1 in 5 persons suffer mental illness

NAGPUR: The term ‘mental illness’ may conjure up images of violent people locked up in an asylum, or that unwashed, distracted man on the road that you go out of your way to avoid. Truth is, one in five ‘normal people’ suffer from a mental illness sometime or the other, not unlike a bout of flu that we recognize as a physical illness.

Ronald Dias, 57, calls his psychiatrist four times a day, and speaks to his cardiologist at least six times every day. If the busy doctors do not answer his call, he rushes to the hospital in a panic. Dias lives in mortal fear that his heart is going to stop beating any second-his entire life is consumed by the fear of a heart ailment that he does not really have, except as an obsessive thought. Dias, a physically fit and healthy man, is a patient of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Housewife Rakhi Kamat, 40, was offended when she was diagnosed with ‘anxiety disorder’ by the psychiatrist she had dragged her 9-year-old son to see. “The son was like any normal schoolboy, watching too much TV and refusing to eat vegetables-but his mother, like many others, was suffering from a severe case of anxiety, constantly worrying about her child’s studies and health,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Brahmanand Kuncolienkar, who reports ‘anxiety disorder’ as one of the most common mental ailments in his practice.

“There are a range of conditions called ‘common mental disorders’ that are often neglected, though much more common in society than the severe mental disorders like schizophrenia. These seemingly mild ailments are on the rise, when compared to even ten years ago,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Alexander Fernandes.

“Large surveys of people living in their homes have shown that stress and anxiety-related disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), addictions, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia and sleep problems are startlingly common. While these are mental health problems that could be short-term illnesses, or turn into chronic problems, they have a huge impact on the lives of the individual and the family,” adds Dr Nita Muzumdar, psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.

Common mental disorders are also tricky to detect, as the emotional stress tends to manifest itself as physical aches and pains–backache, stomach and digestion problems, breathlessness and chest pain, sexual symptoms–could all be the result of a mental illness.

“After thoroughly examining the patient and concluding that there is nothing physically wrong with him, the general physician tends to brush it off as ‘just stress’, and writes out a prescription for painkillers,” explains Fernandes, asserting the need to go a step further, and treat the underlying mental problem, as it could lead to a dysfunctional life.

Kuncolienkar treats dozens of patients who suffer from ‘generalized anxiety’, which is an inherent mental problem. “They are usually mothers who cannot stop worrying about their children, or young professionals who are frustrated with their jobs, or are unable to land a government job. They spend sleepless nights and wake up in the morning with palpitations,” he says. “Hysterical disorder, most common in women with poor education, is another common problem. Albeit a mental problem, hysteria can manifest as hysterical blindness, deafness, fainting fits and weak limbs,” he adds. “Seeing a psychiatrist is often the last resort, after visiting temples and churches and God-men,” he complains, calling for greater awareness among the medical fraternity.

(Patients’ names have been changed to protect identities)