Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya
Dr Bhattacharyya is a visiting specialist psychiatrist attached to Nightingale Hospital in Kolkata, India. She is one of 25 women to be highlighted as part of a special project that celebrates the stories of 25 amazing women psychiatrists.
Dr Bhattacharyya's story
I have been practising psychiatry for thirty years. It has been an incredible journey. I did my medical degree in Calcutta and then I went through psychiatric training in England.
My first placement was in Fairfield Hospital. The setting was idyllic but it housed some of the most seriously unwell patients I’ve ever seen. Gradually, community care was phased in and the old asylum style hospitals were closed down.
One of my experiences in Fairfield Hospital remains one of the most challenging of my life. I was on call over the weekend. I got an agitated call from a nurse and rushed to the spot. A patient had committed suicide. There were some dramatic copycat attempts, with one person jumping off the first floor. On Monday morning another patient made a very serious suicide attempt. The nurses and I helped her and to our great relief, she survived. Within a span of two days, I had experienced my worst nightmare and my best accomplishment.
After Fairfield Hospital, I worked in the psychiatric wings of hospitals and also in the community. I have written about one of my experiences in the Future Archives competition of the College. I regularly learn from my patients and that is what makes psychiatry so interesting. This sense of connection with other human minds is a truly rewarding experience.
After completing my first few years of training I returned to Kolkata, India. I had a baby boy and as a single parent, I felt I needed to go back home where I would have social and emotional support. Leaving the security blanket of the NHS and taking a leap into the unknown was not an easy decision. I still work with very scarce resources. The College supported me by waiving my annual fees when my income was close to nil.
The training in the UK has been invaluable; I don’t think I would have received similar training in Calcutta, but the UK had never been my home. I have nothing against the people, they are nice and friendly. But I wanted to be back with my own people. In the NHS, I was just a small part of a huge machine but here I add much more value to the system.
I am a member of the College, with the qualification (MRCPsych) being valued in Kolkata. I used to come for locum work initially but now it has become too much of a hassle. Building up my practice from scratch has been difficult. Without the membership, it would have been impossible. There are certain core aspects of psychiatry which remain the same across all settings. Experience in diverse settings (I especially appreciate the structure of the rotational scheme) helps to broaden your horizon and enrich yourself.
The typical image of a capable doctor in Kolkata is that of an elderly male. Being a young woman, I had to work my way painstakingly slowly. I even had patients who booked appointments but, realising that I am a woman, walked out of the room! However, in spite of needing to work against this prejudice, many patients and families came to value and praise my care. I received many messages of thanks when I had successfully treated cases which seemed hopeless to other doctors.
In the personal sphere, I think I have done well as my son is now doing D.Phil. in Oxford University and he is a Rhodes Scholar.
I guess everyone’s circumstances are unique. You have to be very clear about what you want in life. One of my most difficult problems (I know it will not resonate with people here) was getting my son admitted to a primary school. Due to unfortunate circumstances, he was turned down by most schools. I did manage to get him admitted to a school so I could stay on in Kolkata. Otherwise, I would have come back to England. You cannot compromise on a child’s education!
As I lived with my parents (I still do), that took away a lot of pressure. I had a brilliant childhood and I felt that I should provide the same for my son, come what may. I would tell young female psychiatrists, that you must be very clear about your values and goals. You cannot have everything. I traded off the financial security provided by the NHS, the lifestyle offered by England, even the so-called ‘normal family structure’ because I wanted certain things. My identity has been an important aspect of my life.
I was awarded the Morris Markowe Public Education prize by the College in 2001. Since then I have tried to do my bit in promoting psychiatry. That includes local TV programmes, radio programmes, and translating Public Health Information leaflets of the Royal College into Bangla. I have conducted awareness programs, including in Calcutta Club, one of the elite clubs of Kolkata. Some of my articles in journals and web magazines include: Stress: How it can help us1; The Psychology of Terrorism Understanding and Implications for Policies2; and articles on how to power down in a wired world, building resilience, and more. I also use my website3 and Facebook page4 to communicate about mental health.
The coronavirus pandemic had been a steep learning curve. Like everyone else, I am trying to adjust to the new normal. It felt very different, but I am always willing to embrace change. I discovered two new passions during this period. One is writing stories. I am one of the 25 winners (coincidence!) of the Eshe writing contest5. The book should be published soon. I have written a second book of historical fiction in Kindle Direct Publishing, titled Home Coming6. I have written about a boy from a village in Bangladesh who lives through the turbulent times of the 1940s and comes to England. He soaks in the culture and natural beauty of the English countryside but his yearning to go home is always in his heart. He finally goes back home. The protagonist is my father who came to England, spent a few years and went back ‘home’. He too was a maverick like me, and I share the same yearning for returning home as he did.
My other passion is neuroscience. I recently attended the Neuroscience Conference at the College. The pandemic has freed up some of my time. Psychiatry has made significant advances. Neuroscience gives us a better understanding of circuits, prediction errors, learning and memory. I am doing online courses to update myself. Learning is difficult as I age, but I hope to persevere. My quest of understanding the human mind is another passion of mine. Maybe I’ll write another book in future incorporating my insights into the human mind.
- Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya, “Stress: How it can help us,” CIIMHANS Bulletin, Vol. 3, Issue – 14, Aug - Oct 2018.
- Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya, “The Psychology of Terrorism Understanding and Implications for Policies,” The Bengal Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 20, No 2, July – December 2015
- Dr. Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya | Psychiatrist Kolkata
- Dr. Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya MRCPsych (Facebook)
- Kapoor, Aekta. Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories.” Embassy Books, 2021.
- Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya. “Home Coming.” Kindle Direct Publishing 2021.