drugs, psychiatrist, rehab,yusuf merchant
A 64-year-old celebrity psychiatrist has been accused of sexual assault. Photo: Shutterstock

They Came to This Celebrity Psychiatrist’s Rehab To Heal. It Turned Out To Be a ‘Cult.’

Former patients of a renowned Indian rehab centre allege a chain of cult-like abuse at a facility run by celebrity psychiatrist Yusuf Merchant. 
SJ
Mumbai, IN
March 9, 2021, 9:42am

Umaire, a writer and aspiring filmmaker based in the western Indian city of Mumbai, had a cocaine addiction. In Sept. 2017, he confided in his parents and decided to seek professional guidance after rapidly losing weight and cognitive abilities. But as he toured the available options in Mumbai, he felt unsettled. 

“There were people in white gowns and the whole atmosphere was morose,” Umaire, who has now made a full recovery and requested to use only his first name for fear of reprisal, told VICE World News. 

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After various rehab visits, his parents’ former colleague suggested the Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation And Research Centre (DAIRRC), or Land, as it is popularly called.

Land was the opposite of all the rehab centres he had seen. It had open spaces, cozy rooms, a gym, a football field, and people who looked happy. It was close to a promised utopia.

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A portion of the Land Rehab Centre called the "Pathway to Recovery". Land was filled with open, green spaces that became an important reason why patients preferred to seek treatment there. Photo courtesy of PARA

Umaire checked into the centre but says he soon realised that its apparent perfection was a lie. “Dr Yusuf Merchant, the founder and head psychiatrist at Land was the only employee, besides the domestic help. It took a while for the shine to wear off and to realise that I was actually part of a cult.”

In the last year, seven people have levelled charges of sexual assault, mental harassment and unauthorised prescription of drugs against 64-year-old Merchant, considered one of India’s top celebrity psychiatrists.  

These complaints are registered with the Maharashtra Medical Council (MMC), the oldest medical body in the western Indian state in charge of overseeing ethics in medical practitioners. 

VICE World News has obtained written testimonies of seven of Merchant’s former patients describing how Doc, as he was commonly called, allegedly abused his authority to exploit his patients. To protect their identities, pseudonyms are used in this article. The survivors told VICE World News that they are currently not pursuing a court case as they want “restorative justice over punitive action,” and aim to ensure that Merchant does not harass or abuse any more people. 

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The testimonies detail various incidents of abuse, including physical violence, nonconsensual touching, and rape. In each instance, female survivors recall Merchant denying their allegations by calling them his “daughter”, or isolating his rehab patient after they confronted him. 

“In at least two cases that we are aware of, Dr Merchant has coerced and manipulated young women into long-term, non-consensual sexual situations,” reads a statement in the survivors’ testimony discussing Merchant’s alleged sexual assault. “One of these women was a patient under his care at Land at the time the abuse began; the other was then a minor girl of 16 years. Both were vulnerable young women from orthodox families which came to rely almost exclusively on Dr Merchant for emotional support and financial assistance. Both were clearly and unequivocally raped… by Dr. Merchant multiple times over the course of several years.”

Another testimony reads, I have never spoken about Merchant to anybody except my family, about the first time he raped me when I was 16 years old, while his daughter Bliss was sleeping in the same room, and each and every time after that for ten years of my life... I have been scared for all the ten years this man has raped, physically hurt, sexually abused and tortured me. Even after coming to Bangladesh far away from his torture, I still feared him and was so scared to say anything about my life to anybody, which in turn made everyone doubt me.”

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Still another says,It was the beginning of October, a group therapy was being held in Prayer Hall. The therapy ended, it was great, Dr. Merchant was hugging everyone. He hugged me. I was almost the last person in the room, then his hand went down to my butt, and he did a weird squeeze-tap thing with both hands. I was in shock.” 

One of the seven testimonies is that of Shehnaz, who asked that we use a pseudonym for her protection. Shehnaz entered Land in 2016 when she was 22 and suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression. 

The first thing that made her uncomfortable, Shenaz told VICE World News over the phone, was that Merchant always tried to hug her, and would ask her to “stop being weird” if she didn’t hug him back properly. She said she told Merchant she was uncomfortable sharing her room with other inmates in the rehab centre. “He used this as an opportunity to come and stay with me until I fell asleep.” It started with Merchant stroking Shenaz’s hair and singing her lullabies. Then one night, when Shenaz’s roommates were asleep, Merchant kissed her, she said. At first she thought maybe he made a mistake and was trying to kiss her forehead. But he did it multiple times. “I remember because he smelled like cigarettes,” she wrote in her testimony.  

Shenaz says that was only the beginning. For four years, she says Merchant sexually abused her while supervising her prescription medication that would often leave her drowsy. “I was on so many meds that my memory of what happened when is still hazy, but I’ll never forget the pain,” Shenaz said.

