Mental Health Memoirs in the Indian Medical Humanities Classroom

Sree Lekshmi M S and Aratrika Das reflect on the value of incorporating mental health memoirs within the Indian medical humanities classroom.

Despite the discipline, the antipsychotics and abstention from marijuana, a lasting sanity could not be guaranteed . . . Rather than being embarrassed by my experience, I found it had given me a few good stories to tell.

Nevatia 2017, xii

Confronted by the indefinite nature of bipolar disorder, Shreevatsa Nevatia, an independent journalist and author diagnosed with the condition in 2007, engages in a transformative act of writing a memoir. He channels the enduring pain of living with bipolar disorder into his text, How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia (2017), utilising it to comprehend his suffering and to enlighten an audience potentially oblivious to the complexities of his condition.

Memoirs penned by mental health patients often embody what Arthur Frank (1995) refers to as “quest narratives.” Through these quest narratives, “the idea that illness has been a journey emerges” (117). Chronicling one’s journey through illness and pain is a therapeutic tool, according to Judith Herman (1992), allowing individuals to confront their inner turmoil and facilitate healing. Psychologist James E. Pennebaker (2012) shares a similar perspective, suggesting that writing serves as a tool for organising personal experiences and attaining a deeper understanding of life’s uncertainties. However, Kathlyn Conway (2007) brings attention to the paradox inherent in writing about illness—while literature provides a platform for expressing the profound impact of illness, it often falls short in capturing the full extent of pain and the dissolution of the self.

Despite the myriad complexities inherent in the genre, these illness narratives are used to educate medical practitioners, helping them cultivate empathy and enhance their ability to provide effective care (Kleinman 1988; Charon 2006). Beyond the walls of the medical classroom, these memoirs could also serve immense pedagogical value. As the field of medical humanities begins to take root in India, gradually moving beyond the confines of medicine and finding a home within humanities departments, it is assuming relevance in medical and non-medical classrooms. In this evolving landscape, the value and purpose of incorporating this literary form, which voices the lived experiences of mental health patients, becomes an important area of enquiry. Against the context of ongoing mental health issues in India “wherein poor mental health awareness and stigma around mental illness are leading to a vicious cycle of shame, suffering, and isolation” (Paul et al. 2021, 990), the significance of these lived stories of illness becomes paramount, serving as a powerful tool for fostering deeper understanding of mental health issues, among both clinicians and wider society.  

Voicing stigma through memoirs

In India, a staggering mental health burden prevails, with estimates indicating that, as of 2017, approximately 197.3 million people grapple with mental disorders, constituting a formidable 14.3% of the country’s total population (Sagar et al. 2020). Alarmingly, the treatment gap – the difference between the prevalence of an illness and the proportion of people treated – looms large, ranging between 70% and 92%, depending on the condition (Murthy 2017). This means a large proportion of individuals in India facing mental health challenges lack access to necessary care and support. The treatment gap is a complex tapestry woven from threads of stigma, a pervasive lack of awareness, and an undercurrent of therapeutic pessimism (Knaak 2017).

The rich cultural diversity in India, coupled with varied models of medicine, significantly shapes the understanding and experience of mental illness and the expression of stigma and discriminatory attitudes. Kermode et al. (2009) emphasise that biomedical approaches, traditional medicine systems, and supernatural beliefs influence the interpretations of mental disorders in India. Psychiatric concepts are encoded in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), while traditional medicine draws upon the principles of Ayurveda (a system of medicine originated in India) (Behere et al. 2013). Additionally, supernatural explanations attribute mental illnesses to factors such as evil or spirit possessions, consequences of misdeeds, or “karma” (Kishore et al. 2011). These various models often contend for legitimacy, creating a contested environment, marked by a plurality of perspectives on mental illness.

A 2018 national survey across eight Indian cities by the Live Love Laugh Foundation revealed concerning attitudes towards mental illness, with 47% of respondents displaying significant judgmentalism and preferring to distance themselves from those with mental illnesses. Additionally, 26% indicated fear of interacting with the mentally ill. These statistics underscore a form of stigmatisation rooted in fear and ignorance. The socio-cultural construction of discrimination in India characterises those with mental illnesses as dangerous, leading to social distancing. This, in turn, creates a hostile environment where derogatory terms such as “pagal” (mad), “crazy,” “retard,” and “stupid” are commonly used to refer to individuals living with mental illnesses (Paul 2017). Moreover, the idea that individuals with mental illnesses are unable to meet personal responsibilities, coupled with the belief that seeking mental healthcare is indicative of “personal failure” and weakness (Böge et al. 2018, 27), contributes to how stigma, ignorance, and therapeutic pessimism persist in India.

Amidst these formidable challenges, memoirs emerge as potent instruments for instigating change within educational settings. Reading these memoirs in a classroom setting allows for an exploration of mental health patients’ lived experience of societal discrimination. For instance, Swadesh Deepak, a prolific Hindi playwright and novelist, in his memoir Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha: Khandit Jeevan ka Collage (I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir, (2003) 2021), and K. S. Ram, an author diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002, in WARRIOR: The Bipolar Battle (2015), vividly illustrate the insidious nature of societal stigmatisation towards individuals grappling with bipolar disorder.

Deepak (2021, 330) recounts explicitly being signalled as mad when his “maternal aunt made the spiralling motion with her finger at her temple – the lowest and most naked way of calling someone mad.” Similarly, Ram (2015, 106) reveals the subtle yet powerful non-verbal gestures of judgment and marginalisation directed at him by his wife and lawyer: “They looked at each other and pointed fingers at their heads making a twirling motion.” These narratives breathe life into the abstract concept of stigma, transforming statistical data into rich and relatable personal stories. Reading them allows students to deeply empathise and grasp the nuanced experiences of individuals, transforming stigma from a sterile concept into a lived and relatable reality.

