Giving back control: What Mental Health Care Bill, 2013 means for the mentally ill

By Asif Kalam

What might it mean for people who live with mental illnesses to be given control over how they will receive medical care? The Rajya Sabha recently passed the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, which aims to safeguard the rights of people with mental illnesses. It prioritises choices made by patients, and replaces the archaic Mental Health Act, 1987. One of the Bill’s significant new provisions is the Advance Directive, which allows persons living with mental illness to create a document with instructions on how they must be treated and cared for in the event that they are incapacitated by an episode of illness.

The Bill also allows individuals to nominate a representative to take treatment decisions on their behalf if required. Mental Health Review Boards (MHRBs), quasi-judicial bodies that will be set up in every district, will be entrusted with the certification, custody, review, and arbitration of Advance Directives.

Representational image. AFP

"Part of the terror of mental illness is losing control over your mind, and knowing that you will probably lose even more as you grow older,” says Sneha, a 30-year-old writer based in Bangalore, who is bipolar. “To be able to write advance instructions for one’s treatment helps give back some of that control," she adds, when asked about what it might mean for her to be able to make these decisions for oneself. Manisha*, a 26-year-old writer who lives with borderline personality disorder, seems to echo this when she says, “Having a treatment plan in place — even if it’s as simple as a document stating whom to call, what I do not consent to under any circumstances, whom to treat as my next of kin, what my psychiatric and psychopharmacological history is, who my doctors are — would be a level of visibility and explicitness I’d be grateful for.”

Both Sneha and Manisha say that they are willing to go through the process of paperwork to get these Advance Directive documents in place. This is despite how long the process sounds — they both insist that it is important that the directive allows them to maintain control over their treatment. Manisha says she would do it despite not being clear on how the logistics of such a plan would come together. Sneha also mentions that she is willing to and will need to keep updating it, based on the new developments that take place in her illness, its treatment, and her own world view.

Stakeholders we spoke to were in broad agreement that the Bill seems to be a step forward. It has finally decriminalised attempts to commit suicide, and mandates that governments provide affordable, quality, geographically accessible mental healthcare. Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of Banyan, a mental health NGO for women, sounded hopeful when she said, “I’m happy that the Bill takes into account the large service gap and mandates access to care as a right. This will address the needs of many who live in low resource contexts, who today have to travel long distances to access care, or often forgo treatment in the absence of a functional health and social care system.”

But while the Advance Directive is seen as greatly significant in recognising the autonomy of people for their treatment and care, some policy experts and rights groups are sceptical. Section 11 of the Bill allows doctors and relatives of a person to approach the Mental Health Review Board (MHRB) to revoke or modify the Advance Directive under certain grounds.

Jayna Kothari, lawyer and co-founder of the Centre for Law and Policy Research, argues that the power of Advance Directive is seriously undermined by Section 11. She says, "On one hand the whole provision is to give people with mental illness the right to autonomy and to recognise that they have capacity to take decisions for their own lives. If those decisions that they have made for themselves can be challenged, then you are basically saying that you can make a decision that we can revoke because we know better.”

The grounds on which other parties can challenge an Advance Directive include considerations of whether the person was well-informed, and had the capacity to take the decision. Manisha says, “No matter how distressed or incapacitated I might be at a particular time, I — and the people I trust — know what’s likely to help me and what’s definitely likely to make it worse.”
Kothari argues that in the case of patients who require treatment for other non-mental-health related illnesses, there is no such provision to challenge their decisions, so why is there a lack of patient autonomy in mental health care? “You don’t even raise these grounds for people in non-mental-health situations,” she says.

When asked how she would react if she learnt that her Advance Directive had been overturned, Manisha says, “I’d be unsurprised but bitterly angry. It’s a question of autonomy and self-determination. In some cases this sense of autonomy and self-determination is hard-won. I’d be shattered to realise that having a mental illness somehow translates to my ownership of my life not mattering.”

*Name changed on request.

The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.

The Mental Health Care Bill, which sees mental health care only as a repair job, fails to recognise the value of psycho-neural diversity.

