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  Mind over matter: Understanding ‘sickness’ of mind

Mind over matter: Understanding ‘sickness’ of mind

Published : Nov 5, 2015, 12:14 am IST
Updated : Nov 5, 2015, 12:14 am IST

To address the issue of mental health, we need to first understand and grasp the very concept. How is mental illness defined

To address the issue of mental health, we need to first understand and grasp the very concept. How is mental illness defined Throughout the world there are distinct terms and mindsets that label and segregate the mentally ill. In India, we often use terms like pagal, bawara and matimand, to lump all mental illnesses together. The IPC uses the term “a person of ‘unsou-nd mind’” to define insanity.

The persistent question is, on what basis does one differentiate between a “sound” and an “unsou-nd” mind The argument has often been that a person who is unable to consciously discern between illusion and reality is “mad” or of an unsound mind. By the end of the 17th century “madness” — ori-ginally meaning crippled, hurt or foolish — came to mean loss of reason or self-restraint. “Psychos-is”, which comes from Greek “principle of life/animation”, had varied usage referring to a co-ndition of the mind/soul. “Nervous”, having an Indo-European root meaning to wind or twist, was adopted by physiologists to refer to the body’s electrochemical signalling process and was then used to refer to nervous disorders and neurosis.

French social theorist Michel Foucault traces the origin of the term “madness” through literary works in his book Madness and Civilization. “We have yet to write the history of that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbours, and communicate and recognise each other through the merciless language of non-madness; We must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience,” he writes.

He traces the origin of mental institutions to lazar houses (built to segregate lepers). “Often, in these same places, the formulas of exclusion would be repeated, poor vagab-onds, criminals, and ‘der-anged minds’ would take the part played of the leper.” Professor Anant Kumar states that early Indian philosophy attaches great importance to the concept of mental health, methods of yoga and meditation emphasise on the value of the inner life and mental reflection. In traditional healthcare there is no separation between the mind and the body. Sufi singers and bauls (bards) were referred to as madmen, but they have been worshipped and respected within Indian cultures and societies.

The developments of mental hospitals in India both in terms of treatment and concepts broadly followed the pattern in Britain and Europe. “Before independence there was no clear strategy for care of mentally ill, and the approach was largely to build ‘asylums’ which were custodial rather than therapeutic centres,” said Prof. Kumar.

The 19th century, in the context of industrialisati-on and population growth, saw a massive expansion in the numbers and size of insane asylums in every Western country under a process termed as “the great confinement” or the “asylum era”. Psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy argues that colonialism significantly affected the cultures prevailing in the colonies. He uses the term ‘colonising the mind” to highlight the change in our perceptions; in this context, the change in our approach to health, science and reasoning. To the imperialists, Asian cultures symbolised unre-ason and superstition, and often people were forced into asylums simply over the whims and fears of the white man.

James H. Mills, in his book Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism, looks at India’s natives-only lunatic asylums between 1857 and 1900 and suggests that colonial asylums, which were originally created to impose control over dangerous Indians and to remove “the troublesome and the unproductive”. The practice of witchhunts and exorcising the mentally-ill spread in waves across early modern Europe and madmen were segregated or “driven out”.

Location: India, Delhi, New Delhi