Image credit: Gerd Altmann (Geralt). 2015. Pixabay.

The lived reality of care and cure

Memoirs provide a distinctive and first-hand perspective on the intricate dynamics of care and recovery within mental health. They serve as poignant reminders of the challenging terrain faced by individuals grappling with severe and enduring psychiatric disorders, where the prospect of traditional, curative measures often remains elusive (Strand et al. 2020). Moreover, within the diverse and contested landscape of Indian mental healthcare, characterised by a myriad of treatment practices and approaches, memoirs illuminate the individualised nature of each person’s journey with mental illness.

For instance, in his memoir, Shreevatsa Nevatia (2017) goes beyond personal encounters to critique rehabilitation centres, likening them to prisons. Through the comparison, Nevatia discusses the harsh realities within these institutions, challenging the supposed manifestos of equitable care and treatment. Deepak’s (2021) narrative, delving into the dehumanising treatment by nurses who restrained him in the hospital ward, adds another layer to the discussion, exposing the stark contrast between the proclaimed ethos of compassionate care and the harsh realities faced by those seeking help.

Moreover, the individualised journeys with medications, therapies and institutions come to the forefront by reading diverse memoirs. For Deepak, the psychiatric ward proved effective, while for Nevatia, the institutional spaces of rehabilitation centres became sites of incarceration. Nevatia (2017, xii) found the combination of “lithium, therapy, and kindness of family and friends” effective, whereas Ram (2015) gained valuable interactions and mood management skills from Gabriel, a mental health counsellor he met at Sai Baba’s (an Indian spiritual icon) ashram in Puttaparthi. These individual journeys with mental healthcare offer students profound insights into the effectiveness of tailored practices over standardised approaches. The disparities in experiences underscore the undeniable truth that personalised and empathetic care emerges as a potent force in fostering genuine healing for individuals grappling with mental health challenges.

Foregrounding questions of identity

The pervasive theme of an identity crisis, confronted by those grappling with mental illness, takes centre stage in these memoirs. Mental illness, being inherently disruptive, particularly when chronic, introduces a profound disjunction with the individual’s personality and identity. Sebastian von Peter, in his article “‘Chronic’ identities in mental illness” (2013), draws from studies on the experiences of chronic patients to argue that the enduring nature of mental illness shapes an individual’s identity in a prototypical way. He notes, “A prototypical identity was developed as a means of essentialising the patient, the fundamental core of which – namely ‘chronic’ selfhood – supposedly comprised the entirety of his or her personality” (von Peter 2013, 49). This “chronic selfhood,” embraced by the patients and reinforced by societal perceptions, engenders a perpetual questioning of the patient’s identity, as seen in the narratives.

These memoirs vividly depict the inner turmoil faced by individuals, exemplified by Ram’s (2015, 127) poignant reflection, “Anxiety, fear, insecurity, and low self-esteem are what I feel all the time. I’m scared to talk to people, petrified of new surroundings, and I don’t really know who I am anymore.” Meanwhile, Nevatia (2017, 210) grapples with identity questions during therapy, expressing his desire to transcend the shackles of his illness and emerge as someone who is “for himself, not in himself.” The narrative becomes a powerful tool for readers and students to empathise with the internal strife accompanying such afflictions. In navigating the characters’ existential queries, the memoirs extend an invitation to a collective understanding of the multifaceted nature of mental health struggles, fostering a compassionate discourse and a deeper awareness of the interplay between identity and illness.

Mental illness memoirs in medical humanities classroom

These memoirs, entering medical and non-medical classrooms, spark vital discussions about shifting paradigms in mental health and illness. Gayathri Prabhu (2019, 36) advocates that “literature and medicine be studied as continuous shared strategies of reading and narrating lived experiences of health and illness.” These memoirs illuminate how societal norms and practices modulate the experience of mental illness, providing invaluable insights. Furthermore, the memoirs unravel the interplay of society, psychiatry, and alternative medical practices in shaping the overall experience of individuals navigating mental health challenges. Close reading and interpretive analysis of the memoirs deepen students’ understanding of the nuances of mental illness and cultivate moral sensibilities and ethical reflections.

Given that mentally ill patients are often perceived as unable to fulfil personal and familial obligations, education about their ill health, gleaned from their own experiences, will allow them to be incorporated within Indian society. Caregiving practices of family members and institutions will hopefully advance towards a more empathetic approach if they are taught about the sources and effects of their pain. In this context, memoirs serve as a pedagogical instrument, articulating the often unspoken and ineffable realities of mental health patients’ lives.

About the authors

Sree Lekshmi M S is a second-year doctoral candidate (English) in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Indore. Her research focuses on the intersection of bipolar and mental health memoirs and the vocabularies of pain and care within the context of India.

Aratrika Das is Assistant Professor (English) in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Indore. Her research interests include nineteenth-century British literature, the Gothic, Medical Humanities and writing pedagogy. She received the Young Researcher Seed Grant 2022-2024 from IIT Indore. She is currently working on projects including “Teesta and Siliguri in Maps, Memories and Music”, funded by the India Foundation for the Arts, which focuses on methods of archiving the social, ecological and cultural practices of South Asia; and “Critical Thinking and Writing Lab IIT Indore”, funded by the JP Narayan Center for Excellence in the Humanities 2023-25, which seeks to create pedagogical tools and theoretical vocabulary from South Asia.


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