THE HINDU ARCHIVES During a tug-of-war contest in a mental hospital in Kerala, a file picture. It is important that all persons with mental disability are treated as autonomous persons worthy of respect.


IN his classic study on famines, Amartya Sen contended that avoidance of famines did not just require food stocks but also the freedom to raise one’s voice against dwindling stocks. To prove the point, Sen referred to China, where people died of starvation just kilometres from well-stocked granaries because they did not have the freedom to speak of their piteous condition. Sen was arguing for the indivisibility of rights and contending that people could not be asked to choose between food and freedom, and that they needed both as the absence of one could result in the loss of the other. Despite Sen’s highly persuasive reasoning, it is often believed that freedoms are the luxuries of the endowed and there is no point in offering a choice to the deprived as it is obvious what they would choose. Material goods and facilities are not accorded greater importance only when issues of hunger and starvation are discussed. They are also seen to be critical for other survival needs. It is often claimed, not just in India, that in order to promote mental health, the development of infrastructure, personnel and services should be given greater importance than the will and preference of the persons receiving the services; that questions of choice and preference can be addressed after a robust system of mental health care has been established.

The piteous condition of the inmates of Berhampore Mental Hospital and the unanimous passage of the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, by the Rajya Sabha were two pieces of news that were widely reported recently. This simultaneous surfacing of the problem and the solution causes one to ask, will the new mental health care law improve the life chances of those abandoned in these obsolete institutions? Does the Mental Health Care Bill have an exit plan for the inmates of these hospitals? Does it ensure that such institutions will be phased out?

The Bill starts on an ambitious note, promising every person the right to access mental health care and treatment from mental health services run or funded by the government. This mental health care has to be affordable, of good quality, plentiful, available to all without discrimination and, most significantly, “provided in a manner that is acceptable to persons with mental illness and their families and caregivers”. If for a moment it is presumed that the person with mental illness, the family and the caregivers have identical expectations from mental health care, this generic phrase has the potential to forge a link between services and choice. Unfortunately, this has not happened and instead the Bill has proceeded in the opposite direction.

The Bill allows a person, who so desires, to formulate in advance a direction to the doctors on permissible treatment and the manner in which it may be administered. Considering that the legislation makes patient preference in the manner of providing mental health care a right, it would be expected that the honouring of advance directives would be an article of faith. Instead, the Bill designs both the making of the advance directive and its subsequent implementation an obstacle race for the maker. Successful completion of the race does not ensure that the doctors and the family are obliged to obey the directive; both the doctors and the family can bypass the directive by following the procedure provided in the Bill. The discomfiture with following patient preference also comes to the fore when the doctors are exonerated from any liability, which may arise if they follow the patient’s advance directive.

In a similar fashion, the facility to appoint a nominated representative has been converted from a right of the patient to a power of the state. Thus where the patient does not nominate a representative, the statutorily designated list takes over. This is like asking a student to choose her working partner and as she is weighing her choices, a partner is provided and the teacher believes the student was provided an opportunity to choose.

As already mentioned, there was a possibility to construct the mental health care system premised on the preferences of persons living with mental illness. This required policymakers to accord respect to the choices made by them. Yet, the legislation only refers to drugs and treatments devised in allopathy and other systems of medicine such as Ayurveda, Unani, and homeopathy and yoga. No reference is made to the recovery interventions devised by persons with psychosocial disability, be it peer support, open dialogue, family therapy or culture-based interventions such as faith and temple healing, which even the mental health programmes of the country have admitted to provide relief to some persons with psychosocial disability. The Bill does not bar these preferences; but neither does it permit them. And users relying on these services cannot be sure of their choices being respected as the Bill requires persons with mental illness, unlike the rest of the populace, to prove they possess legal capacity. Just the presence of mental illness does not mean that the persons lack legal capacity, but the presence of mental illness is sufficient to question the legal capacity to make contemporary choices or issue advance directives.

