NEARLY A DECADE ago, a 24-year-old pharmacy student came to meet Dr Avinash Joshi, a Nagpur- based psychiatrist, with an unusual complaint. There were people spying on her, she said. They had even put up cameras in her bedroom. She failed in her exams for three years in a row because she simply couldn’t concentrate.
Dr Joshi found she was a paranoid schizophrenic. The subsequent treatment was a success. The woman went on to complete her bachelor’s degree and even secured a job at a pharmaceutical company. Now that she was stable and of age, her family wanted to set up a match for her. But before they began scouting, they wanted to know if their search was ill-advised.
“I told them to go right ahead,” Dr Joshi recalls. “As long as her treatment continued, she was able enough to get married.”
Soon, the wedding dates were locked in. But her family, it turned out, subscribed to the pedestrian mindset that her ailment was a consequence of sexual deprivation. Given the stigma against mental illness, they hadn’t taken the groom’s family into confidence. Instead, they asked their daughter to stop her medication. Her conjugal activities, they believed, would take care of the rest. The bride relapsed within weeks. Divorce proceedings were soon underway.
“I considered it a failure of my treatment,” says Dr Joshi. “A doctor’s responsibility doesn’t end with giving medicines. That’s when I hit upon an idea.”
Four years ago, Dr Joshi launched ManoMarriage.com, a matrimonial website to bring together functional adults who, on account of their mental or physical disabilities, are seen as ‘bad marriage material’. The membership is free, open for users across India and, unlike the traditional portals, does not define the user by caste or religion. All one needs is to back-up his/her illness and capacity to sustain a marriage by a psychiatrist. They then get access to a database of single men and women from across India who have undergone a similar vetting process.
In his 30 years of practice, Dr Joshi has come across examples of successful marriages between people with mental health issues. These include from the commonly found ones like depression and anxiety to the more serious ones like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “In my experience, more than 70 per cent of people with mental illnesses are able to marry,” says Dr Joshi. “However, mental illnesses continue to be one of more commonly cited grounds for divorce.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. A 2005 report by the National Commission of Macroeconomics and Health revealed that nearly 60 million people—more than 5 per cent of India’s population— suffer from mental health issues. Most are reluctant to talk about their problem. Nearly 10 million of them suffer from serious illnesses which, if untreated, often manifest in hallucinations, catatonic behaviour and a struggle to go about their daily lives. Such ‘unnatural behavior’ is often attributed to evil spirits and wrath of the gods. And given the woeful lack of infrastructure— India has only 3,000 psychiatrists and 453 mental hospitals—many such patients take to faith-healers who claim to ‘cure’ them using bizarre rituals, from tantric chants and physical violence to cut-up lemons and slaughtered chickens.
Despite the scale of the problem, India is known to spend only 0.06 per cent of its health budget on mental healthcare. This reflects poorly when compared to most developed nations, who are known to dedicate nearly 4 per cent of its health budget to the problem. While things seem to be changing—the Parliament passed the landmark Mental Healthcare bill guaranteeing free treatments to such patients earlier this year—mental illnesses are still largely spoken of in hushed tones.
ManoMarriage.com aims to give such castaways a shot at happiness. One of its noteworthy features is the ‘disability scale’, a list of 11 questions of the ‘yes/no’ variety. It asks if the user can ‘mix with people?’, ‘handle bank transactions?’, ‘perform household work’ or ‘drive vehicles’. There are also separate sections on ‘appearance’, ‘education’, ‘self-care’ and ‘neurological issues’.
Dr Joshi cautions that once you find a potential match, it doesn’t mean you go right ahead. There needs to be a pre- marriage counselling done by the treating doctor, who should also be involved in their subsequent medication and treatment. The couple might get along well but it might be genetically ill-advisable to have a baby. So be upfront: do you seek a mere companionship or want to have children together?
The website costs Rs 50,000 to set-up and incurs an annual maintenance of Rs 5,000. Dr Joshi isn’t big on publicity: instead of having Facebook or Twitter, he prefers to leaf through the Indian Psychiatric Society Directory and text the listed doctors over WhatsApp, so they can in turn tell their patients. Dr Joshi claims to have reached 500 of the registered 3,000 psychiatrists till date.
Results, however, aren’t too encouraging. So far, a little over 40 people have signed up from places like Nagpur, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai. For a website that’s been around for four years, Dr Joshi admits that it is too small a number. This, he attributes to his own psychological make-up. “I don’t like talking about myself,” the soft-spoken doctor smiles. “I am a shy person.”