Actress Parveen Babi's lonely death in a Mumbai suburb has put the spotlight on her dark secret:
schizophrenia - a deadly mental affliction that reportedly haunted her till her last day.
An expert here said the one-time actress may have been alive today if only those who came to her side after her death had stood by her when she was living.
"Had they shown the same kind of interest, compassion and concern, perhaps the illness could have been more effectively treated and the course of her life could have been different," tells Sunil Mittal of Delhi Psychiatry Centre. "For all we know, she probably would have been alive today."
Family support plays a vital role in curing schizophrenia that victimises 10 million Indians. One percent of the world population suffers from schizophrenia, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
"This perhaps explains why schizophrenics show a greater rate of recovery in India. Latest research shows that 70 percent schizophrenia patients in India recover after treatment whereas only 38-40 percent recover in the US," says Mittal.
"The family's intervention could have surely made a difference to Parveen Babi's life," he opines.
Says Puneet Dwevedi, a psychiatrist who deals with cases of chronic schizophrenia at Sanjivini, a counselling centre for the mentally ill: "Babi was a typical patient without family and human ties and not amenable to getting treatment. Support from family would surely have helped."
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe and disabling brain disease. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them.
The reclusive actress, psychiatrists say, was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in which a victim is prone to all sorts of grandiose delusions and hallucinations.
"When she accused Amitabh Bachchan and others of a conspiracy to finish her career, people should have read it as a warning signal rather than ridiculing her," says Dwevedi.
Myths and superstitions surrounding the disease clutter the path of understanding. One of the persistent myths about the disease is that it is not treatable. This drives some people to seek refuge in pseudo-religious and obscurantist methods like going to witch doctors and faith healers.
This is a dangerous detour as schizophrenia can only be cured by medication.
Says Parikh: "Schizophrenia is caused by an imbalance of neuro-chemicals in the brain. It can be aggravated by stress or emotional problems. Medication is the only established scientific treatment which has been found to be effective."
Mittal stresses on psycho-social rehabilitation. "Medication is the backbone of the treatment, but helping the family understand the problem and deal with it is equally important."
Another pervasive myth about the disease is that patients of schizophrenia are prone to violence and, therefore, it's sensible to avoid them. Mittal finds this attitude reeking of ignorance and callousness.
"Schizophrenics seldom turn violent against others. On the contrary, they only end up directing violence against themselves..."
Says Samir Parikh, a New Delhi-based psychiatrist: "Most people are unaware of the disease. But we can't hide behind the veil of ignorance and social stigmatisation for long as delay in treatment makes it all the more harder to treat the disease."
Instead of distorting stereotypes, schizophrenics need society's empathy and compassion.
Warns Dr Mittal: "Schizophrenia is the great leveller - it can affect anyone regardless of his class or caste. It's time to spread more awareness about the disease. Otherwise, many more people will be dying a slow painful death."