So when the Bill refers to an essential drug list or state-of-the-art treatment facilities and medical insurance on an equal basis with persons with physical illness, it is primarily referring to the biomedical interventions provided by allopathy. For other medical systems, the Bill concedes inclusion in the essential drugs list if they have any drugs. Non-drug interventions which are being preferred by a number of people with psychosocial disability have just been ignored. If an ambulance or other means of swift and safe travel is provided to take an individual for the medical or other intervention they desire, then the ambulance service is perceived as support, but if the service is provided to transport an individual to a service they detest, then the home service would be seen as arrest and abduction. If a person with physical illness is provided an emergency treatment and he or she wishes to discontinue it after the emergency is over, they are free to do so. The same freedom is not available to persons with mental illness and this situation has not been remedied by the Bill.

CRPD and the Bill

This is the case even when the Bill is being enacted in order to bring the mental health law in the country in consonance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was adopted by the world body in 2006 and ratified by India in 2007. Equality and non-discrimination is the centrepiece of the Convention and the full inclusion of persons with disabilities within the polity its overarching objective. Singling out persons with mental disability for legal capacity questioning and allowing such disability to be a criterion in procedures ordering compulsory institutionalisation are provisions that are in breach of the equality mandate of the CRPD. In acknowledgement of the fact that the perceptions of the non-disabled world do not match with the lived experience of persons with disabilities, the CRPD was drafted with the active participation of persons with disabilities. Absence of persons with disabilities could cause prejudice to resurface and stereotype to rule. To avoid this consequence, the CRPD expressly obligated the states to make all laws and policies relating to disability in active consultation with disabled persons and their organisations. The two-member team that drafted the Bill as also the Standing Committee for Parliament consulted disabled persons and their organisations and did introduce some amendments in the 2013 Bill on the strength of those representations. However, all submissions asking for recognition of will and preference, ouster of compulsory care and guardianship have been ignored.

What is the consequence of this selective engagement? The Bill makes some commitment in relation to services, essential medicines, and non-discriminatory medical insurance, but these services and medicines are not linked to actual preferences of persons with disabilities but what professionals and practitioners consider suitable. People with disabilities whose preferences are in line with what the professionals suggest stand to gain; others are left in the cold or made to accept whatever is on offer. Nobody asks whether recovery can result from such forced interventions. During the negotiations, persons with mental disabilities testified before the Ad Hoc Committee of the United Nations on how the humiliation of the forced intervention prevented them from seeking any treatment from the formal system.

If force and compulsion closes communication and drives persons into isolation, then is there not a case to legislate dialogue and negotiation?

The Bill has several provisions addressing the rights to liberty, expression, information and the right to legal capacity. However, these provisions primarily provide for procedures by which these rights may be deprived or curtailed. The legislation does not speak of means and methods by which these rights can be promoted, respected and realised. If this effort is not made, then can it be claimed that the Bill upholds the CRPD when the CRPD states that in no case shall a person with disability be deprived of liberty by reason of disability?

The quality of services is known to improve when the users of the service are empowered persons whose voices would be heard. Inmates of institutions, who have the highest stake in improving the quality of services, can do little in the matter as they enter the service voiceless and powerless. Lawmakers are concerned with wrongful admission, and they do not want institutions to be used if services that impose lesser restrictions on inmates are available. And yet there is no obligation to create such institutions. And the responsibility for ensuring that nobody obtains wrongful admission is placed on a Mental Health Review Commission, courts and legal aid. These are all review mechanisms external to the institution, and the Bill has no inbuilt correction mechanism. It has not built alliances with the natural watchdogs of any institution—the inmates themselves.

To go back to the question raised at the beginning of this piece, will the new law help the inmates of the Berhampore Mental Hospital? Despite all the additional resources the Bill promises to pour into the sector, the answer remains a reluctant no. For the inmates of the Berhampore hospital to have a better deal, it was important that all those with mental disability were treated as autonomous persons worthy of respect. If even one person can be forcibly treated or projected as dangerous or incompetent, then all overt, covert and hibernating persons with disabilities can be so treated. By not recognising this reality, the Mental Health Care Bill has failed to create a regime of universal mental health care.

