Year : 2022 | Volume
: 3 | Issue : 1 | Page : 96--98
The madam i knew
Consultant Psychiatrist and Assistant Director (Media and Communications), Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Dr. R Mangala
#R/7A North Main Road, Anna Nagar (West Extn.), Chennai - 600 101, Tamil Nadu
|How to cite this article:|
Mangala R. The madam i knew.J Med Evid 2022;3:96-98
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Mangala R. The madam i knew. J Med Evid [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Aug 10 ];3:96-98
Available from: http://www.journaljme.org/text.asp?2022/3/1/96/344291
Dr M. Sarada Menon (1923–2021) was born in Mangalore and completed her basic education in Chennai (then Madras). After getting her MBBS from Madras Medical College in 1947, she worked as a physician in the Madras Medical Service and completed her MD in general medicine, before graduating with a Diploma in Psychological Medicine from the All India Institute of Mental Health (later NIMHANS, Bengaluru) as part of their third graduating batch, in 1959. In doing so, she became the first woman psychiatry specialist in India.
Following her training, she joined the Madras Mental Hospital (now known as the Institute of Mental Health [IMH], Chennai) and in 1961 became its superintendent. She was thus in a key position to participate in the de-institutionalisation movement in psychiatry. This was a period of churn, with the movement from custodial care to treatment, the opening of outpatient psychiatric clinics, the setting up of general hospital psychiatry units and the expansion of community mental healthcare, that started globally, alongside revolutionary changes in the nature of psychiatric treatment and in India starting in the 1960s. As superintendent of the mental hospital, she was involved in implementing many of these changes and in pioneering multi-disciplinary treatment for the mentally ill. During her tenure, the IMH took part in landmark studies in psychiatric epidemiology initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO). She retired from IMH in 1978 and continued in community service through her work with rehabilitation centres and palliative care units. In 1984, these efforts culminated in the founding of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), along with fellow psychiatrists Dr R. Thara and Dr S. Rajkumar. She was also SCARF's first director until she stepped down in 1995.
SCARF provides psychiatric treatment and vocational rehabilitation to patients with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. It has also become a leading centre for community psychiatry research and is a Collaborating Centre with the WHO, one of the few such in India. The Foundation also runs training programmes for health professionals, community awareness programmes and externally funded research projects. In its primary focus on rehabilitation, it has developed strategies that involve community members, family members and professionals with expertise in social work, psychology and vocational therapy apart from psychiatrists.
Dr Menon was also involved in the running of a number of other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Chennai chapter of the Red Cross Society. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1992. She was involved in advising state and union governments in formulating mental health policy, and her work at IMH and SCARF was instrumental in the expansion of psychiatric care to district headquarters hospitals across Tamil Nadu, a feat that is unmatched by any other Indian State.
She died on 5th December 2021 at the age of 98. She continued to practice psychiatry and teach well into her 90s. She was married to Sreekumara Menon, an IPS officer who predeceased her.
The Madam I Knew
As I stood in the packed auditorium listening to the tributes, I wondered what we were celebrating … was it the first woman Psychiatrist of India? Was it the first woman Superintendent of IMH, Chennai? But then, there were many such 'first women' and celebrated achievers in several branches of medicine. Are her achievements significant only because of her gender?
Was it about founding SCARF, the first-of-its-kind NGO dedicated solely to the cause of mental health? Yes perhaps, because of the international stature of this institution. But, Madam Dr Sarada Menon had broken several glass ceilings throughout her life and so was much larger than all of these put together.
I heard her name for the first time when I was a student at the IMH, mentioned with awe and respect. She was a phenomenon I understood, but from a distance – like Mahatma Gandhi about whom I only read in books. Little did I realise that I would soon get to know her at close quarters.
I think that I felt her presence much before I met her at SCARF. The year was 2003 and I had just joined this institution. The building at Anna Nagar, Chennai, was bustling with activity as a residential centre was being constructed, to be named the 'Sarada Menon Centre'. The parting line in many conversations was 'Madam should have seen this!!' No one ever had doubts about whom it referred to, because, at SCARF, the moniker meant only her.
My mental image was of a tall, commanding person who ruled with an iron will. And, what did I see when she walked into the SCARF building? A small, frail lady immaculately dressed in a crisp cotton saree, her hair done in a knot (with not a single strand out of place) sailing gently into the room, speaking in a voice that was just above a whisper, with a smile that lit up the room and an aura that radiated all over the place.
She was always excited to meet her old patients and the staff members, both new and old. She remembered everybody by name and could make us feel important by listening with a keen interest to whatever we said. That such sessions sometimes became a viva voce examination, making us sweat and fumble, is a different story!
