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In Memoriam: Dr. Sarada Menon (1923-2021)

Dr. Sarada Menon

Dr. Sarada Menon, sadly passed away on the 5th December, 2021 surrounded by the family and friends she loved. Dr. Sarada Menon, M.D, FRCPsych (UK) was the first woman psychiatrist in India whose name was synonymous with psychosocial rehabilitation, for which she had great passion.

Menon was born in a Malayali family on 5 April 1923 as the youngest of eight children of her parents in Mangalore, a coastal town in the south Indian state of Karnataka. Graduating in medicine from Madras Medical College in 1951, she did her residency at Irwin Hospital, New Delhi (present-day Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital) before joining Madras Medical Service in 1951 to start her career at Pittapuram Mission Hospital, Andhra Pradesh. She simultaneously studied for the post-graduate degree of MD which she obtained in 1957. Subsequently, she successfully completed the Diploma in Psychiatric Medicine (DPM), a two-year course in psychiatry, at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), thus becoming the first woman psychiatrist in India.

After obtaining her DPM from NIMHANS, Bangalore in 1961, she became the Superintendent of the state run Madras Mental Hospital (now known as Institute of Mental Health). It was during her tenure, the institution started the department of psychiatry, opened an out-patient facility and established regional psychiatric centres at all the district hospitals in the state. Her efforts have also been reported behind initiating participation of social organisations in the rehabilitation of mentally ill patients.

In 1984, she gathered a few like-minded people and founded Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), a non-profit non governmental organisation, for the rehabilitation of people afflicted with schizophrenia and other mental diseases. Over the years, SCARF has developed into a full-fledged research base and is one of the few Indian institutions recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Collaborating Centre for Mental Health Research and Training. The organisation provides temporary shelters and telepsychiatric therapy, runs vocational training centres aimed at the rehabilitation of patients and manages a mobile clinic.

Right from her early years, Menon displayed a great desire for teaching and even now, her students, many of whom are themselves distinguished in their own right, recall with great appreciation her clinical acumen, clarity and enthusiasm. She has inspired several bright young people to take up psychiatry. She has naturally served as examiner in almost all universities in the country and has also guided several PhD scholars. In addition, her desire to serve the community drove her to work for the Red Cross, and many other charitable organisations and other NGOs.

Dr. Menon’s contribution to psychiatric rehabilitation also won her worldwide acclaim and was presented with several awards, the most notable being the Padma Bhushan in 1993, one of the highest civilian awards given by the Government of India. She was also the regional vice-president and the Secretary General of the World Association for Psychosocial Rehabilitation. She was the founder of the Indian Chapter of WAPR.

Dr. Menon will be remembered as a highly modest, humble, cheerful and compassionate person. Almost everybody who had crossed her path were struck by her ability to connect, not just with them, but with their issues in life and their families. She was an "universal mother".

Dr. Afzal Javed, WPA President commented on the sad news "I knew Dr. Menon for a number of years, especially through her work on psychosocial rehabilitation as part of the SCARF projects. Her great initiatives bridged the gap between understanding stigma among the professionals and patients, carers and families. She will be remembered for her exceptional contributions and outstanding guidance to the young psychiatrists to follow her great work."

As Longfellow once penned "Lives of great (wo)men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime and departing leave behind us footprints on the sand of time".

Author: Dr R. Thara, co-Founder and Vice Chairman, SCARF (On behalf of SCARF and the Indian Psychiatric Society)


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