The legislation has not looked at freedom and services as one indivisible whole, and thus services are being created not according to what persons with disabilities want and need but according to what the experts in the field believe they need. The decade of the brain tried to prove that “mental illness” was just a biomedical aberration. It failed. The descriptor “psychosocial disability” on the other hand captured the idea of a differently wired mind which is excluded by social norms, practices and beliefs. The biomedical approach towards mental diversity is concerned with fixing the individual, whereas the psychosocial is geared towards acceptance. Evidently, a robust mental health care law and policy require both. The Bill, in only seeing mental health care as a repair job, has failed to recognise the value of psycho-neural diversity.

With the Bill having such a smooth ride in the Upper House, its passage in the Lok Sabha is assured. However, just because the Lok Sabha has the numbers to enact the Bill is no reason to do so. A psychiatrist colleague has referred to the Bill as a work in progress. I agree. My only submission is to let the progress in the Bill happen when it is debated in the Lok Sabha and not a decade later. There are possibilities of transformation in the Bill, and I hope that those possibilities are seized by the House of the persons so that the most excluded members of the polity get their just due.

Amita Dhanda is professor of Law and Head, Centre for Disability Studies, at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

Breaking News! The “Cause” of “Schizophrenia” Finally “Discovered”!(?)

On January 27, 2016, a study1 was published online in the prestigious journal Nature that touted the possibility of discovering some potential biological origins of an “illness” called “schizophrenia” (See note at the end). Subsequently, headlines across the world beamed excited proclamations of the latest breakthrough to occur in psychiatric research. Here is just a small sample of what the major media outlets were purporting:

“New study helps explain cause of schizophrenia” – CNN

“Researchers say they’re now closer than ever to understanding the science behind schizophrenia” – The New York Times

“Scientists open the ‘black box’ of schizophrenia with dramatic genetic finding” – The Washington Post

“Genetic study provides first-ever insight into biological origin of schizophrenia” – The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

“Schizophrenia breakthrough as genetic study reveals link to brain changes” – The Guardian

Clearly some amazing discoveries must have emerged from this groundbreaking study! The sound bites have certainly led a very large population to come to believe so. The problem is, there is nothing profound about this study at all and, in fact, it is one of the least profound studies to emerge in the last few years on the topic of “schizophrenia.” The information that has been disseminated to audiences across the globe, no doubt with the assistance of a rhetorically biased news release and included highlights, is distorted, it asserts exaggerated claims based on reductionistic conclusions, and it ignores the robust support that has accumulated that undermines the genetic disease model of “mental illness” and the categorical understanding of experiences falling under the umbrella term “schizophrenia.”

While these news reports discuss the “dramatic” “first-ever insights” and the assumed fact that scientists do not have a clue what causes “schizophrenia,” the accumulating evidence indicating an almost irrefutable causal relationship between childhood adversity and most experiences labelled psychotic gets completely disregarded. This is despite the fact that childhood adversity can actually explain the very biological “discoveries” being promoted in the first place. Additionally, many of the biological correlates associated with the category of schizophrenia are also found in persons not diagnosed as such, whether they meet criteria for another disorder or none at all, and are more generally associated with chronic stress and trauma than any discovered disease process. How can this “breakthrough” study go viral across the globe without any consideration of context or the broader literature base explaining the causal pathways of “schizophrenia”? How does this study actually fit in to greater research base?

What Are the Study Findings?

Genetic associations with “schizophrenia”

The authors’ premise for conducting the study was an association previously found between variations of the genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus and a diagnosis of schizophrenia at the population level. What does this mean in English? It means that there was a very tiny statistical likelihood that variations of genes associated with the immune system were more prevalent in a group of individuals determined to fall into a category called schizophrenia as compared to another group not diagnosed as such. In this particular study, Sekar et al. discovered that, specifically, part of this association was explained by an increased expression of the C4 protein. This particular protein in humans is involved in a process called synaptic pruning. As stated in the New York Times article, an increase in the C4 protein is estimated to be associated with a .25 (one quarter) percent increase in the risk of meeting criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the general population.

Reduced synapses and synaptic pruning as possible causal mechanisms for schizophrenia

The theory that synaptic pruning may be defective in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, and therefore may explain why it tends to emerge in late adolescence, was first purported over 30 years ago by Feinberg2. Synaptic pruning refers to a process that occurs in early childhood (around ages two to four) and again in late adolescence (around the ages of 15 to 18) wherein “excess” neural synapses, or connections, are eliminated in the brain. There is some evidence that individuals who are diagnosed with schizophrenia tend to have reduced neural connections in the brain. The Feinberg hypothesis asserts that this may be explained by a faulty process that occurs during this synaptic pruning in adolescence that is likely genetic in origin.

