Mental health awareness must start from schools, says experts

Against the backdrop of the brutal killing of a Palghar woman Shraddha Walkar by her live-in partner in Delhi and chopping her body into multiple pieces, a prominent Mumbai psychiatrist has urged the government to start mental health courses and awareness among children right from the school level.

“To begin with, there can be a chapter in the Science subjects on mental illnesses, their types, how it can be dealt with, etc… It will remove the stigma associated with mental illness in India. Here, such patients are simply ridiculed as ‘paagal’ (lunatics), which is absolutely wrong,” said psychiatrist Dr Sajid Khan.

Referring to the Delhi murder, Khan said while one or both could have had some mental issues which needs to be assessed professionally, he cautioned against giving any label to the action of the accused Aftab A. Poonawala to avoid giving him any benefits.

Psychiatrist at Healthspring Dr Sagar Mundada feels that the reports citing Poonawala as being ‘very confident’, ‘appeared normal’, ‘not perturbed’ are “indicators of a psychotic personality”, though reports suggest that the real motive behind his action eludes the investigators.

“It was probably an impulsive act or even a ruthless one… They must have quarrelled bitterly first, then got into a physical fight and he being stronger, may have killed her on the spur of the moment. Only later he must have realised his action and then ‘meticulously planned’ how to erase the crime by buying a huge fridge, cutting her into pieces and disposing them in instalments,” avers Khan.

On his apparent ‘normalcy’, Mundada feels it points to mental health issues which may need a full-fledged diagnosis as many such patients seem ‘very charming, with a kind of charismatic attraction’ that can fool others…

“So despite their macabre acts – ‘cold-blooded’ so to say – they seem unaffected as their ’emotions work differently’ from the normal people,” said Mundada.

Suspecting it to be a form of ‘delusional disorder’ Khan says this case, or other similar ones, need thorough investigation for mental health problems and analyses before jumping to any conclusion.

“In modern times, youngsters are becoming financially independent, very much aware, take their own decisions on various issues, or there may also be some ‘addiction angle’ that often trigger such heinous crimes,” Khan explained.

Prior to the Shraddha killing in Delhi, Maharashtra has been rocked by several such instances in recent years, in some cases even jilted women have been the culprits.

In February 2020, a spurned lover allegedly poured petrol and burnt a 24-year-old junior college lecturer Ankita Pisudde on the road in full public view, in Wardha. She died after a week and the accused Vikesh Nagrale was arrested.

A contrasting incident came to light in February 2022 when a 25-year-old man Gorakh K. Bachhav of Lohoner, Nashik, was attacked with hot rods and allegedly set ablaze by his 23-year-old lover after both sides’ families opposed their marriage. Police arrested the girl and her family while Bachhav survived the ordeal to lead a near-normal life now.

In Aftab’s case, mental health experts are not willing to risk calling him a ‘psycho-killer’ or anything that could favour him during the trial and are awaiting the full police investigation and a proper medical examination on him, before authoritatively commenting on it.

According to the Delhi police version, Aaftab – now in their custody – still seems unrepentant, eats and sleeps well in the cell, which experts said are signs of deep mental issues that need to be probed in depth.

Both Mundada and Khan rue that there is no comprehensive research or reliable data on the types of or the extent of mental health problems afflicting Indians that could help analyse such cases scientifically to suggest timely preventive measures.

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at q.najmi@ians.in)

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