Updated: December 8, 2021 9:38:09 am
She was a final-year medical student in Madras of the 1950s, when a visit to a mental hospital gave her a glimpse of its patients — filthy and uncared for, prone to bouts of aggression or drifting in a funk. Struck by the indignity of their lives, Sarada Menon felt she “must do something”. That moment of empathy was, perhaps, the first step in the journey of India’s first woman psychiatrist, who died at the age of 98 on Sunday.
Born in Mangalore in 1923 to a Malayali family not thrilled about the birth of another daughter, nor encouraging of her education, Menon, nevertheless, quietly found a way to study medicine. In 1957, she went on to specialise in psychiatry at Bangalore’s India Institute of Mental Health (now Nimhans). At the time, not only were there few takers for the discipline, but the mentally ill were also seen as less than human — condemned to being sedated or subject to shock therapies, locked up in cells, often forsaken by their families. But new drugs and approaches were changing the discipline. In her long career as superintendent of the Government Kilpauk Mental Hospital in Madras, Menon turned it from an asylum to a place where rehabilitation was possible. An out-patient department was set up, and a day care centre where families could leave patients for the day. Social workers were brought in to act as a bridge between patients and doctors; and the mentally ill were coaxed back into a life of self-independence and work. Her efforts are believed to have convinced the state government to open psychiatry OPDs in all district hospitals. She is remembered not only as an institution builder but as a teacher and practitioner who inspired future generations of psychiatrists.
Menon’s life spanned an era, from pre-Independence India to the current times, when ideas about self-care, therapy and neurodivergence are no longer taboo. Those conversations would not have been possible without Menon’s work.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 8, 2021 under the title ‘Dr Care’.