Due to lack of evidence at that time, this hypothesis was largely ignored, until it was revisited3 10 years later during the “decade of the brain.” It was believed that a specific errant process of synaptic pruning may underlie schizophrenia wherein there is an excessive elimination of neural connections, specifically in the prefrontal cortex. This means that there is less activity in the area of the brain associated with decision making, problem-solving, rational thought, and attention. The prefrontal cortex has been shown fairly frequently to have decreased activity and decreased neural connections in individuals experiencing so-called psychotic phenomena.

The Feinberg hypothesis of excessive synaptic pruning emerging from some illness process is still an unproven hypothesis, but is indirectly supported by the evidence demonstrating the deceased connections and activities in the prefrontal cortex of some individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Sekar et al. study was based upon trying to help explain how, if this hypothesis is true, the process might be explained. The study did not prove this hypothesis, nor did it develop the hypothesis; it simply gave some evidence of how this process might be explained at a biological level if it is, in actuality, true. The study also did not “help explain [the] cause of schizophrenia,” as purported by CNN; it simply provided some possible evidence of a biological correlate that exists in a small number of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia that may underlie a hypothesized process that may exist in some individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is breaking “dramatic” news?

The Bigger Picture

Taken at face value, if there is, in fact, a greater number of C4 protein and variations of the genes in the MHC locus in some individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia than in the general population, and this explains a hypothesized excessive pruning process that occurs in adolescence, then what might really be going on? Remember, this study (and most others like it) have found a biological correlate associated with a small number of individuals fitting into a particular category called schizophrenia. This does not necessarily mean that there is a causal relationship or that an actual illness process is occurring. As I write this, my brain is demonstrating many biological correlates in activity, including an increased stress response. As you read this, your brain is demonstrating a very different biological correlate that may or may not also have an associated stress response. Just because there is a difference in brain biology, and just because there is an associated stress response, this does not mean that an illness is in place, nor does it prove that either of us is “mentally ill.”

Looking at the broader scientific literature, it is clear that there are certain biological correlates associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia at the group level. But, this does not tell us much of anything beyond the fact that the brain and body are demonstrating a different physiology than those who are not in such extreme distress. This is to be expected. However, these associations are also evident in other major DSM-defined diagnostic categories, including posttraumatic stress disorder. Most problems that get labelled as mental illness emerge in adolescence as well, and synaptic pruning has been suggested as one major reason for this across diagnostic categories6. In other words, what we seem to be looking at are physiological and neurological responses to difficult life experiences that are correlated with varying manifestations of distress, emotional pain, and socially unacceptable behaviors.

How does all of this relate to the Sekar et al. study?

The Immune System

The immune system, inflammation, and schizophrenia

Recall that the genetic variations found in this study, and previous studies, to be minutely associated with schizophrenia are those genes that are also associated with the immune system. C4 proteins, those found to be increased for those with “schizophrenia” in the Sekar et al. study, work within the immune system, in part, by responding with inflammation in order to protect the body. In general, when the immune system responds to a perceived injury or infection, inflammation is the result. Abnormalities in C4 are associated with various autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, kidney diseases, and even alcoholic liver disease (they did not, as far as I can tell, account for the potential confound of alcoholism, by the way).

Interestingly, an unbalanced immune response and a slight inflammatory process of the central nervous system have been associated with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia4. Because of the discovery of a higher than normal immune cell activity in the brains of those diagnosed with, or considered at risk of, schizophrenia, it has been suggested that early anti-inflammatory treatments might prove an invaluable treatment intervention5. So, the idea that the immune system may be faulty in some individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that genes associated with immune system may demonstrate some variation in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, this does not mean that C4 abnormalities or inflammatory responses cause some disease called schizophrenia. It may be that some individuals experiencing a psychotic reaction are suffering the direct results of an autoimmune reaction targeting the neuronal structure of the brain. This is the case with encephalitis. Of course, we call this disease of inflammation in the brain encephalitis not schizophrenia. It is understood that they are at least two entirely different problems.

