The brain is a fascinating organ. While I’m writing this, I realize that the brain is narcissistic as well. If we believe that it controls all of our bodily functions, then right now, this organ is just singing its own praise. Let that sink in for a moment.
Please bear with me as I get a bit technical now. We know that the brain has two parts (or hemispheres), where the right part controls the left portion of the body while the left part is responsible for the right side. Simple, right? Now, a broad band of nerve fibers, corpus callosum connects these two hemispheres of the brain. Neuro-scientists will tell you that this connection is really important and plays a key role in how information is processed between the two hemispheres. Here’s a fun exercise for you. Take two pieces of paper and grab two pens, one in each hand. Close your eyes and draw a circle with your right and a square with your left, simultaneously.
In all probability, it looks like this:
The reason why we can’t do it is because the right cerebral hemisphere controlling the left hand and the left hemisphere controlling the right hand are in constant communication with each other. This communication makes your hands try to reach a middle ground between a circle and a square – a ‘squircle’ if I may call it that. Interestingly, as right is my dominant hand, it holds the shape to a certain extent while the one drawn by left hand is far more ‘squircly’.
If you remove this flow of information between the hemispheres i.e. severe the corpus callosum, you will be able to draw a perfect circle and a square simultaneously with both the arms. But frankly, it seems a tad too much to cut away a bunch of nerve fibers (in your brain!) just to get independent functioning of your arms, doesn’t it? But it’s not too much if it helps to cure a person from uncontrollable seizures, if it helps people suffering from epilepsy to lead a dignified and inclusive life (This cool video shows one such instance). If you are still with me, then hear me one more time – We need to talk about mental health. We need to have a conversation. Here I am, starting one…
You know those things which you can’t unsee after seeing them? Like something so different, so in-your-face, almost surreal, that you have to pinch yourself to realize that you’re not in a parallel universe of sorts. Parallel universe, that’s exactly how it felt to be inside the Regional Mental Hospital in Nagpur. It was like walking around in the ‘Upside Down’ of Stranger Things – a world with a different definition of reality. For starters, the patient wards completely defy anything that you would call ‘normal’ in the outside world. The hospital infrastructure is reminiscent of the times when mental illness was little understood and empathized with. I can’t sugarcoat it. It was a prison. The cells where the patients used to be housed (2 or 3 of them together at times) were nothing less than those one can see in the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. Cells are a form of punishment for prisoners who have been convicted for a crime that they have committed. Housing mental patients in these cells meant very less about patient recuperation and more about reinforcing the idea (of the patients and society) of punishment for a crime that, sadly enough, they did not commit. Today, however, you can see how far we have come when you take a look inside one of the cells which have been turned into a beauty parlor in the female ward and a salon in the male ward.
Thankfully our primitive thought processes regarding mental health has evolved. There’s no doubt that salons and parlors are a step in the right direction and the mental patients deserve to be provided services which make them feel ‘normal’. You know, they even use the term ‘service users’ to denote the patients in official conversation. It comes from a backdrop of providing a more inclusive and normal environment for these ‘social outcasts’. Sorry to say but it is the society that has made them outcasts. You could see cases, for both the genders, where patients have been ‘cured’ but not accepted back into their families whatever reasons. It’s just the tip of the iceberg but here’s where I am in a dilemma – I’m not sure if its a philosophical one or a practical one but who are we to decide what is ‘normal’ and what is not for them? Do we, who have collectively marginalized them, have any idea about what they might be facing and what is right and wrong for them? Do we have a right to interfere in the version of reality they are living in?
This brings me to the other side of the story I wanted to mention here, that of the mental healthcare professionals. One of the fellows I visited in this trip to Nagpur had started an interesting conversation months ago about how you need to have ‘empathy with detachment‘ to be able to survive in the mental health sector. This interested me to a great deal because personally I couldn’t get my head around to how that is even possible. On one hand you need to empathize with the patients to understand their predicament yet remain objective enough to be able to provide a viable course of action. After a round of visit to the wards, let me be clear when I say this – no amount of mental readiness can prepare you for what is in store. It affected me. It took me weeks to process what I had seen and experienced. If this is so visceral for one single visit, how do you deal with it over years? How do you keep the objectivity? How do you not get too attached?
I was leaving in a few hours. We were sitting in a cafe waiting for the bill when I casually asked the same fellow that how do you see yourself in the perspective of making a career in this sector.
“You see, I’ve maybe just about started to learn how to swim.”
“But if I am to save someone from drowning, I need to become the lifeguard. Otherwise, the process of saving will drown me as well.”
And this, in essence, is where the conversation must smash headlong into as well. Mental health professionals need a tremendous support system. If we are going to base our framework of creating a ‘normal’ environment for the service users, the same must be done for the service providers as well. I feel and I am going to be highly opinionated here, that mental health caregivers have one of the most difficult tasks at their hand as compared to almost any other field. To immerse yourself into the environment every single day, voluntarily and come out unscathed is sheer grit and perseverance of the highest order. I may be biased, opinionated, in over my head – whatever be the case, I extend a heartfelt thank you to every single individual associated with this sector. To know you can drown and still do it anyway – I tip my hat (imaginary) to you.
Of course, a special mention to the two fellows working at the Regional Mental Hospital in Nagpur. I learn a lot about courage and perseverance from you guys every time I hear from your experiences. This time was no different. Thank you for being the inspiration. Here’s a picture of these two on a subnormal day collecting eggs in the arcade.
- Featured image taken from Tata Trusts Website.