Literary Destigmatisation of Mental Illness: A Study of the Writings of Jayakanthan

By Somasundaram, O. | Indian Journal of Psychiatry, July-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Literary Destigmatisation of Mental Illness: A Study of the Writings of Jayakanthan


Somasundaram, O., Indian Journal of Psychiatry


Byline: O. Somasundaram

National and international associations of psychiatry are busy formulating and executing anti-stigma measures and activities. Literary works of creative artists could be utilised for this purpose. This article based on the writings of a popular Tamil writer Jayakanthan discusses some of his works in relation to this.

A plethora of instances of stigma against mental illness and discrimination against people with mental illness are available in the history of all the cultures, East, and West. The Indian aspects are mentioned by Wig. [sup][1] This attitude has spread to health professionals, medical students, patients, and relatives and the media. [sup][2] This pessimism has spread even among the psychiatrists themselves, especially those working in forensic psychiatry, drug abuse, and learning disability. [sup][3] All the common negative reactions associated with mental illness like fear, disgust, danger, violence, in-curability, etc., generally arise from the public's perceptions, ignorance and lack of proper knowledge. Discrimination was more common in rural areas. [sup][4]

Anti-stigma campaigning is gaining momentum around the world and the initiatives taken by the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) are to be commended. [sup][5] The guidelines provide information on how to implement anti-stigma programs using different media such as television, radio, and theatre and working with journalists, schools, health professionals, families, community neighbourhoods, and the police and setting-up consumer speaker bureaus, media-watch groups, and influencing policy makers and legislatures, and using theatre arts.

Inspite of all these anti-stigma measures the most popular and attention-drawing medium is cinema which has not done the job well and has actually damaged the cause of psychiatry and its patients. This has been forcibly brought out in a piece of work in the UK by Dr. Peter Byrne, a researcher in the field of stigma of mental illness; and a film expert, Sue Baker, who have started time to change, a Screening Madness advocacy group. Their slogan is, "Let's end mental health discrimination." Dr. Byrne has brought out a report, Screening Madness , which analyzes the contributions of cinema in influencing public perception and attitudes negatively. There have been some eye-opening works on films and psychiatry. Prof. Dinesh Bhugra's Mad Tales of Bollywood has exhaustively studied mental disorder in Hindi cinema. [sup][6] Mohan a retired Professor of Psychiatry of Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College, Salem Tamil Nadu in his personal communication to me has enumerated 55 Tamil movies with a "psychiatric slant" and comments thus - "the portrayal of the mentally ill and mental illness with the usual distortions has contributed a lot to the stigma and burden which the mentally ill and their caretakers have to bear. To beat stigma against people with mental health problems we need parity not pity. Members of our profession need to be vigilant in guiding the gullible public when they are forced to view execrable matter all in the name of entertainment. We live in an age where we are seeing more psychiatrists in cinema than ever before." [sup][7]

Few writers in fiction have paid attention to the clear delineation of mental illness and its treatment, only the negative attitudes have been high-lighted - a similar situation to the film media mentioned in the report Screening Madness .

An outstanding exception is the Tamil writer Jayakanthan (JK).

Introducing JK

JK was born in 1934 in a family of agriculturalists in Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu. He had no formal education. He grew up under the aegis of an uncle who introduced him to the works of Subramanya Bharathi and communist ideologies. His mentors were some great Communist leaders of Tamil Nadu, such as Mr. P. Jeevanandam and Mr. Baladandayutham. JK has written more than 200 short stories, 40 novelettes, 15 novels, 500 essays, and 3 biographies. …

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