Shame factor jeopardizes psychiatric treatment

South Asian family paid dearly for their silence

July 5, 2008
rithi Yelaja

Lina Dhingra, left, is seen here with her father, Ved Dhingra, at the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital. Her father was found not criminally responsible for the manslaughter of his wife. He suffers from schizophrenia.



Every Sunday, Lina Dhingra drives from Toronto to Whitby Psychiatric Hospital to visit the man who murdered her mother.

She prepares a feast of Indian food – samosas, chapattis, rice and palak paneer – to take along because those are his favourite dishes, as well as DVDs of the latest Bollywood movies.

She holds no animosity. She has forgiven the man. He is her father, Ved Dhingra.

This spring, Dhingra was found not criminally responsible in the death of his 56-year-old wife, Kamlesh Dhingra, on June 15, 2006, because he suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He was released to the care of the hospital.

Lina and her brother, Paul Dhingra, believe their father is just as much a victim as their mother – of a medical system that failed to properly help him.

They struggle daily with whether they are somehow culpable. Until the murder, their father's mental illness was the family secret.

The Dhingra family tragedy highlights the widespread stigma surrounding mental illness that experts say is amplified in the South Asian community, which values projecting a perfect, achievement-oriented faηade at all costs and dealing with family issues privately, without outside intervention.

"People don't want to admit it or talk about it. We never told anyone outside the family because it's a taboo. But it's sickness like diabetes or anything else. It's ironic it took my mother's death for my father to get the help he needs," says Paul.

Adds Lina, "This tragedy has left a huge strain on my heart and mind that I'll never be able to erase. It's a part of me. The only thing I can do now is encourage others to be more open about it than we were."

On the shore of Lake Ontario, the sprawling, open-concept and light-filled Whitby Psychiatric Hospital looks more like a country club than a locked psychiatric facility. Ved Dhingra passes the time here playing cards, watching DVDs of Bollywood movies and counting the days until his daughter Lina's next visit.

"I know she (Lina) has a large heart, so she's able to forgive me. Maybe my son has not yet. I am not able to forgive myself either," says Dhingra, 66.

"What happened was part of my illness. ... Sometimes things go out of control. I believe these mental diseases are a very dangerous thing in one's life."

Medication has calmed the voices in his head, only to reveal a reality that is utterly depressing. Symptoms of schizoaffective disorder include severe mood changes, as well as some of the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia that reflect an inability to distinguish what is real from what is imagined, such as hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking.

"I worked hard all my life so I can be comfortable in my old age. And I end up in a mental hospital," says Dhingra, shaking his head.

He and his wife, Kamlesh, came to Canada from India in 1970 for a better life, settling in Brampton. He scrambled to support his family – Paul was born in 1969 and Lina in 1974 – driving a taxicab, selling real estate, and opening an Indian food store.

In the 1980s and '90s he moved the family around a lot – to Florida, Fort Erie, Port Hope and Trenton, buying and selling gas stations, motels and campgrounds. The whole family pitched in to run the businesses – Dhingra pumped gas, his children worked the registration desk, while his wife cooked in the restaurant.

"Like most immigrants, Dad defined success by what he had in material terms. He was very preoccupied by that. That's how he showed us love, by providing for us," recalls Lina. She says those were happy times, with the family gathering for dinner every night and then watching Bollywood movies together.

Dhingra was treated for depression in 1983 after a business deal went bad, but things really started to unravel in 1991, when he started "acting really strange," says Lina, who was 17 at the time. Dhingra sold most of their assets and bought a former Catholic church, though the family is Hindu.

"He said he wanted to give back to the community. Obviously, it wasn't a rational decision so we were very worried, but we didn't dream it was a mental illness," says Lina, 34, an event planner.

What Dhingra did next was even more bizarre. He sold the church, became a devotee of the Sai Baba Hindu sect and moved to India.

After he left, Kamlesh took the children back to Brampton, where they had extended family. To cope, she turned her melodious voice to singing bhajans, devotional hymns, at weekend gatherings in the Vishnu temple in Richmond Hill.

By 1993, Dhingra had returned to Toronto and was living alone in subsidized housing.

Lina recalls the family's reaction after hearing the diagnosis of schizophrenia from Dhingra's doctor.

"We were in complete shock and denial. The whole idea of mental illness was new to us."

They shared the news with relatives.

"Their reaction was, `What's that? Does that mean he's retarded?' It was ignorance," says Lina.

She researched schizophrenia and explained it to her mother. They made a pact.

"We decided to keep it under wraps and not talk about it to anyone. Here we were, this established Indian family who made its mark, and Dad's struck with this illness that no one can even see. What would people think? For Indians, impression is a big thing. You keep skeletons in the closet."

Part of it was also self-preservation, she admits.

"To talk about Dad having a mental illness was embarrassing. I thought, who's going to date me?"

Not only was keeping such a big secret a lonely experience, it backfired, Lina says. Her father wasn't encouraged to get the help he needed, and the family struggled to cope with his illness on their own.

Lackadaisical about taking prescribed medication and living on his own, in the months leading up to the murder, Dhingra's mental state deteriorated dangerously. On one occasion, police arrested him after he removed all his clothes and walked naked in the street. He attempted suicide four times, and was in and out of hospital.

On June 9, 2006, he was released from York Central Hospital into his wife's care after another suicide attempt, although the couple had been separated for more than a decade. Kamlesh took pity on him because he had nowhere else to go.

"My mother didn't want him to end up on the streets. She was a very sacrificial type of woman – always putting other people first," says Paul, who had taken his father in before but was fearful of doing so again because he had young children and Dhingra had attempted suicide at his house.

Dhingra believes he should not have been discharged from hospital.

"I needed to stay in the hospital at that time. I was not in my proper mind. My situation was very bad. When they released me from the hospital my wife brought me to her place," he says.

Six days later, Kamlesh was dead. She had been stabbed numerous times, and her head bashed in with a Lord Ganesh statue.

Dhingra says he blacked out and can't remember what happened.

"I was lying on the floor. When I opened my eyes, I see she was dead on the bed. The knife was lying on the floor and the broken statue was there. I got up in a very confused state of mind. Then I tried to kill myself," he says, lifting his shirt to reveal a 6-inch scar on his abdomen where he stabbed himself.

It was Paul, stopping by on his way home later that day, who stumbled upon the bloody scene.

"I thought they were both dead, that someone else had tried to kill them.

"It was sheer horror. I screamed at the top of my lungs for God," recalls Paul, 39, a recruitment manager.

"To this day I don't accept she's dead. Sometimes I think, she's just gone to live in India."

Although he attended the criminal trial, Paul rarely visits his father at the Whitby hospital.

"How can you not be angry? The way he did it (murder) was very brutal. Walking into that, I was traumatized. I still have nightmares, and now my kids don't have their grandmother."

Alone with his thoughts, Dhingra says he agonizes over what happened.

"I miss her. I loved her very much, no doubt about it.

"I cry when I think of how my children are suffering. I feel sorry all the time."

Lina has lodged a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons about the care her father received from a Woodbridge psychiatrist.

College spokesperson Kathryn Clarke confirmed the college has launched an investigation. York Central and the psychiatrist declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

Paul and Lina have also consulted lawyer Brian Horowitz about possibly launching a civil action.

"The big question with this kind of case, from a legal point of view, is the foreseeability of the murder," says Horowitz.

"We know Mr. Dhingra had a mental illness – there were psychotic symptoms off and on. What we don't know is whether the act of his murdering his wife was predictable or foreseeable."

In the two years since the murder, with the help of counselling, Lina has decided to go public with her family's tragedy – with mixed results.

When she told an Indian man she dated recently about her father's illness, his response was: "What is this schizophrenia? Can it be passed on? Oh, my family wouldn't accept that."

Misconceptions like that make her more determined than ever to fight the stigma.

"There was a time when I blamed myself for what happened," Lina says.

"My view now is, let's be honest and not sweep this illness under the rug, so more families don't suffer in silence. Coming out in the open about this feels like a big weight has been lifted from me."

Toronto Star