Pabna Mental Institution.

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 01:20 AM PST The festival of Eid was just coming to an end and I thought it would be a great time to head out of Dhaka for five days and do a little exploring. I took an overnight bus from Dhaka all the way up to Tetulia which is located in the far North about 20km from the Indian border. After a few connection buses, some hot cha (Tea), a decent night sleep surprisingly on a crazy bus, I finally arrived at 10 am (12 hours later) in Tetulia. I quickly found a guesthouse and got my self settled followed by a quick two hour nap to catch up on some sleep.

When I woke, the sun was shining, I packed my gear, and headed out to do a little exploring and to find the tea plantations. Tetulia itself is a very small town that is surrounded by wheat fields, rice fields, and tea gardens that span for hundreds of kilometers throughout the country side. After about an hour of walking I found a couple tea estates that produce the tea I was looking for, but to my dismay there were no workers in the fields. Puzzled and a little confused, suddenly a young Bengali boy riding his bicycle approached me and asked me what I was doing and in PERFECT English. After introductions he told me that the woman workers would not be returning to work until Sunday. As it was only Thursday, I didn’t like what I was hearing because if you couldn’t tell I like to have people in my photographs and had no interest in photographing trees all day… HAHA. The young Bengali boy asked if I wanted to join his family for lunch and as it turns out his uncle owned the land I was exploring on. Lunch as always is amazing in Bangladesh with a variety of food, meats, spices, and of course unnecessary amounts of rice. After lunch I thanked the family for their company, lunch, their hospitality as I had to keep exploring, and the family had to head back to their village. We exchanged our contact information and all of us went our separate ways.

Realizing that I didn’t want to spend three days waiting for workers to return to the tea gardens, I decided to head to a town called Pabna where about a month ago, I was doing research on a mental hospital and thought it might make for some interesting visuals and possibly a great story. The next morning I was up at 7am and caught the first bus out of town. Nine hours later and two bus rides, I arrived in Pabna. On the bus to Pabna I met a two Bengali boys Reza and Likhon that spoke decent English and offered to take me to a reputable guest house in town as they mentioned prostitution in Pabna is very prominent making it difficult to find accommodation where your not going to be solicited (Another story/Blog post coming soon…). We hopped off the bus and within 5 minutes I was at my guest house. Reza and Likhon said they could meet me the next morning and would be more than happy to help me gain access in the mental hospital. I booked my room which was about $4.00 a night that included waking up to several two inch size cockroaches crawling on me throughout the 3 days I spent in Pabna, despite my efforts using the mosquito net to keep them out…. Hey it’s better than the rat incident in Bhola…HAHAHAHA.

The next morning I met with Reza and Likhon and we headed for the Pabna Mental Hospital. All the research I had done previously on this institution mentioned they were desperate for funding, more qualified care workers, lack of facilities, etc. We arrived at about 11am and I asked to talk to the person in charge. The man that was supposed take me to the head boss was on edge the entire time as he offered to give me a tour, always whispering, and looking around as if he was being watched. He took me around the hospital letting me view the patients but would not allow me enter their rooms where they were being held. The rooms were very large about 40′ x 100′ where up to 30 patients were kept in one room. I kept asking him if I could take photo’s but he said it was not allowed until we were alone in one area and suddenly he said I could quickly take one photo but it had to be quick. This guy completely rubbed me the wrong way and I had enough of this sneaking around as if we were walking on egg shells. I stopped him, told him I wanted to see and talk to the person in charge. He said it was not possible. So I asked him again, and this time Reza stepped in and told him exactly what I wanted because tip toeing around a government hospital randomly taking photo’s without permission can create a bad situation. After much convincing, I finally met with the head doctor and told him my intentions and the type of access I was looking for. Within five minutes I had the permission I was looking for, however was not able to get access to the woman’s ward.

The last thing I want to do is put a bad taste in anyone’s mouth from any topic and/or subject matter I choose to photograph. From the research that I had done on the Pabna Mental Hospital it seems they were genuinely wanting to improve conditions. However from what I witnessed with my own two eyes, speaking to patients, and the attitudes from some of the staff, this cry for help couldn’t of been farther from the truth. Mentioned earlier in the post, there were 30 patients in locked in one room wards, human feces  in areas throughout the rooms, staff sitting around doing nothing, and staff screaming at patients for no apparent reason.

As I entered one of the communal rooms where the patients are locked up 20 hours of the day, I asked to photograph one of the patients and he enthusiastically was willing. Suddenly he started to sing and within 2 seconds one of the staff members starts shouting and approaches him ready to smack the back of his head to stop him from singing. I looked back at the staff and told him to be quiet, back off, and let the man sing as it was not harming me, him, or anybody else. Another instance I asked a patient why he was here. He responded in PERFECT ENGLISH and said his father in-law admitted him without telling him. His father in-laws reason was he talked to fast. His father in-law assumed he rapid speech must make him a drug addict so he sent him to the hospital for one month. I didn’t know who to believe.

Now after being in Bangladesh for almost five months I have realized there is ALWAYS two sides to every story. I decided to head to the office where they admit patients where they do the psychiatric assessments. As I entered the building there was already a steady line of about 30 people waiting to enter a room at the end of the hall were a medical curtain blocked anyone’s view from the office. People were entering the office and within about four minutes they exited and were taken away by staff. I asked Reza what was going on, and he said the doctor was assessing. Now I don’t know how assessments work in the medical field but can you really assess someone in four minutes?? In this line outside the office, I encountered a man that had chains around his wrist and a woman holding the other end of the chain as if to make sure this man was not going to escape from her sight. On the other side of the man was another older woman. It turns out that the woman holding the chains was the man’s aunt and the other woman was his Mother. I asked for permission to photograph the three of them and they graciously said yes with a slight nod to the side. Within minutes the mother started to cry and speaking in Bangla. Reza said she was extremely upset over her son as this was the third time she has admitted him because of his violent outburst at home and unable to keep a job to help support the family. As she continues to talk the son suddenly starts saying random things and staring into what seems to be nothing with no reaction to me, or anyone else surrounding him. After more questions the son starts to break down in tears, saying he doesn’t want to go back, and just as fast as he cry’s out for help, he quickly loses focus and stares into the oblivion.

The doctor now comes out of his office and suddenly the son grabs the doctors hand as he walks by and again cry’s out pleading with him that he is fine, and that it will never happen again. The mother and aunt tell me they have no more energy left. They have spent all their money on treatment from the hospital, the mother continually has to watch his son just in case he gets arrested or causes any harm to anyone else, and they don’t know what else to do as they have no where or anyone else to turn to.




This is a photo of the man who was going to be smacked for singing. His voice was actually very comforting and it seemed to calm everyone down in the room. Some other patients even started to sing along with him.




A patient quickly enjoys a cigarette before being told to return to his room/cell.




A group of patients enthusiastically pose for a photograph. The staff said it was dangerous to enter the room and they might be right. However they were so gentle with me and most of them even knew a little English. We had fun taking photographs and singing.





The Aunt, mother, and son waiting to be assessed by the head doctor.


The son breaking down into tears as he realizes what is about to happen to him.



The mother cries as she is extremely upset over her son's condition, situation, and that nothing seems to be working given that this is her third time in this circumstance.



Son being taken away to the psychiatric ward.