Remembering Dr Sarada Menon, The First Woman Psychiatrist of India

In the 1940s, a young medical graduate from Kerala was adamant that she wanted to take psychiatry as her specialisation. At that time, only men dominated the field of psychiatry, but this young female doctor did not give up. Like this India had its first female psychiatrist – Dr Sarada Menon. This exceptional doctor has left us on 5 December 2021. But her legacy will live on.

Sarada Menon was born on 5 April 1923 in Mangalore, as the youngest of eight children. She grew up in Chennai. She graduated from Madras Medical College in 1951. She started her career at Pittapuram Mission Hospital, Andhra Pradesh.   

In 1959, Dr Sarada Menon obtained her diploma from NIMHANS (The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences), Bengaluru. After that, she joined the Kilpauk Mental Hospital which is now renamed the Institute of Mental Health, Chennai. In 1961, she became the first woman Superintendent of this hospital.

This marked the beginning of an era of reforms in patient care. Under her, 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. Realising that treatment is not enough and rehabilitation is necessary for patients who are abandoned by family, Dr Sarada Menon initiated the participation of social organisations. These social organisations helped in the rehabilitation of mentally ill patients.

Dr Sharadha believed that psychiatry needs more women. She encouraged many women to take up the field of psychiatry. She had a passion for teaching and even now her distinguished studies are recalled with great appreciation.

After her retirement Dr Sarada Menon was restless, believing that there is much more to be done for the field of psychiatry.  In 1984, Dr Sarada Menon founded the NGO – Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), along with Dr R Tara and Dr Sadanand Rajkumar. But fundraising for mental health was not an easy task. Dr Tara recalled in her interview to ‘The Hindu’ that Dr Sarada remained unshaken and would often tell her that to work for the good of the community, one must remain insensitive to insults and rebuffs.

Gradually, rising from its modest beginnings, SCARF has now become a nationally and internationally recognised organisation in mental health.

Dr Menon broke the stereotyped opinion that doctors should only prescribe medicines. She spent a lot of time with her patients, identified the stress factors in their lives and spoke to their families. Not surprisingly, many awards found their way to her. It included the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1992 from the Government of India. She received the Avvaiyar award from the Government of Tamil Nadu in 2016. She was also elected regional vice-president and secretary-general of the World Association for Psychosocial Rehabilitation (WAPR).

Dr Menon died in Chennai on 5 December 2021, at the age of 98. But her friends and disciples remember her with tearful eyes. Dr Sarada would be greatly missed and she would always remain an inspiration and a valuable person in the field of psychiatry. 

Poorna Krishnan

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