Soon after she finished her Class 9 exams, Sumitra Gagrai from Jharkhand’s Naranga village got married against both the families’ wishes. Things only took a turn for the worse when, over the years, she gave birth to three daughters, while her in-laws wanted a son.
“As the families were against our marriage, my husband and I lived alone, selling vegetables and doing menial jobs to earn a living. My in-laws resorted to physical, mental and emotional abuse because I did not give birth to a boy,” Sumitra tells The Better India.
Her husband also threatened her that he would marry someone else if she failed to bear a son. The years of harassment took a toll on her, and she slipped into severe depression.
“But in 2004, I learned about a civil society organisation, Ekjut, which was offering healthcare to marginalised communities. I came in contact with the volunteers while accompanying women for treatment,” she says.
During many of such visits, Sumitra shared her grievances and ordeal with them. The organisation counselled her and helped her recover. They also offered her a job to work with them to reduce malnourishment among children and maternal deaths.
As this carried on, Sumitra’s life was turned upside down when, in 2011, her sister was diagnosed with depression. “My sister’s wedding was taking time to be arranged. Our family believed in superstitions and followed rituals to treat her depression, which failed. A few months later, she went to Ranchi for treatment, where the doctors put her on medication,” Sumitra recalls.
However, relatives accused her sister of being possessed and blamed her for the condition. “There was no history of mental illness in the family, and hence, she was held responsible. She was kept alone in a separate room and allowed to mingle with the family only when she started showing signs of improvement,” Sumitra says.
But her sister’s condition deteriorated regardless, and eventually, she took her own life. The incident left an irreparable scar on Sumitra.
Fighting the stigma
Devastated, Sumitra worked to overcome her loss by helping out those with mental illnesses across different villages. She is helping them fight the stigma and improve their health through medication, support group meetings with caregivers, and counselling.
In 2017, she switched her focus from working with the organisation to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates to treating mental health. “I learned about a teenage girl undergoing mental illness. She was confined to a small room and physically abused. Her situation was similar to my sister’s,” she says.
Sumitra consulted Dr Sachin Barbde, a community mental health physician at Ekjut, regarding the case. Dr Sachin helped the girl with necessary counselling and medications, and she recovered in the next few months.
“I was glad the girl was saved, and realised my sister might be alive if she had received timely help during her illness,” Sumitra says.
She started accompanying Dr Sachin and other volunteers, creating awareness and identifying people who needed treatment. “We held group meetings to raise awareness. The residents were encouraged to express their feelings with the help of a picture card by drawing happy, sad, angry faces or other expressions. The attendees were encouraged to speak their minds and share feelings with each other. Such initiatives helped us connect with the community members,” she adds.
She explains that earlier, the locals were reluctant to speak. “They did not smile or even show any willingness to speak. Slowly, as they felt comfortable and secure with each other, they introduced themselves and expressed their feelings. The close-knit community bonded as many of them could relate to each other,” she adds.
But Sumitra says that the job is easier said than done, as she has witnessed cases of men and women suffering from ostracisation, abuse and ill-treatment for facing mental health issues.
She adds, “On many occasions, it becomes difficult to initiate contact as the person is unwilling to speak to anyone or allow them to come near them. I have to be patient and empathetic. Once they realise that they will not be harmed, the persons is able to open up slowly,” she says.
“I have seen a woman kept tied up with the cows in a cattle shed. She was fed there itself and treated inhumanely. In other cases, families were locking up their loved ones in a room and treating them as if they were a monster,” she says.
“One time, I learned about a woman suffering from mental illness and the villagers complained about her creating a nuisance. She was throwing stones at the residents, damaging items at home and showing aggressive behaviour,” Sumitra recalls.
Sumitra visited the village, asked locals about the woman’s situation, and learned that while she had been social and gelled well with the community, her mental health had deteriorated after her husband physically abused her as she could not bear a son after conceiving five daughters. “The woman suffered from postpartum depression and occasionally became violent,” she adds.
I appealed to the villagers to support her by offering food and medicines. “The villagers agreed to cooperate and fed her food mixed with medicines that the doctors prescribed. She recovered slowly, and the warmth and support she received from the community is now helping her recover and gain more acceptance,” Sumitra explains.
To date, Sumitra has helped over 100 people, of which 85 have fully recovered, she says. The remaining are undergoing treatment.
‘Far from done’
A 24-year-old woman who recently recovered with support from Sumitra says, “I was suffering from mental illness, and the condition persisted despite the family referring to traditional doctors. I showed aggressive behaviour and even lost my appetite. In February 2019, my mother learned about counselling and medication during one of the awareness programmes held by the organisation in our village,” she says.
The woman adds that Sumitra and Dr Sachin gave her the necessary support to help improve her health. “My episodes of fights and arguments with the family have stopped completely. I also help the family by doing household chores and visit the market to buy supplies. I was unable to perform such daily tasks before,” she adds.
The woman says that her appetite has also improved, all thanks to the help from Sumitra.
But Sumitra says that her work is far from done. “While some have received help, there are many in the rural parts, who need education on mental illness,” she says.
Savitri Banra, a Yuvasathi or youth facilitator at Ekjut, says that many people remain unaware of mental illnesses. “They need to be informed, often in local tribal language.”
Sumitra says that village residents are made aware that mental illness is not a taboo but a form of illness. “Acceptance of mental illnesses will facilitate and enable us to take the required steps for recovery. Medication, combined with love and support from family and friends, plays a crucial role in recovery. I have learned it over the years,” she adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu