In 1947, when there were very few women doctors and hardly any women psychiatrists, a young doctor from Chennai who had just finished her M.D. in General Medicine managed to convince her rather reluctant family that she would take up the less glamorous specialty of psychiatry.
To quote her, “In January 1942, I still remember Dr. David, the Pharmacology HOD, during the medical admission interview asked me” Why do you want to do Medicine? Just get married “! My interview lasted 5 min! And by June that year I entered the portals of the Madras Medical College.”
Her father was a district judge and she had eight siblings. As a medical student, her first exposure to persons with mental illness was during her visit to the Kilpauk Mental Hospital in Chennai. The overcrowded hospital in disarray, the state of the patients, their behavior which was only partly treated with painful injections, electro convulsive therapy (ECT), Rauwolfia serpentina tablets, paraldehyde, and water therapy led to an array of emotions in her – and eventually, she decided that these were the glimmerings of her life long love!
In 1951, at the insistence of the family, she joined the Madras Medical Service and her first posting was in the TB Sanatorium for Rs 240/per month. Very briefly, she attended a few courses in the Maudsley Hospital and for clinical training at the Cane Hill Hospital in Surrey. Unfortunately, at that point, her father fell ill and she had to return to India.
Between 1957 and 1959, she studied DPM at NIMHANS, Bangalore, in their third batch of students. Her teachers included Dr. M. V. Govindaswamy, the Director, and Dr. D. L. N. Murthy Rao, Dr. Gopalswamy, Dr. Ramchandra Rao, and Dr. Surya. A year later, the Department of Neurosciences was started with Dr. Leiberman from the World Health Organization, neurosurgeon Dr. R H Varma, and neurologist Dr. K S Mani.
“In our batch which had three women students, one committed suicide, and the other graduated later! Which meant that when I completed my course in 1959, I was officially the first woman psychiatrist in India. Nobody realized that at that time, and neither did I!”
In 1959, when she returned to Chennai, she was posted in Kilpauk Mental Hospital in the female ward and 2 years later, she was appointed the superintendent of the hospital, which she had to take up with practically no administrative experience. This, however, heralded the era of psychosocial rehabilitation in mental health in India.
She brought about many reforms which changed the place from an asylum to one of the better run mental hospitals. They were:
- Starting an outpatient department
- Improving the quality of case records
- Appointing professionals social workers – for the first time in any hospital in India
- Discharging patients who had been there for a very long time
- As part of PSR, starting of the industrial therapy center which at the time of its inception was the first of its kind in the entire country. It has now grown into a large setup with several units employing a number of inpatients and outpatients
- Initiating group therapy and encouraging patients to engage in physical exercises
- Starting postgraduate courses in psychological medicine to train medical personnel and paramedical personnel like nurses and social workers
- Establishing psychiatric clinics in all the headquarters hospitals of every district in Tamil Nadu.
While she was known to be a strict disciplinarian, her care and concern for patients was paramount. She would personally supervise the food that was served to them and organized recreational activities.
FOUNDING OF SCHIZOPHRENIA RESEARCH FOUNDATION (SCARF, INDIA)
She retired from government service at the age of 55 years and soon became restless since she felt so much more had to be done. To pursue this, she founded Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) along with Dr. Rajkumar and Dr. Thara in 1984. Rehabilitation, research, and improving awareness on mental health were the tripartite objectives of SCARF.
Even in 1984, many people did not know what schizophrenia was. However, her reputation and the trust people had in her enabled the mobilization of resources – fiscal, land, and trained personnel.
Today, SCARF is a well-known center nationally and internationally, which is a tribute to Dr. Menon’s foresight and unswerving commitment to the cause of mental health.
Work with families
Dr. Sarada Menon firmly believed in the role of the family in the care of the mentally ill. She urged families with mentally ill members to get together and take up several common issues such as the rights of the mentally ill. Thus was born Aasha, an organization of families of the mentally ill.
A teacher, examiner, and guide
Right from her early years, she displayed a great penchant for teaching and even now her students many of whom have distinguished themselves in their own right recall with great appreciation of her clinical acumen and clarity and enthusiasm in teaching. She has inspired several bright young people to take up this discipline of psychiatry which is generally considered less glamorous than other branches of medicine. She has served as examiner in almost all universities in the country and has also guided several PhD scholars.
Work with other organizations
Her altruism extended to other areas as well. She held key positions in the Red Cross and as primarily responsible for the work on cyclone shelters during the 70s. Mobile dispensaries to rural areas were started and programs in disaster preparedness were conducted under her supervision.
She played a critical role in several women’s organizations. She also provided guidance and encouragement for other NGOs such as the TTK Hospital, the Banyan, and Anbagham.
On the international front
Dr. Menon’s contribution to psychiatric rehabilitation has won her wide acclaim all over the world. She was the regional vice-president and also the Secretary-General of the World Association for Psychosocial Rehabilitation. She was also the founder of the Indian chapter of the WAPR.
As a fitting tribute to all her accomplishments, several awards have come her way, the most noteworthy being the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1992, the HelpAge India award, and the Avvaiyar award from the state government. She only looked upon these awards as validating the importance of mental health and remained accessible to all who needed her help.
A warm, caring person
Despite this luminous career and all the accolades that she received, Dr. Sarada Menon was the personification of humility and modesty. She was able to garner around her a set of committed individuals, both in IMH and SCARF. She always remembered people’s birthdays, and never missed attending weddings or funerals. A deeply religious person, she was also an avid reader of books. Even at the age of 98 years, she was using technology and attending Zoom webinars. Such was her penchant to learn and update herself.
Despite all this, she felt she has not really accomplished all that she wanted to.
“The goal which I set myself has not been reached. I have yet to establish that people with mental disorders can live a normal life.”
She has left behind a great legacy which I am sure will be continued by all the aspiring young mental health professionals of this country.