It is also entirely possible (and not even considered in these studies) that behaviors and experiences associated with the diagnosis of schizophrenia are interconnected with an immune response that are all, or partially, resulting from some other source. In fact, the increased response of the C4 genetic proteins and other variations found may be entirely the result of emotional breakdown rather than the cause. Genes are not determinants of most human behavior or experience. Genes are affected by the environment and may get “turned on” by events within the environment, such as pollution, viruses, psychological trauma, and other acquired experiences. The statement by Sekar et al. that “schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness” is a rhetorical declaration that has not been proven, and there are numerous refutations of the research upon which such assertions have been made7, 8. This is an important point to make because genetic variation does NOT equate with genetic (or inherited) disease. And, brain differences do NOT equate with brain disease. Genetic and brain variations can easily arise from environmental events; first, however, one needs to set aside the assumption that “schizophrenia” is a genetic disease and examine the evidence as a whole.

The immune system, trauma, and autoimmune problems

When the immune system becomes faulty, especially over time, tissue damage may ensue. Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are actually inflammatory disorders that occur when an organ, tissue, or internal system is damaged by the immune response. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a biomarker of inflammation that is also involved in the regulation of the complement system9, which includes the C4 protein measured by Sekar et al. In 2007, Danese et al.10 published a study demonstrating that childhood adversity is associated with increased CRP levels in adults 20 years after the experience of trauma. In fact, childhood trauma has been found to be independently associated with autoimmune diseases (including rheumatoid arthritis11 and chronic fatigue syndrome12) later in life, in part through the process of inflammatory and neuroendocrine responses.

There may be some value in considering the Sekar et al. findings in terms of some forms of psychosis being the result of an autoimmune disorder resulting from childhood trauma. The relationships of childhood adversity and “schizophrenia,” and the problems in ignoring this relationship, will be discussed shortly, but the point to be made here is that no such possibilities were raised. Rather, there was some discussion about “schizophrenia” being an autoimmune disorder caused by a genetic abnormality, despite the fact that not ALL people diagnosed with this disorder demonstrate an inflammatory response, not ALL demonstrate predictable physiological differences of any kind, and that genetics (or more correctly, epigenetics) may simply be a mediating factor wherein something in the environment (i.e., childhood adversity) may actually be the cause.

Synaptic Pruning

Synaptic pruning, as stated previously, is a normal process that occurs in all humans during two different periods of life: early childhood and adolescence. There is large variation in the amount of pruning that occurs, particularly across genders6. The process basically consists of eliminating connections in the brain that are redundant or unused. So, if one is isolated, depressed, and uncared for, areas of the brain associated with empathy, socialization, and executive functioning are likely to be eliminated. Although surely there is some function of genetic determinism in the selection of synapses to eliminate, this is not proven and the environment and one’s lifestyle appear to be much more prudent factors in this regard.

The Feinberg hypothesis, which is the basis upon which the Sekar et al. study and their conclusions are based, purports that “schizophrenia” results from an excess of synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex. Yet, it has been found that stress and trauma, especially when experienced during adolescence, can result in decreased synaptic density in the prefrontal cortex and these changes can endure into adulthood13. In other words, one cannot differentiate if decreased synapses in the prefrontal cortex are the result of trauma and childhood adversity or if they are the result of some theoretical disease process called “schizophrenia.”

Trauma and Psychosis

Recently, another study was published regarding “schizophrenia” that did not go viral through the media, but, some (i.e., me) might argue, should have. Anjnakina et al.14 built on several other recent studies to demonstrate specificity of childhood adversity and psychotic experiences as an adult. A robust association was found between childhood adversity, most notably childhood sexual abuse, and delusions and hallucinations. In a previous study, Bentall et al.15 found that bullying had a specific relationship with paranoia. Perhaps most importantly to the Sekar et al. study is the finding that being taken into custody (i.e., foster care, juvenile justice) as a child was associated directly and robustly with an “excited” dimension of psychosis, characterized by hostility, lack of impulse control and uncooperativeness. This builds on previous research demonstrating that children who experience abuse that comes to the attention of social services are more likely to behave in antisocial and impulsive ways.16 These traits are often associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex.

