Madras Week: Dr. Sarada Menon

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Dr. Sarada Menon

by

Dr. R. Thara

For many years, the discipline of psychiatry in Chennai was almost synonymous with one name – Dr. Sarada Menon, the first woman psychiatrist in India. She served with great distinction for 18 years as Superintendent of the Madras Mental Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health). It used to be said that people in Ayanavaram would set their clocks to her routine, and know that it was 8am when they saw her drive by – such was the discipline she had ingrained in herself and others.

During her tenure, the hospital which was then little more than a mere asylum saw many reforms at the administrative and human levels. She brought in social workers and psychologists into the hospital, started a vocational training unit, mainstreamed rehabilitation into the care programmes, opened the doors to volunteers and NGOs from outside and was chiefly responsible for starting psychiatry departments. in many district headquarter hospitals.

Her passion for rehabilitation was one of the main reasons for the genesis of SCARF- a voluntary organization committed to those suffering from severe mental illness. In its silver jubilee year, SCARF has established itself as a centre of national and international repute and is a collaborating centre of the World Health Organization, a distinction accorded to very few NGOs in the world.

Sarada Menon, or Madam, as everyone referred to her, was also responsible for the start of a family movement in Chennai called Aasha, which is now 20 years old. Through the various organizations she helped establish, she still strives to fight the stigma of mental illness, a major barrier to people seeking medical help for psychiatric problems.

Her interests extended beyond mental health. She was vice president of the Red Cross Society and was involved in the construction of many shelters during the cyclones. She has also served on many national committees including one that inspected jails and suggested prison reforms.

Many awards including the Padma Bhushan have come her way, but she continues to be a simple, unassuming person, highly accessible to her patients and their families. Her optimism and perseverance are infectious and inspiring. When I have given up on many potential donors and wanted to move on, she would never give up or show signs of fatigue. “It is difficult for people to understand mental health or the needs of the mentally ill- so, we have to give them time”, she would say. Her thirst for knowledge even at this stage in life and her eagerness to update herself on recent advances is admirable.

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