However, I cannot recall any instance of her criticising or refuting anything that juniors like us said. She listened very patiently to whatever one had to say, and her quiet response would be, 'How will patients benefit from this?' There was never a shadow of doubt in her mind that every step we take at SCARF should have patient care and rehabilitation at its core. There were many evenings when I met her in her residence and came out feeling inspired by her suggestions for rehabilitation but also overwhelmed by the enormity of their ambition.
Her letters deserve special mention. A letter on her personal stationery, with generous and fluent praise neatly written in black ink (without a single correction), is a cherished possession for many of us at SCARF. She wrote such notes to case managers, psychologists and social workers appreciating their work in patient care. I particularly remember the letter I received the day after we celebrated her 90th birthday – a very touching note thanking me and all at SCARF for a very memorable event. We were making enthusiastic plans for her 100th birthday this year, but sadly, it was not to be.
When I took her to Bhavishya Bhavan the women's residential unit of SCARF, one of the places closest to her heart, to judge a cookery contest held for the residents, she closely examined all the entries, tasted them, asked for each of the recipes, had few questions for every participant, wrote detailed comments and chose the winners. A thorough evaluation, when she was only 96 years old! We had a glimpse of the examiner she was in her teaching days!
She was very happy when SCARF initiated the annual MAITRI awards for caregivers of persons with serious mental illnesses and insisted on giving away the awards herself, despite some health issues. She personally wrote a letter appreciating me for the initiative and also listed out few things that needed to be done for caregivers.
Raising awareness and community participation were equally on her agenda, and I was often summoned by her and given a list of contacts to approach for jobs, donations and awareness! She was not someone who was disappointed by failed attempts. She took them in her stride and continued to do what she believed in – she once mentioned her repeated visits to a big textile showroom in her neighbourhood, to convince the owner to donate surplus samples to our vocational training centre, for patients to make bags and other products.
She was always young in heart and spirit and showed us all how to age gracefully. She told us that she went around the city for a few hours every month or two to see for herself the changes in the landscape of the city. She felt that it was very important to keep up with the changing times. Just a few months before she left us, when we wanted her to be part of a video for awareness on COVID vaccination, she readily obliged with a crisp short clip. She was a movie buff and watched quite a few. She would collect the films we screened at Frame of Mind film festival and watch every one of them. She would also remember the ones we missed giving her and remind us about it! More recently, she had taken an interest in watching series on over the top (OTT) platforms.
She was updated on several things, psychiatry included. A colleague had just submitted her PhD dissertation a few months before Madam's passing. She asked for the manuscript, read it thoroughly and had a few questions for the candidate as well. She was even planning to attend her public viva, but it was never to be. When she noticed that I had changed my car, she had a list of questions about the model, the engine, and few other technical details about which I was pathetically ignorant.
When my thoughts returned to the people in the auditorium, I realised they were not all psychiatrists. There were several eminent clinicians from other branches of medicine, philanthropists, representatives from other NGOs, industrialists, people from the film industry, musicians, journalists and others, besides her patients and families. She was an inspiration to several NGOs working in various fields including mental health, a leader who helped to walk on the chosen path and made sure the organisations flourished.
Staying connected is no big deal in this digital era. While most people struggle to stay in touch with friends and relatives, here was a lady who continued to remain in touch with her friends from school and college for over 75 years! She was someone who could effortlessly love fellow human beings.
While most psychiatrists themselves experience stigma in social settings, here was a grand old lady, a psychiatrist, whose acquaintance and association was proudly acknowledged by those who knew her. What better anti-stigma activity can someone ask for? She served this cause not only in life and but in her death too!
Hence, what were we celebrating in the auditorium? There lived amidst us a visionary, whose life was devoted to the cause of mental health, who chose a less trodden path and paved the way for many others to follow, an astute clinician, a dedicated teacher, an ardent administrator, a loyal friend and above all a very caring human being. She revolutionised psychiatric care and rehabilitation in the country, changed the narrative around mental health and became the face of Indian Psychiatry, globally.
One of the biggest lessons she taught us through her life was to have a goal, to cherish it, to stay committed to it and to keep it alive. She also inculcated values such as simplicity, frugality, love and respect for everyone, without prejudice and a willingness to learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime.
As I stood near her mortal remains and watched the garlands and wreaths that were placed out of respect, I could almost hear her whisper, 'Why are people wasting so much money on flowers? They can donate the money instead'. Her aura will continue to guide us, and her radiant smile will remain forever in our hearts.
Rest in Peace, Dear Madam! We will miss you forever.
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Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.