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Mumbai psychiatrist warns of more farm suicides

Publication Date : 20-04-2014


Hailstorms that lashed Maharashtra early last month may have damaged crops across 8 lakh hectares, but the last on how it ravaged lives has not been heard. For, according to Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr. Pradeep Patkar, farmers affected by the hailstorm are sustaining themselves on the "last remains of their mental strength" and may soon give in.

Over five days earlier this month, Patkar and his team of volunteers visited several villages in Latur and Beed, where 17 farmers had committed suicide within two weeks of the hailstorm.

"We visited 14 villages, including the homes of 14 families where someone had committed suicide, and tried to offer psycho-social aid," says Patkar.

The team, comprising volunteers from Maharashtra Andhashrddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) and a network of manasmitras (mental health workers) treated 92 people over five days.

Those with acute levels of stress were identified and treated on the spot and given drugs; many others were referred to local psychiatric wards. The team had to adopt a circuitous route to talk about mental health since the subject is considered a taboo in most areas.

Says Patkar, "We would begin by probing people about sleep-related complaints and aches and pains. That gave us an opening into their state of being." Aditi Mhapankar, a volunteer on the team, says conversations with women required extra effort.

"There was this woman who had just been married and whose husband had committed suicide. She had no idea about how much loan he had and whom he'd taken it from. Although her husband had committed suicide, her life had been ripped apart," she says. "She was numb when we approached her, as were many others."

Patkar is worried that once the numbness goes away and realisation of the actual loss dawns on people, they may try to end their lives.

"Statistics show us it takes 27 attempts for a successful suicide. Stress levels are very high in this area, and unless something is done, we're staring at a much bigger calamity," he says.

Volunteers on the ground are busy organising follow-up visits to the affected area and offering counselling and support to those in need. They are also trying to raise funds, and some, like Vilas Shah from neighbouring Madha are chipping in; Shah contributed Rs 80,000, which was distributed among 10 affected families.

"The hailstorm must be declared a national calamity, and the government must undertake urgent steps to address the needs of those affected," says Dr Patkar.
Aware of the fact that psychiatric help is not enough to cure the ills of conventional resource-heavy agriculture, Dr Patkar advocates crop insurance for rainfed agriculture and daily wage employment for families affected by the calamity.

Water rights activist Anil Patil from Madha agrees. "After the acute drought over the last couple of years, it seemed farmers would be able to wipe off their losses this year. But the hailstorm came as a big jolt. Crop insurance is the only solution," he notes.


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