Chill, our fathers too had the blues


Forthcoming history of Nimhans digs up enough data to bury dearly-held false beliefs on depression incidence

Doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) researching the history of the institution have dug up a wealth of myth-busting details about mental healthcare in the country during the 1930s to ’50s. They have enough numbers to bury the dearly-held belief that depression is a modern-day condition.

The doctors know better. During that period, which witnessed the aftermath of the end of one great war (the First World War) and the beginning of another (the Second World War), 20 per cent of the institution’s inmates were diagnosed with depression. This matches the current break-up of Nimhans patients diagnosed as depressed!

The researchers came face to face with many individual stories of grief caused by heartbreaks. An Irish woman who lost her soldier-husband had to leave her three children after she went into utter depression. She had to be shifted to the mental hospital in 1930. Some eighty-plus years later, her story and that of many others like her, is coming alive through the pages of the yet-to-be-named book, jointly authored by psychiatrists Dr Pratima Murthy, Dr Sanjeev Jain and Dr Vivek Benegal, besides historian P Radhika.

P Radhika said, “Patients of those days would complain to doctors of pain, rather than admit to being depressed. After collating data from mental hospitals in other parts of the country during that time like Ranchi and Agra, we saw significant numbers of depression caused by grief, fear, and anxiety.” She said mental hospitals in those days had a mix of native and foreign patients, with a majority of them being locals.

Thanks to the book, the names of prominent psychiatrists of that era (1930s to 1950s) like Dr M V Govindaswamy, Dr Murthy Rao, and Dr Francis Noronha will get a fresh lease of life. Dr Noronha learnt psychiatry after treating patients during the First World War. He brought the insights learned from the warfront into the diagnosis and treatment of patients, the book says.


Dr Sanjeev Jain said, “We have enough evidence to show that half the people who were mentally ill died during the great famine of 1876-78 which gripped south and south-western India. But surprisingly, about 200 people who stayed in the asylum during the period survived.”

The asylum Dr Jain refers to is a polite take on the Lunatic Asylum, which was set up sometime in the 1820s and was located broadly near the present headquarters of State Bank of Mysore. In 1925, it was renamed as the Mysore State Mental Hospital, but we are running ahead of the story. During the famine, the Lunatic Asylum wasn’t the only mental hospital in southern India. The credit for being the first such institution goes to the Madras asylum, which traces its origins to 1794. It is now known as the Institute of Mental Health, affiliated to the Madras Medical College.

The authors feel mental healthcare in India still hasn’t received the attention it deserves, despite its early head start. There are just 20,000 beds for the mentally ill in India. Nimhans itself has travelled some distance, from 250 beds in the 1930s to 600 beds now for psychiatry, besides another 300 beds to treat neurological disorders. But this compares poorly with premier institutes in developed countries


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