Sunday, September 24, 2017

Diving Into The Depths of Mind

Renowned Odia fiction writer Susmita Bagchi comes up with a compelling story about mental health in her debut English novel, ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’.


As you read through the pages of ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’, a fiction that treats a critical issue like mental health with great sensitivity, it is difficult to believe that the author is no psychiatrist or psychologist, or for that matter, this is her debut English novel. But then Odia fiction writer Susmita Bagchi has always been known to weave a world so real with her pen that the fine line between the fact and fiction melts. ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’ is another such work of powerful story-telling.


‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’ is a compelling story about the human mind – its traps, its limits and its ability to fight back. The protagonist in the novel is a busy psychiatrist with a demanding practice. And, it is through the different cases that he deals with – one of which also concerns his former love and her schizophrenic son – that the author elucidates how mental health is a problem that has been ignored even as most of us are still blissfully unaware of it.


As I sit down for a conversation with the author, I can’t help but admire her determination to spread awareness about mental health issues through her book. “This book is close to my heart because this is one subject that has been on my mind for a long time now, almost since the time I got married. Because that’s when I was told that my father-in-law is a schizophrenic. In my early 20’s during that time, I had no clue about it. Like most people, I had assumed that any problem relating to mental health is madness. But seeing my father-in-law and the way my husband’s family dealt with the problem, I could understand there is so much to mental health and people have no clue about it,” she tells us.


She recalls, “My father-in-law was the most wonderful person I had come across. And, initially, it was difficult to digest that there is any problem with him whatsoever. But then he was under periodic psychiatric care and that did help. The best part was the family was never in denial. They spoke about it openly and treated it like any other health problem.”


Susmita, of course, hasn’t focused on schizophrenia alone in the book. From manic depression to hyper sexuality to nihilistic delusions, ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’ has touched upon several issues revolving around mental health.


“My book may be a fiction but I have done extensive research for this, that too for years. It was in 2010 that I contacted my psychiatrist friend Dr. Vivek Benegal at NIMHANS and told him about my interest in the subject of mental illness. He was the one who encouraged me to write the book, considering the widespread ignorance about the issue. In fact, I have personally met some of the patients who find a mention in my book while I have gone through the case studies of many others too,” explains Susmita.


She goes on, “Since mental health is a complex subject, I also made another psychiatrist friend from NIMHANS, Dr. Prabha Chandra go through my manuscript. I wanted to be hundred percent sure about the cases that have been mentioned because I was always very clear why I wanted to write this book. Through ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’, I want growing awareness about mental illness because there is clearly a lack of understanding about this subject. As a result, there is a social stigma attached to it too.”


So, is it just the lack of awareness that is a hurdle, I ask and Susmita is quick to reply that the challenges are many. “Low awareness is just one of them. Being in a state of denial and dealing with the stigma are bigger challenges. Along with the patient, family and relatives need to accept and acknowledge the problem and only then can they go about treating it. It is also very important to lend whole-hearted support to the patient. There should be no reluctance in consulting a psychiatrist or if required a therapist. Mental health, after all, is as much a concern for all of us as physical health,” she points out.


Unfortunately, in a country like India where 20 percent of the population could be in the grip of mental health issues by 2020 (as per a report by WHO), not much has been done to tackle the infrastructure bottlenecks. As per a report by NIMHANS, there are more than seven crore mentally ill people in India and less than 4000 doctors to treat them. Says Susmita, “This is definitely a big challenge and the government needs to intervene soon than later. Since most of these doctors are concentrated across metros and tier-II cities, imagine what kind of help can we provide to those living in the rural areas?”


Well, the protagonist in ‘Beneath A Rougher Sea’ nurtures a dream to establish a multi-disciplinary mental health institution where all facilities are available under one roof. And, it is only when he is ready to take the plunge to make a new beginning that the story comes to an end. We can only hope that in reality too, mental health as an issue gets addressed with a new determination which can eventually end the mental health stigma.