In a very different tone than that of “schizophrenia is a destructive, inherited brain disease,” Anjnakina et al. state at the top of their article “The relationship between childhood adversity and psychotic disorder is well documented.” Indeed, this is true. There is not enough room here to begin to do the vast amount of literature justice, but I will provide just a few key resources. Read et al.17 concluded in 2005 that child abuse is a causal factor in “schizophrenia.” Read et al.18, after identifying similarities in the brains of traumatized children and adults who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, demonstrated the neurodevelopmental pathways through which childhood adversity may cause psychosis. In 2004, Janssen et al.19 established a strong dose-response relationship between childhood abuse and psychosis after following 4045 individuals from the general population for two years. Bentall et al.15 also found a dose-response relationship between childhood abuse and psychosis (meaning that the greater number of adverse experiences and/or the higher the severity, the greater the risk), wherein those who had a high-severity of childhood abuse were 48.4 times more likely to develop psychosis as an adult.  When specificity and dose-response relationships are demonstrated, a causal relationship is strongly probable. In fact, Bentall et al.15 stated that “experiencing multiple childhood traumas appears to give approximately the same risk of developing psychosis as smoking does for developing lung cancer.” And, lastly, in the same month as the Sekar study was released (January 2016), so to was a nationwide cohort study out of Denmark and Sweden20 which found that experiencing the death of a first-degree relative before 18 years of age, especially from suicide or accident, resulted in a 39% increased risk of being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Yet, the media screams from the proverbial rooftops the “dramatic” findings that a genetic variant has shown there to be an estimated increase of .25% in the risk of “schizophrenia”? How does this happen? I can surmise many reasons, including corporate and guild interests and financial resources, but at the end of the day no one likes to hear about the bad things that exist in the world. Sadly, as a result, those who are unfortunate enough to live with oppression, social isolation, poverty, institutionalization, and/or child abuse find that when they turn for help, their traumatic experiences are rendered meaningless, their response to the trauma is reduced to a “brain disease” that was probably risen from some defective genes in the first place, and “help” consists of further traumatization and isolation and promises of a better life through a pill. This is, at this point, unjustifiable.

To Sum Up

It may seem after reading this that the Sekar et al. study has, indeed, given us some useful findings in understanding the pathophysiological mechanisms behind the psychotic experience for some people. This would be correct as far as academic gratification is concerned. Inflammation is at the root of most modern diseases, and dietary changes, exercise, and psychotherapy have proven invaluable in treating such conditions. It is a positive step forward to consider the healing effects of anti-inflammatory changes in diet and lifestyle.

The conclusions and recommended possible clinical responses suggested by Sekar et al, however,  are dangerously reminiscent of some Orwellian terror. Shall we really entertain the idea that it might be useful to mess around with the brain as it develops and changes over time through invasive chemical or other biological interventions? Does anybody have a clue what Frankenstein result may come out of such actions? Are we supposed to start genetically manipulating people because of a barely noticeable increased risk of a category of disease that is not even valid or reliable in the first place? There is a strong association of “mental illness” and creativity; are we to rid the world of innovation and creation? This may reek of hyperbole, but if there is even a small chance of such outcomes is it worth it? Have we not learned from previous experience that just because those in power say something is so, or even that it is helpful, that this means it’s true?

We keep hearing about how wonderful modern Western mental healthcare is…if that were the case why did the World Health Organization find that countries who did not adopt our paradigm of “care” (i.e., “undeveloped” countries) had better outcomes21, 22 only to find that 30 years later, after adoption of that very paradigm, outcomes are no better than they are here? If our treatment paradigm was so “advanced,” then why have disability rates and rates of illness continued to climb year after year, even as non-mental illnesses have decreased?23

What if, instead, we tried to decrease poverty, inequality, racism, and child abuse? What if that? What if we paid heed to more humane interventions that allow for the variety of human experience (for instance, the Hearing Voices Network, Soteria, Open Dialogue, etc. ) and helped people to feel less isolated, more secure, and empowered to find meaning in life, as those who have personal experience with such experiences have asked for? What if we listened to those who have been there instead of telling them what they should or should not find helpful? What if we considered the whole person instead of reducing them to cells in a brain? These would be silly suggestions for someone facing a genetic brain disease. But, for someone experiencing the natural result of overwhelming life experiences, perhaps they are not. Will the media pay attention to this before it’s too late?

