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Women and mental illness

Some have been beaten. Some are surrounded by loved ones but still feel deeply alone. Others have a chemical imbalance in the brain. Or have experienced some trauma that has left profound emotional scars.

We often hear of the successes of empowered Goan women who have reigned in diverse fields despite odds – Lata Mangeshkar, ailment Asha Bhosle, medicine Auda Viegas, cost Dr. Susana D’Souza, Ivana Furtado, Yolanda D’Souza, Aninha Fernandes, to name a few.

 But what about the untold tales of simple women who have hit rock bottom, experience uncontrolled panic attacks or lose the support of families who don’t understand that the victims of mental illness cannot be blamed for it?

Exact statistics on the number of women affected are hard to come by, but there’s no evidence to suggest Goan women suffer less mental illness than their counterparts in the rest of India – a rather surprising observation if you consider the state’s comparably high standing in major indicators of well-being.

I asked Dr. Ravindra Agarwal, Consultant Psychiatrist at Manipal Hospital and Salgaoncar Hospital, about the mental health of Goan women compared to other Indian women.

“Because of the relative affluence, lower crime rate, lower population, better awareness and freedom – the women of Goa should enjoy better mental health,” he told me. “Yet, there are issues like highly prevalent alcoholism and a high percentage of men working overseas which impacts local women’s mental health.”

Yes, there are female alcoholics in Goa. But Dr. Agarwal was mostly referring to the prevalence of alcoholism among men and the havoc that wreaks on families and the mental health of wives.

Take the case of Ann, whose name, like the rest of the patients mentioned in this story, I am changing to protect her privacy. She came to the government-run Institute of Psychiatric and Human Behaviour (IPHB) in Bambolim, the main centre for treating mental illness in Goa, with a case of severe anxiety about her health.

She was distressed that something would go wrong with her and she constantly clung to family members asking them to pray for her and not leave her alone. This happened immediately after she had delivered a baby and in the context of her undergoing prolonged labour. She spent a lot of time in the labour room not understanding what was happening to her.

Tragically, rather than receive the support of a loving husband, hers had been intoxicated that day and was not in a position to be by her side. She felt terrified and trapped.

Last year, IPHB admitted 1,485 patients, of which 455 were female. The total new cases recorded were 3,663 (including folks who were admitted and those who weren’t), out of which 1,413 were female. Of course, many cases go unreported or untreated due to lack of awareness among the public.

According to the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare, an estimated seven percent of the population suffers some kind of psychiatric disorder. In Goa, that would put the number at 1 lakh individuals.

Dr. Prabha Chandra, author of the book ‘Women’s health in Goa: A holistic approach,’ notes, “Women with severe mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) form a sizeable part of the population.”

            “They usually have problems in social skills, negotiation, communication and judgment,” she explains. This in turn can adversely affect marriages, child rearing and relationships with other family members. “This leads to further stigma and discrimination and over time women with severe mental illness become invisible to society,” adds Dr. Chandra.

           Sunita was a counsellor in an NGO before getting married. After marriage, she was required to leave her job and follow the strict conservative life style of her marital home. She lost contact with her friends and was not allowed to step outside.

           She became pregnant within a few months of the wedding. Her husband would physically assault her and sexually abuse her despite her pregnant state. Her own family members did not wish to ‘interfere’ to stop her trauma. Soon after the delivery she tried to kill herself by taking an overdose.

Today she is an in-house patient at the IPHB.

Women are not more prone to psychological disorders than men, explains Dr. Agarwal, though the mental health profile differs between the sexes.

 “The major kinds of mental illnesses do not really differ between the sexes by much except that some syndromes such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders are a little more prevalent in women because of the biological, cultural and social disadvantage a woman faces,” he explains.

Sandra, a mother of two who was admitted to IPHB with depression, knows a lot about that disadvantage. She has been living in her marital home for the last 5 years whilst her husband worked in the Gulf.

He would come home once a year for a few weeks. During this time, he would spend most of his time with his friends and then fight with his wife over how to raise the kids. He constantly lectured her about the inadequate job she was doing while he was abroad.

“Women are vulnerable to a range of mental health conditions linked to their reproductive roles and social location,” says Dr. Renu Addlakha, Deputy Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi.

She says the mental health establishment often focuses to heavily on biology and medicine at the expense of cultural, social, political and economic factors.

“So, there is overall gender insensitivity, and this has particularly adverse consequences for women’s mental health and treatment,” adds Dr. Addlakha.

The mental health of women, says Dr. Agarwal, can be improved by ensuring equal rights, education, freedom to make choices, support from family and friends, prevention of early marriage and early pregnancy, access to resources, and prevention of crimes against women.  Patients need to visit a mental health professional for proper diagnosis, psychiatric medications and timely counselling, he says.

Of course, hardship is far from the only cause of mental illness in either women or men. Sometimes the issue is genetic or chemical. But when mental illness strikes a Goan woman, she must know she is not alone.

 Seek help at………


Sangath (North Goa) – 2414916/ 2417914

Sangath (South Goa) – 2777307/ 2776716

Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, Bambolim – 2458687

Psychiatry department, Vintage Hospital, Panjim – 6711462 / 6711414

Psychiatry department, Apollo Victor Hospital, Margao – 6728888 / 2726272