Reena (name changed) was among the 13 women selected from across the country to join the first batch for training as a pilot in the early 1990s. She cleared the intense pilot aptitude battery test (PABT) and underwent psychometric tests apart from medical examination to qualify for training at the Air Force Academy at Dindigul, Andhra Pradesh. She even flew her first solo sortie but later fell ill with a disorder that could be diagnosed as schizophrenia only in 2001.
“It has been a long journey since then and it is a reality that I have learnt to accept,” Reena, now 52, told The Indian Express as she calmly shares about her new role as an accounts executive at a facility in the city.
The high achiever, who graduated in physics and chemistry as her core subjects from a top university in Kerala, also cleared the exam conducted by the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India while she pursued her passion for flying. But that chapter was soon over as she faced episodes of nausea and “sense of strange smell” while in the air. “It was not frequent but I vomited during a solo sortie and subsequently, my father refused to allow me to continue and I had to quit,” she said.
These episodes and related symptoms like irritability were often thought to be part of severe premenstrual syndrome. While she worked in a few firms in Kerala, the debilitating illness that affects 21 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in Reena’s case could only be identified years later.
“I was hospitalised and then when I recovered, my family went to Mumbai. An unsuccessful marriage and an accident later, I realised that I was scared to interact with people. I lost my self-confidence and a month before the pandemic, my family admitted me to the Chaitanya Institute of Mental Health in Pune,” she said.
May 24 is World Schizophrenia Day and the purpose of the day is to spread awareness about the ailment and eradicate myths and superstitions around mental illnesses in general.
According to a Lancet study, one in seven Indians was affected by mental disorders of varying severity in 2017. The proportional contribution of mental disorders to the total disease burden in India has almost doubled since 1990.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental health disorder that impacts an individual’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly, said Roney George, founder of the Chaitanya Institute that has seven centres across the country. While four centres are functional in Pune, the others are located in Goa, Kerala and Panvel. With the institute set to celebrate 25 years of existence in 2024, George said that they have helped rehabilitate more than 10,000 persons with mental illness. “In such cases, family members also have to be convinced and guided so that they can get accustomed to welcoming them (the patients) back home. This is a challenge and there are still so many persons with our centre who cannot go back to their families,” George said while citing the case of Neeta (name changed) who has been at the centre for 22 years. “Her mother died during the Covid pandemic and she has no siblings. So, we had to accommodate Neeta’s 93–year-old father at our centre as she has recovered but has yet to find a suitable job,” George added.
Dr Vidyadhar Watve, former President of Indian Psychiatric Society, said schizophrenia is a chronic, relapsing and remitting illness. “However, comprehensive treatment can help fight the disorder with pharmacological and psychosocial interventions along with family support. Unfortunately, there is still stigma and discrimination associated with such disorders and many do not receive specialist mental health care,” Dr Watve added. According to WHO, a range of effective care options for people with schizophrenia exist and at least one in three people diagnosed with the illness will be able to fully recover in their lifetime.