental health care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) report, 1 in 4 people in the world is affected by mental or neurological conditions at some point in their lives. Also, two-thirds of the affected people never seek professional help. According to Lancet studies, India accounts for 36.6 per cent of suicide globally, with women and teenagers as primary victims. Yet mental health remains a taboo in many communities and societies. This social discrimination and neglect negatively impact treatment-seeking behaviour. The mental health professionals, caregivers and especially families of the affected face hardships due to the associated taboo.
Where is this attitude coming from?
The Assam Chief Minister’s attitude is nothing but a deep-rooted, stigma-infected attitude towards mental health. Public attitude and stigma towards psychiatric, psychological and neurological conditions is not a new phenomenon. The term stigma is a Greek origin word that signifies something unusual and someone to be avoided publicly. The stigmatisation of mental health conditions rests on theories of moral weakness, dangerousness, contamination, and culpability. An important problem here is the socially constructed discriminatory ideas of moral weakness as it largely depends on socially accepted norms and practices of gender-based roles and behaviour.
The concept of stigma has not been useful as a rallying point for collective strategies to challenge prejudice as the concept itself is stigmatising.
Whereas the stigma is attached to the affected or thought-to-be affected person, discrimination results from the actions, attitude and behaviour of the others. Such attitude associated with mental illness comes from beliefs and stereotypes such as mental illness is not ‘real’ like other pathological disorders; mentally ill people are violent or harmful for the society; they need to be isolated; it is communicable to others, and also romanticising in case of certain conditions like Bipolar Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome etc.
Public attitude is also influenced by media depictions. While contributory factors to stigmatisation are ignorance, fear, and hostility, the antidotes should be access to information, reassurance, and a vigorous anti-discriminatory campaign on the part of policy-makers and opinion-formers.
This is precisely where the CM’s attitude was problematic.
Impact created by the statement
Assam, with a history of hundreds of witch-hunting cases, a rising number of suicides, and a time of hopelessness due to the helpless COVID-19 situation, will surely be impacted negatively by such an irresponsible remark from the CM.
When the prime political face of Assam publicly makes a remark negating and derogating mental health, it legitimises and normalises such behaviour amongst the believing public. Despite being the health minister of Assam for three consecutive assembly terms from 2006 to 2021, Sarma could not restrain from a comment that would harm the good works of one of the crucial medical health departments, i.e., mental health.
Devyani Borkataki is a community activist who also works in the field of rehabilitation care for mental health conditions.