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In June 2020, Shenaz confided in one of Merchant’s former patients and confidantes who became a rehab trustee after his recovery. 

Her initiative prompted other survivors to speak out. With assistance from board members of the rehab with legal, medical and journalistic expertise, a community of former patients formed a support group known as the People Against Rehab Abuse (PARA) to help survivors who faced abuse and harassment during their time at Land. 

VICE World News has reached out to Merchant and his assistant through email and their phone numbers multiple times since Dec. 2020. They have not responded.

On Jan. 15, Merchant’s lawyer Shabnam Latiwala denied all accusations against Merchant and told VICE World News over email that “Dr. Yusuf Merchant is being targeted by certain disgruntled elements with the sole intention of discrediting his work and bringing disrepute to him.” She also said that the statements were anonymous and unsigned, yet “despite this, in a highly unfair manner, the mechanism has been set into motion.” 

Latiwala also said that since the matter is currently under investigation, “it would not be appropriate to comment on the merits of the case at present.” She added, “replies to the allegations have been filed before MMC within permitted time frames and we shall plead our case as per the law before concerned authorities.”

Merchant finished his Masters in Medicine from Grant Medical College, Mumbai in 1982. He was an intern in the psychiatry department when an encounter with a heroin addict, who he helped get off the drug, prompted him to establish a drug rehab in 1983. 

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According to the DAIRRC website, the centre is registered as a charitable trust. “The centre has participated in the recovery of heroin and other chemical and emotional dependants over the last 33 years, and therefore believes that any addict can give up [addiction], and any person struggling with depression can develop the coping skills required to lead a normal life,” the site notes. Land claims to have detoxified over 20,000 chemical dependents. 

Merchant is a celebrity in his own right, recognised by the rich and famous in India.

Some of India’s most prominent celebrities endorsed an anti-drug awareness campaign called Land’s Star War on Drugs. His book, titled Happyness: Life lessons from a Creative Addict, includes a foreword by the Dalai Lama. In his book, Merchant speaks about how an encounter with a childhood friend’s ailing grandfather led him to shift his path from pursuing a postgraduate degree in psychiatry to establishing his own rehab centre. No celebrity has commented on the charges against Merchant. 

In his book, Merchant claims he challenged his college over the use of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). “Halfway through that degree, I had a showdown with the head of the department over what I felt was the overuse of electroconvulsive shock therapy,” reads a line from his book. “I didn't want to administer ECTs, which were a fundamental part of the treatment in those days. I changed tack, learning everything I could about drug demand reduction strategies, including drug prevention and drug rehabilitation. Over the next few years I developed a highly successful rehabilitation programme for addicts and alcoholics in the city of Mumbai.”

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Land Rehab Centre was established to promote de-addiction through group therapy, where people could overcome their dependance on drugs by forging and fostering friendships within the space while cutting off from the outside world. Photo courtesy of PARA

The rehab centre has collaborated with the United Nations Drug Control Programme, National AIDS Control Organisation and the Ministry of Health, Government of India for multiple projects, according to the Land website. 

But Merchant’s former patients insist all the praise hides the reality of his real self – a sexual abuser who was deliberate about targeting his victims.

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Merchant’s former patients told VICE World News that he had a pattern of picking the people he would go on to abuse, most of whom came from troubled family backgrounds and were emotionally vulnerable. 

“It’s the same reason victims of domestic violence or gaslighting stay in abusive relationships for years,” a former patient and a Merchant confidante told VICE World News, requesting anonymity. “Much of Doc’s troubling behaviour is buried under love and affection. Merchant would then use the withdrawal of his affection and validation to make his victims feel isolated.” 

VICE World News also spoke to other former patients at Land who did not file a testimony. However, they reaffirmed the testimonies of the seven others.

Nikhil, a former programmer who came to Land from the UK in 2006 at the age of 18 and spoke to VICE World News on condition of using only his first name for his protection, said, “He would verbally abuse me, chide me, shame me, dress me down, all in front of other people and even parents.” Nikhil said he gradually managed to overcome his addiction, but realised that Merchant did more harm than good. “I used to think I got sober because of him. That’s what he is able to make you believe. People justify his behaviour by saying he knew what was best or that he was doing it out of love.” 

By creating this social structure, Merchant was able to have total control of all his rehab patients, they said. 

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“Doc had complete impunity and no one oversaw his actions for 30 years, which set the grounds for abuse,” said Anita Desai, a publisher and former patient of Merchant’s who also spoke on condition of using a pseudonym for the story. “The rehab was supported by his family, and there was no formal redressal committee.” 

Neither Nikhil nor Desai filed testimonies.

