Disheveled and chained to a cow shed, a nineteen year old girl in Pudukkottai was staring at a bleak future. The death of both her parents left her under the care of her elder brother. To keep the home fires burning, the young man was constrained to go out to work. A mental healthcare facility was conspicuous by its absence in the vicinity. To prevent his sister from wandering, with the risk of being abused by predators, shackling her seemed a Hobson’s choice.
Enter Dr.Thara. The tele psychiatry programme that was her brainchild, ensured that the girl with special needs was identified by community level workers. Mustering emotional support through a school friend, the team managed to get the chains off. The patient was groomed well and administered a long acting anti-psychotic injection. With proper medication and counselling, the victim turned victor and was gradually able to bounce back and even get a job.
Put your hands together for the Co-Founder and the team from the Schizophrenia Research Foundation Of India (SCARF) who have transformed thousands of lives over more than three and a half decades through their timely intervention, compassion and empathy.
A trailblazer right from her college years, a young Thara shattered stereotypes to smithereens even in the seventies, when she took up Psychiatry at the Madras Medical College, post her graduation in medicine from Kilpauk Medical College, as opposed to gynaecology or paediatrics that women doctors gravitated towards at the time. People topped her list of interests. “The books I picked up were predominantly biographies and the films I watched were invariably people-centric.” Academically, what followed was a doctorate on Disability in Schizophrenia from the University of Madras in the mid eighties and an Honorary Fellowship in Psychiatry from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. What got her goat back then was that the term ‘disability’ only meant physical or mental retardation. “That was the catalyst for my PhD on disability due to schizophrenia.”
After a stint with the Indian Council of Medical Research, Dr.Thara co-founded the NGO – SCARF in 1984 in Chennai, India along with Dr. Sarada Menon and S.Rajkumar, primarily due to a dearth of research and rehabilitation. From a full time psychiatrist to the Director and now the Vice Chairperson of this NGO that has been in the forefront of mental healthcare in the country, Dr.Thara assiduously built the institution brick by brick.
What began from a two room apartment with barely a handful of patients, is today a 3 storey building in Anna Nagar, Chennai, with 12 full time psychiatrists, including veterans like Dr.Shantha Kamath and Dr.Mangala, 6 trainees, a band of psychologists, social workers, research assistants, nurses and a diligent Chief Coordinator in Karpagavalli, catering to roughly 120 outpatients a day. Not to forget a combined capacity of 150 beds for acute and chronic care across 4 residential centres, with a recently inaugurated state of the art dementia care facility at Tambaram. With a spurt in the incidence of dementia, a specialised unit ‘Demcares’ run by the affable Dr.Sridhar Vaitheswaran is housed at SCARF.
It was not just battling the stigma associated with mental illness, that plagues more than 150 million Indians as per the National Mental Health Survey of 2016. In the eighties and nineties, even international organisations like the WHO used to be skeptical about data emanating from developing countries. Addressing that trust deficit “over the credibility of our research” took close to a decade. Dr.Thara has let her work do most of the talking. Following up on persons for 35 years, right from their maiden episode of schizophrenia through her landmark Madras Longitudinal Study featuring 90 cases was the most extensive of its kind in Asia.
With Dr. Thara at the helm, SCARF has been a pioneer in a slew of strategic interventions. The NGO was one of the first to provide mental health support in the tsunami ravaged districts of Tamil Nadu for 2 years, both face to face and through its tele-psychiatry initiative – again, the first of its kind in the country. Through a tie-up with a Delhi based NGO ‘Sangath’, it conducted a path breaking online course on mental health reporting for mediapersons and journalism students. Add a Diploma Course on ‘Mental Health Care and Counselling’ for medical and allied professionals and you can sense the impact.
With 160 research publications, the editing of books and the role of Principal Investigator of 28 research projects that include WHO Field Trials to her credit, her awards galore are a natural consequence. The biggest distinction has been the ‘Outstanding Clinical and Community Psychiatry Research Award, 2020, from the Schizophrenia International Research Society (SIRS) an apex body at Florence, Italy. The Ashok Pai Memorial Mansa National Awarded for her contribution to Mental Health, 2019 and The Hindu award for excellence in health care presented by Dr.Kiran Bedi in 2018 figure in her most cherished list.
Not the sort of professional to rest on her laurels, Dr. Thara has championed the cause of mental health at every fora, even pushing for legislative reforms, playing her part in bringing mental illness under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, and providing inputs for the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.
Community service clearly runs in the family. Hubby Dr.P.Srinivasan was the founder of Lister Laboratory and is now the Chairman of Jeevan Stem Cell Foundation. The doctor couple’s only child – Anupama Srinivasan works for ‘REACH’, that spearheads the fight for a Tuberculosis Free India.
Remember that tear jerker Nobel Prize acceptance speech of Russell Crowe in the Oscar winning movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’: “you’re the reason I am, you’re all my reasons”? For Dr.Thara, the stigma over schizophrenia and mental illness is the reason she fights. It’s all her reasons.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, an Arbitrator, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)