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The Deaths of India’s Invisible Mothers

NEW DELHI–In October 2015, the state police in Bangalore, India’s IT city, found the body of a seven-month-old baby girl in a water sump. Her mother confessed to killing her soon after the police found the body and she was subsequently arrested. After a routine medical examination, doctors found that she had been suffering from postnatal depression. A small report appeared in a regional newspaper some days later.

Similar small reports appeared when a woman in Ghaziabad, in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, reportedly threw her 11-month-old baby boy from the second-floor balcony of her house in April 2012. She too was diagnosed with depression. Another incident occurred in September 2010 when a mother drowned her eight-month-old baby boy in a washing machine at her home in Kerala.

Murdering one’s child is perhaps the ugliest manifestation of depression in women, and while they sadly only make for small reports in regional newspapers they tell a deep-rooted story of millions of women in India struggling silently with this disease, with many even taking their own lives.

According to Shamika Ravi, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution India, the largest demographic in India committing suicide is that of women. India’s National Crime Bureau annually releases figures that show that since 2007 approximately 20,000 housewives have killed themselves each year in India.

Despite these alarming numbers, there have been few headlines or research or public concern into this. Why are India’s women suffering in silence? With 34 births in India per minute the magnitude and spread is unfortunately easy to calculate.

Psychiatrist Dr. Vikram Patel, who is part of a policy group that’s developing India’s first national mental health policy, said that no where else in the world were so may young women killing themselves and that India’s figures were six to seven times higher than anywhere else in the world.

Since there was no data available for the reason behind the deaths of so many women, we at NDTV (New Delhi Television) narrowed our research into maternal mental health and began to look for women suffering from depression anytime from when they conceived to the time the child was 24 months old.

Our research led us to 32-year-old Saba (all women’s surnames in the piece have been left out to protect their identities), a housewife from Puducherry in South India, who told us about her struggle with depression. Having a baby was her big desire in life and she was looking forward to motherhood. But within days of her baby boy being born she began to feel otherwise.

She had thoughts of harming her baby, began hallucinating and one evening while feeding her son, she threw him off the bed onto the floor. Luckily, the baby was not hurt badly and her husband recognized that she may be undergoing postpartum depression. Saba agreed to get professional help.

Dr. Prabha S. Chandra of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) treated Saba. NIMHANS in Bangalore started its first mother-baby unit in 2009. Just a seven-bed facility, this was a small step in addressing the larger issue. At the facility, Dr. Chandra and her team support mothers with severe forms of postpartum obsessions and psychosis.

Dr. Chandra says that the illness has negligible recognition in India. Shame, stigma and lack of awareness about the condition often prevent most women from getting diagnosed and receiving treatment. She said that while there are no studies that link suicide to postpartum depression in India, it is a well established medical fact that depression plays a significant role in suicide.

According the World Health Organization (WHO) 20% percent of mothers in developing countries experience clinical depression after childbirth. Nandita, an IT professional from Bangalore, is one of them.

Nandita had an active work and social life before she became pregnant. After her baby was born—as is popular in Indian custom— she had to spend the first 40 days indoors as it is believed to prevent the baby from contracting infection when its immunity is low.  But it also restricts the mother’s movements as interaction with others is discouraged. Instead of feeling rested and comforted, Nandita began to feel isolated. She soon realized she had begun to hallucinate and had thoughts about killing her newborn. She recognized her symptoms and did some research on the internet to know more about her condition.

According to Dr. Archana Narula, the India coordinator of Postpartum Support International, these old customs are often a triggering factor for depression in new moms in India. And to make it worse, Indian society often makes these women feel ashamed of talking about their experiences.

Nandita told us that she used to get visuals of the baby being dead, thoughts of dropping the baby, harming the baby. But she felt awkward about sharing these thoughts as she felt her family would not be accepting of this. So she approached her doctor to get help.

Saba and Nandita got help but a big challenge lies ahead of the Indian health system to integrate universal screening for all new mothers in India. Out of 29 states, just one district—Sehore district in Madhya Pradesh—has mental health screening for new mothers. The PRIME project, designed by Vikram Patel, of the Public Health Foundation of India, integrates mental health care with primary health care and is currently ongoing in Sehore district in Madhya Pradesh, providing basic counseling and medication given free of cost.

All this is indicative that the recognition of the problem has come about and that small steps are being taken both by the government and health groups. But replicating Madhya Pradesh’s model nationally is the urgent need of the hour if India’s mothers are to help be saved from depression.


Amba Batra Bakshi has been a reporter for 15 years covering a range of social and political issues. She has worked with The Outlook magazine, The Indian Express, The Asian Age and The Guardian, and currently is a reporter and presenter for NDTV. She is the author of the book “In Custody: Women in Tihar.” 

Photos: Shutterstock

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