US doc fights mental disorder stigma across world


NEW DELHI: For many long years she battled the shame of having a schizophrenic father but that seems a lifetime ago. For now, an American doctor has travelled across the world, including India, to raise awareness and explode myths associated with mental ailments, through her film.

Dr Delaney Ruston, a Stanford-trained physician, filmmaker and a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar Research Fellow has made a documentary film on global mental health, titled ‘Hidden Pictures’, which was screened here recently.
The film prompts people from layman to experts to talk more about mental health with greater maturity and attempts to “chip off” the layers to get to the “core of the issue”.
“I felt a lot of shame growing up as a teenager when my father had these conditions. But, after he committed suicide in 2006 in front of me, I confronted myself and it made me want to go and understand the mental conditions of people around the world, so I made this film,” says Delaney.
The film, Dr Ruston’s second after her multi-award winning PBS documentary, “Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia”, that she had made on her father, saw her travelling from India to Africa to France and China and Nepal and left her “with many surprises” as it relieved her of “many myths”.
“I came to India about 2-3 years ago for shooting this film and I couldn’t find a family willing to talk about mental health, until a family did agree to face the camera,” says Dr Ruston.
“According to World Health Organisation (WHO) more than 450 million people globally suffer from mental disorders. 80 per cent of them go without treatment and of the funds allocated 1 per cent finds it for mental health.
“And travelling to countries like India known for strong family ties, I found the ‘affected’ being treated with equal disdain,” she says.
In France, she says, which is known to have best medicine facilities in the world, she found people with mental conditions being ostracised and segregated.
“The patient from France in the film says he feels being treated like a parasite by the society and this the best country for medicine and health we are talking about,” says the doctor-cum-filmmaker.
So, why did this 1995 Stanford University graduate in medicine chose to gravitate towards filmmaking?
“I picked up formal training while I was doing my internal medicine residency in San Francisco in 1998. But, as a child we had family friends who were documentary filmmakers and they did inspire me to take this step.
“But, I would say my curiosity is most directed towards human conditions and I wanted to convey the pains of these suffering people and elicit empathy from the audience and people in general. Stigma does not convey their plight as we know it,” she added.
Failing to find any advocacy group for mental condition was another challenge that she said she had found in India.
Ms Karin Lockwood, a teacher at the American Embassy School here, who features in the documentary, as part of a classroom session there on building “empathy champions”, was also present at the screening.
“Having introduced these medical terminologies and talking about them really opened up students themselves, which is part of our over-arching principle of developing inter-relationship between the mental, social and the physical conditions,” says Lockwood.
The film also features noted Hollywood actress Glenn Close and ‘Bring Change 2 Mind’, a national anti-stigma campaign founded by her. Close’s sister Jessie Close, and nephew, Calen Pick, both suffer from mental disorder and are part of the campaign.
“First basic step is to say the words — ‘depression’, ‘bipolar’, ‘schizo’, ‘schizo’, ‘schizo’, you just have to say it to confront it,” Close says it in the film, asking people to break the stigma.
Shot with a soft focus, ‘Hidden Pictures’ opens with a metaphor of pictures drying up on the line after being washed and ends with the filmmaker’s father photograph being washed away in the waves as a symbolic gesture of his death seven years ago, weaving a poignant narrative from India to America in between.
Five years in the making “Hidden” also borrows footage from Ruston’s previous works “Unlisted..” and from her time when she had come to India for the first time to work on a ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ project.
Her previous also include “Crisis in Control”, about psychiatric advance directives, and “Go Away Evil”, about mental illness in South Africa. She is currently working on a new project on global mental health, she said.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion and a subsequent question and answer session, which was moderated by Cultural Attache, Embassy of the United States of America, Mr David Mees.
Panelists included Delaney Ruston, Avdesh Sharma, a consultant psychiatrist, and Sujatha D Sharam, a clinical psychologist, both based in Delhi.
“The funding for the film came through personal donations and grants, including the Fulbright foundation,” said Ruston, who is in India for the last two years.
“Since I’m currently on the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, so I cannot practice professionally, therefore I’m using the time to be a full-time documentarian and find personal stories to tell,” she says.


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