Note: The category of “schizophrenia” has been determined to lack validity and reliability as a diagnostic category and does not have any predictive value, and this is agreed upon even by the most preeminent experts in mental health research. In order to argue the points as they have been put forth in the media, and as they exist in the research, this subject was not argued here for purposes of brevity. 

* * * * *


  1. Sekar, A., Bialas, A. R., de Rivera, H., Davis, A., Hammond, T. R., Kamitaki, N.,…& McCarroll, S. A. (2016). Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature16549
  2. Feinberg, I. (1983). Schizophrenia: Caused by a fault in programmed synaptic elimination during adolescence? Journal of Psychiatric Research, 17(4), 319-334.
  3. Keshavan, M. S., Anderson, S., Pettergrew, J. W. (1994). Is schizophrenia due to excessive synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex? The Feinberg hypothesis revisited. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 28(3), 239-265.
  4. Muller, N., Myint, A. M., Schwarz, M. J. (2012). Inflammation in schizophrenia. Advances in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biology, 88, 49-68.
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(A version of this article was originally posted on the website for the International Society for Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission)

Madness and Meaning in the Human Experience: A clinical psychology doctoral student, Noel explores the link between trauma and various anomalous states and the need for recognition of states of extreme distress as meaningful responses to overwhelming life experiences.

Crime against mentally ill women on the rise

Madurai Streets with Mentally Ill people

A home for wandering lunatics is the need of hour

In February 2004, when B. Chandramohan was the Collector of Madurai district, he had announced that the district administration/ government would earmark a space (a home) for wandering persons (victims of mental illness) who were either abandoned or victimised or physically abused by anti-social elements.

Though the then Collector had stated that land was identified near Tirupparankundram, it did not move further from that point since then. It was proposed to construct a building on the land in which those found wandering in the district would be rehabilitated (particularly women and children).

It was proposed to float a society named as – MANASA — with a no-profit-no-loss objective and hand it over to a local NGO which would be accountable for day-to-day operations. The news item was published in the columns of “The Hindu” in February 2004.

Almost seven years have gone now. The district has had six Collectors and a DRO, who held additional charge as Collector, since then.

However, the project to establish a home for wandering lunatics continued to be in cold storage but for a mention by the then Collector D. Rajendran in April 2005 that “a home for wandering lunatics is coming up near Madurai,” there was no concrete move in this regard.

The present Collector U. Sagayam, who has been spearheading the need for bringing the differently-abled persons to mainstream, had promised to give a shape to the project at a recent grievance meeting.

Following complaints that many lunatics were wandering and were exploited by anti-social elements, the district administration woke up to the call.

In a fresh case, a 23-year-old woman was raped by some miscreants at Nagamalai Pudukottai some six months ago, when she was alone at home. As her parents were away at hospital, the mentally ill victim was exploited.

The focussed investigation by the Madurai Rural Police had facilitated in arresting five persons, who had reportedly confessed to having committed the heinous crime.

A month ago, a young woman was raped and murdered by a north Indian near Keelavalavu in Madurai district. The investigations suggested that some youth working in many of the private granite polishing industries in the locality might have indulged in the crime.

Free legal aid

Advocate Muthukumar said that for rehabilitating such victims, the government had established free legal aid clinics. The parents of such victims could approach and get remedy – legal and financial, through which the affected persons would get free food, shelter and treatment. In the case of the rape of a 23-year-old woman in Nagamalai Pudukottai, who is expected to deliver the child in the next 45 to 60 days, the government should direct the district administration to entrust the woman in an appropriate Home run by NGOs, where she could get the due care and attention, he added.

L. Srikrishna, The Hindu