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marriage, separation and divorce are the most prominent factors that push women to depression.

While nationally, 37 per cent women are subjected to physical torture and 35.5 per cent to mental harassment at home, in Kerala the figures are as high as 62.3 and 61.61.

| Gender| Health|

In the grip of depression

M Suchitra

December 2002 - Reshma, 23, a lab technician in Kochi, never thought her marriage would turn out to be a hell. She was beautiful, intelligent and energetic She had married her lover Anoop, now an advertising executive, after two years of courting. "We were good friends too,’’ she recalls. ``I used to think he understood me well.’’ But the marriage changed it all. Anoop slipped into the role of a typical, male-chauvinist husband. ``He is so possessive that he doesn’t even let me go out and meet my friends,’’ Reshma says, her eyes welling up with tears. ``He keeps the phone locked when he goes to work. He forced me to abandon my job. He wants me to stay at home all the time and be an ideal housewife.’’Small wonder, this young woman, who used to be a cheerful, fun-loving and warm girl, fell in the grip of depression. After a failed suicidal attempt, she had to be admitted to a private psychiatric clinic.

Pshychiatrists and counsellors point out that Reshma is among a growing number of women in the most socially forward state of Kerala who turn mentally sick. Cutting across caste, class and religion depression is the most common mental disorder among Kerala women .Dr. C J John, chief psychiatrist of the Medical Trust Hospital, Kochi, says: The number of people with mental disorders due to genetic reasons remain more or less the same. But there is a visible increase in the number of people going to the psychiatrist, especially women, with stress and depression caused by social and economic reasons.He points out that the suicide rate of Kerala women is twice the national average and that a significant number of women turn to alcohol for relief from mental depression. (Incidentally, Kerala has the highest suicide rate in the country,32 per 1,00,000 population--which is more than three times the national average)

Kerala is a South Asian leader in achievements in women’s education and health especially reproductive health. Nine out of every 10 women can read and write and the state produces the largest number of women post-graduates in India. Sex ratio has been consistently favourable to women over the past century. Health indices like women’s life expectancy , maternal mortality rate and fertility rate compare favourably with many developed countries. Despite the State’s high scores in the Physical Quality of Life Index, women’s socio-psychological health is grim. Studies reveal that many suicides and homicides carried out by women in Kerala are linked to depression.

Why is it so? Strides in women’s education and health should have a corresponding impact on the status of women. But Kerala is a society where patriarchal values are so deeply rooted that women are rather invisible in social and political spheres, says Dr. T.N Seema, former member of the State Planning Board. The need to conform to socially mandated gender roles has a debilitating effect on educated women. Stress and a feeling of powerlessness are ways to depression.

According to psychiatrists and counsellors, marriage, separation and divorce are the most prominent factors that push women to depression. On the one hand, with increasing educational levels, women become more and more aware of their own identity. But on the other hand there is no change in the patriarchal and conservative structure of family and society. ``Women who are denied of opportunities for self-actualisation tend to be depressed," says Ms. Eliamma Vijayan, director of Sakhi, a Thiruvananthapuram-based women’s resource centre. She cites examples of women panchayat-municipal representatives (they got elected under the one-third women’s reservation provision), who find it hard to cope with both official and family responsibilities. ``They bear the heavy role strain of multiple demands made by family and career,’’ Ms. Vijayan said.

Acute unemployment among women makes the matters worse. While the total work participation has increased in the last decade (Census 2001) in both urban and rural areas of the state , in the case of women a reverse trend has set in. The female work participation rate has decreased from 15.9 per cent in 1991 to 15.3 per cent in 2001. Even in the rural areas, more women are turning jobless. "In a society where around 85 per cent women are categorized as non-workers, how can you expect a psychologically-healthy womenfolk?" asks Dr.John. The work they do at home is never taken into account. A significant number of them is highly educated and are aware of their identity. Their frustration level is high.

Domestic violence, which is itself caused mainly by men’s alcohol abuse, has a significant role in driving women to the dark tunnel of depression. According to a study conducted by the International Clinical Epidemeological Network and the International Centre for Research on Women, domestic violence in Kerala is very high. While nationally, 37 per cent women are subjected to physical torture and 35.5 per cent to mental harassment at home, in Kerala the figures are as high as 62.3 and 61.61. The study also reveals that 51.7 per cent of rural women are victims of domestic torture in India. But, in the fully literate Kerala, the figure is 68.8 per cent. Statistics with the State Crime Record Bureau reveal that the occurrence of rape, molestation, dowry harassment and eve-teasing is growing by the year. Violence against women affect both their physical and mental health. The psychological effects can range from shock, anxiety, fear, humiliation to `post-traumatic stress disorders.’ Not just the victims, many women who read news reports about such incidents also feel psychological stress.

Even if women choose to be single, life is not cosy for them either. As Savitha, a bank officer puts it,it is not easy for a single woman to rent a house. If at all you are lucky to get one, you will be look down upon you as if you are some sort of an anti-social.Almost all women’s hostels down their shutters by 7 p.m. and most hostels refuse to accommodate professionals like journalists who work night shifts.

The psychological health indices of young women have come down too. Schoolgirls have many anxieties and conflicts due to their physical and emotional growth. Girls at the beginning of their adolescence manifest five times more anxiety than the boys of same age.``Personality problems such as shyness, inhibitions, jealousy, sensitivity and complaints are manifested more by girls than boys,psychologists say.``Many girls confess they are in one way or the other sexually harassed even by close relatives,’’ says Dr.Sita Lakshmi, a Kochi child psychiatrist who specialize in behavioral disorders among children.

Dr. Sita Lakshmi points out that on the one hand internet and television expose the new generations to a Western, liberal, explosive lifestyle, but on the other hand they live in a society which refuses to shift from the orthodox, male chauvinistic mode. Girls face family and societal restrictions everywhere and are under tremendous pressure to fit into the traditional female roles. Small wonder, depression sets in. It should be noted that sex education is stilla taboo in Kerala schools , though sex counseling for adults is picking up.

Social scientists and women activists call for an intensive gender sensitizing programme targeting men in Kerala. NGOs and women’s organizations should take the lead Also, strengthening physical and psychological supportive systems for women at all levels is necessary.The Government recently initiated a total e-literacy campaign starting from the backward district of Malappuram. Why does the state does not addrerss the basic problems like gender insensitivity and the lack of supportive systems for women?" asks Mini Sukumar, former State director of the Mahila Samakhya programme.If a little more attention is given to women’s problems, many women can be easily saved from depression and from suicide,she suggests.

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