ONE OF the first things that strike you at the 63rd Annual National Conference of the Indian Psychiatric Society (ANCIPS), in New Delhi between 16-19 January, is a man dressed up as Mickey Mouse. And more psychiatrists squeezed jovially into a pocket-size radius than you thought possible.
A desultory pre-event press conference informs you there are 4,000 psychiatrists registered to attend, and that the conference is premised on the entirely laudable theme of “providing mental healthcare to all”. Of particular excitement this time is the inauguration of festivities by Amol Palekar and Mohan Agashe, an attempted carbon footprint reduction and the screening of two Marathi films that tackle mental illness: Devrai and Mazi Goshta.
Sprawling upon The Ashok hotel’s front lawn — and a short distance from the indoor halls with their panels, plenaries and award ceremonies — are the stalls of many pharmaceutical companies jostling for attention. Needless to say, you can pose with an iconic Disney rodent free of charge.
Visiting ANCIPS teaches you one thing: ‘helping’ is quite problematic. Psychiatrists, it seems, can be just as vain, materialistic and self-important as the rest of us. And just like a theme park, the macabre and the commonplace co-exist at the conference.
A short distance from Mickey Mouse, who looks increasingly wobbly as the day progresses, stands 56-year-old Suresh Rana (name changed), a hardtalking cynical bookseller who eyes the mercantile pharmaceutical circus with marked disgust. “Why don’t you look for medical ethics in the bags of freebies the medical companies are giving doctors?” he asks. “Don’t worry, you can also get some. Just add ‘Doctor’ to your name.”
Rana is presumably referring to the fact that almost every psychiatrist is carrying bags branded by medical firms and almost every bag contains a free, portable, posture-correcting backrest. The strain of sitting for long hours talking to patients must be getting to our psychiatrists. And all this time we thought the patients were suffering.
Participants are also being plied with multi-function torches, agarbattis and contests where they can win a BlackBerry every two hours. One locus of activity is the free palm-reading by a guruji, organised by a pharmaceutical information technology company. He refuses to read palms of non-psychiatrists.
It should come as no surprise that madness is rather hard to localise at this conference. The man selling electroshock machines promises they will cure everything — alcoholism, homosexuality, erectile dysfunction. The quiz contest for psychiatrists asks: Which was Hrithik Roshan’s first movie?
The pharmaceutical ads that shadow every surface — hard or soft — range from the clumsy (“redefining mood stabilisation”) to the self-defeating (“a better antipsychotic antidepressant”, “the first approved drug for premature ejaculation”) to the truly spiritual (“happiness delivered”, “destination tranquility”).
Turn to the session titles and you find yourself swinging between coyness (“learning from our professional fallibility”, “can a mental health professional prevent suicide?”) and messianism (“reaching the unreached: lessons from providing mental health for all”).
THERE IS, though, nothing commonplace about India’s attitude towards mental health. ANCIPS’ benevolent goal of bringing mental healthcare to all is commendable and everyone makes a persuasive case that we all need some. But the problem with this event begins when you ask: what kind of mental healthcare?
The conference logo includes a picture of a skull-less brain. Many of the sessions only confirm that psychiatry runs the risk of being conflated with neuroscience. Everywhere you see and hear the doddering tenets of a pathologising worldview. If neuroscience is a singular lens, patients are doomed to be the sum of their parts. Their relationships with friends, enemies, lovers, pets, siblings, children and parents will be eclipsed by the chemicals in their brain.
One flyer that is going places announces: “Ladies, be sure to visit stalls 16 and 23 for getting customised clay bangles made as per your wrist.” Two men sit in said stalls using hot coals to mould bangles. They know that one size does not fit all. One hopes the psychiatrists are watching.