31 March 2016

When Balavarnam Sivakumar gave a lesson on 'mental illness' we dare not forget

On the 9th of November, 2009, a man was attacked.  People watched.  People took pictures. There were videos too.  They witnessed a murder taking place in broad daylight. They did nothing to stop it. The victim was a mental patient.  Like all of us. 

The cold-blooded killing of Balavarnam Sivakumar in broad daylight while hundred watched without raising a finger to save the man has shocked one and all. The man was a mental patient, it was later revealed. 

Much has been written about the fact that he was a Tamil, that the perpetrators of this ghastly crime were police officers and that people just watched and did nothing while a murder took place before their eyes.

Although it is no consolation to the victim, the tragedy has sparked much needed discussion on a variety of issues. The tragedy did not give rise to much comment however on the issues associated with mentally ill persons and how they are viewed by society.

Utter the term ‘mental patient’ and what comes to mind in the average person? Angoda and Mulleriyawa, right? There is also an assumption that those who are afflicted with some form of mental illness will never fully recover or that he/she cannot lead a normal life, do a job, raise a family, enjoy the things that other people enjoy etc. That’s what ‘labelling’ can do to a person.

But think about it, it is just another ailment, nothing more. It does have various types of articulation and of course varying degrees of seriousness.

There are four types of mental disorders: organic brain disorders, mood and anxiety related disorders, personality disorders and psychotic disorders. Organic brain disorders are of three kinds. First there are the ‘degenerative diseases’ such as Huntington disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Senile dementia (such as Alzheimer’s) and Parkinson’s Disease. Then there are Cardiovascular disorders, those that are trauma induced (related to brain injury, haemorrhages and concussions), and drug and alcohol related ailments. The mental disorders related to ‘mood and anxiety’ include depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, bipolar-affective disorder, PTSD and panic disorders. ‘Personality disorders’ refer to a range of conditions that stem from long term use of poor coping skills.

These can be categorized as ‘odd unusual behaviour’, ‘dramatic, emotional and erratic behaviour’ and ‘anxious, fearful behaviour’. Psychotic disorders refer to a collection of diseases that severely affect the brain and thinking processes and includes various forms of Schizophrenia, delusion and substance abuse induced conditions.
It must be kept in mind that all these categories contain all kinds of sub-categories, making for a multiplicity of conditions all amenable to description under the simplistic and deceiving tag, ‘mental illness’ without taking anything away from the social stigma that follows callous labelling.

The truth is all human beings are potential mental patients. The truth is we all suffer from one or more of these conditions sometime in the course of our lives, although few of us would admit (not without cause) that we are mental patients. No one wants to be called ‘crazy’, right?

Want to know some crazies who lived normal lives? Well, not ‘normal’ really, for they were exceptional people. Here goes:

Isaac Newton, most famous mathematician of the 17th Century suffered from Bipolar Disorder. Ludwig van Beethoven, composer, also had Bipolar Disorder and composed his most famous works during times of torment, loneliness, and suffering psychotic delusions. Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of U.S. suffered from severe and debilitating and on occasion suicidal depressions. Vincent van Gogh, famous painter and artist suffered from epileptic seizures. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain suffered from severe and serious depression.

Virginia Woolf, British novelist, experienced the mood swings related to Bipolar Disorder her entire life. John Nash, Nobel Prize Winner in mathematics, has faced a lifelong battle with schizophrenia. Eugene O’Neill, famous playwright, author of “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and “Ah, Wilderness!” suffered from clinical depression the greater portion of his life.

Not convinced that we should seriously reconsider how we ‘see’ and interact with the mentally ill? Here are some more names: Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Michelangelo, Bette Midler, Charles Schultz, Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, Charlie Pride, Sylvia Plath, Janet Jackson, Marlon Brando, Buzz Aldrin, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

Wonder why there aren’t any Sri Lankan names in this list? Maybe those who are afflicted with the kinds of illnesses suffered by people in the above list are not very comfortable in coming out with their story because they are aware how society would look at them thereafter. Maybe it is because we are intolerant and ignorant about these things. Perhaps if we were not Balavarnam Sivakumar would still be alive and receiving the treatment he ought to have got.

But if we do not learn and learn to be tolerant then let’s not have any illusions about this, you or I could very well be the next Balavarnam Sivakumar. Let’s think about this.


Anonymous said...

Can anyone please tell what happened to the killers of this poor boy? Did they get an appropriate punishment at least?