This year’s World Mental Health Day theme, “Dignity in Mental Health,” reminds me of a particular patient that I had seen in my second year of residency in Nepal. For the sake of this story, let’s call her Nina (not her real name).
Nina was a middle-aged woman from a hilly village of Nepal. According to her relatives, she had been showing some psychotic behaviors for the last three years. Because of these strange behaviors, most of the time she was restrained with a rope and shut in a shabby hut. This had been going on for more than two years. Her ropes were only undone for eating and toileting purposes.
Nina was even taken to a local faith healer (Dhami in Nepal) who burnt her on multiple places on her body with a hot iron rod — including her face. I can still visualize the tears that were rolling down Nina’s burnt cheeks when I first saw her.
Unfortunately this was not the last patient that I’ve seen who has been treated so inhumanly.
Most of the mental health patients in rural parts of Nepal have — more or less — a similar kind of fate. Concepts like witchcraft and being “possessed” by divine powers are very prevalent. A shadow of stigma surrounds mental health patients, as well as their families. Local faith healers are favored over medical treatment, which most people don’t even seek. Such faith healers’ practices result in traditional and inhumane practices like hitting with sticks, slapping the person, and even burning various body parts.
Sadly, even mental health patients in an urban society have to face discrimination and stigmatization in various forms. Even in the cities, preserving the dignity of these patients is a challenge.
We should find better ways to deal with these kinds of outdated practices that are employed in the name of treating mental illness. Patients in low and middle income countries like Nepal require urgent measures to increase the awareness and treatment options for mental illness. We should all act in whatever ways possible for the sake of preserving the dignity of those with mental illness.
If we don’t, who else who knows how long doctors like me have to see patients in these pathetic conditions? It is high time to act.