According to former patients, Merchant created a hierarchy in Land that allowed him complete impunity. He was good with his “targets” only as long as they chose to stay silent, they said. 

“If you’re close to Doc, your life at Land is amazing. He would take you on foreign trips to Paris, Portugal, and Thailand, allow you regular home visits, and do his best to reintegrate you into society by helping you study or get you in touch with people who could get you a job,” Umaire said. 

Many also said that Merchant projected himself as a god-like entity making it difficult for anyone to report any wrongdoings at the centre. “If you spoke against Doc or questioned him, he would make sure you got the silent treatment. He would use your insecurities, often things told to him in confidence, to publicly berate you,” Umaire said. 

Many of Merchant’s patients told their parents or friends about his problematic behaviour. In those situations, Umaire told VICE World News that Merchant would spin the narrative to suggest that their addiction was driving them to make these allegations or they were using this as an excuse to leave rehab before finishing their treatment. 

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According to the former patients, the hierarchy and the lack of accountability allowed Merchant to appoint some of his patients as medical heads, which meant giving recovering junkies complete access to prescription medications. “It was dangerous, and some kids did start using the drugs themselves,” Nikhil said over the phone, adding that despite it being unethical, it was seen as a marker of Merchant’s trust in his patients. 

Disturbingly, there are claims that Merchant’s alleged actions have also influenced other individuals to imitate his manipulation tactics. Keshav Palita, a former patient of Merchant’s who went on to start his own rehab clinic in India’s national capital Delhi, has also been accused of being a sexual predator. He has worked closely with Merchant on multiple de-addiction campaigns.

Bindya Reddy, 27, a former patient of Palita shared her experience through a blog post in July 2020 that has since been taken down. Reddy, who requested to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, told VICE World News that Palita followed an almost identical pattern of predatory behaviour. After her post, Reddy said she received messages from seven women who also claimed to have suffered a similar experience with Palita. VICE World News reached out to three of them but failed to get a response. Reddy said she is preparing to file a public interest litigation against Palita for his alleged actions. 

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“He created this universe of ‘therapy’ to control my world,” she said, explaining that Palita exploited her financial and emotional vulnerability to get her to move into his house. Reddy has accused Palita of asking her to massage his butt and groin under the guise of “therapy”. 

“It was an unfair power balance and a pattern of narcissistic abuse where he would bombard me with love, and then devalue me and suggest I was attracted to him or obsessed with him,” she said. In a manner similar to what Merchant’s survivors have alleged, Reddy said that Palita would try to kiss her or rub his erect penis against her, and say she need not be uncomfortable because he was “like a father to her.”

It was only after Reddy confided in the legal representative of PARA, who was a board member of Land at the time, during a visit to Land in Mumbai in 2020, that she says she realised how Palita and Merchant had used similar tactics. 

Since his survivors spoke out against him, Palita shut down his clinic, went underground, and remains untraceable. VICE World News tried reaching out to Palita for a statement multiple times via calls and email, but failed to receive a response. 

As for Reddy, she said she “reached out to Yusuf Merchant for help multiple times, but all he did was cover for Keshav.” 

Latiwala, Merchant’s lawyer, told VICE World News that Merchant was undergoing medical treatment for cancer at the time he was approached by the survivor, and hence could not offer help.

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For the majority of India’s population, mental health and drug addiction are taboo. “Part of the problem is also the public hostility to mental health issues. It makes it difficult for people undergoing treatment to ask for accountability,” Desai said. 

Reena Nath is a psychotherapist who was leading a support group for parents of children admitted to Land. Nath said many parents believed Merchant over their children. “That cult feeling started growing because whenever someone expressed dissatisfaction with some of Merchant’s methods, many parents would get upset. They didn’t care that he was giving children drugs without their knowledge or that he hadn’t completed his psychiatry training.” 

The accusations go beyond sexual allegations. According to testimonies accompanying the complaint against Merchant, former patients of Merchant have also alleged shady financial dealings, claiming they took most of the payment in cash, and charged patients inconsistent, random amounts based on their financial background. Reddy told VICE World News Palita did the same. 

Former patients said Merchant waived their fee in some cases to make them fully dependent on him. Former patients have also alleged that Merchant did not complete his psychiatry training, and dropped out while he was working as an intern at a hospital in Mumbai. VICE World News could not verify these claims independently. 

The Maharashtra Medical Council has yet to act on the charges.

MMC President Dr Shivkumar Utture told VICE World News he was not in a position to comment given that the charges were still being investigated. Land is still open to patients and is fully functional as of writing.

While they wait, survivors of Merchant’s alleged abuse are concerned about the new patients entering the rehab facility. They are finding strength in raising awareness against what they say are their former counsellor’s predatory patterns, and are focusing on restoring their lives, some by moving to different countries. 

“I don’t think he started out as the monster he became,” said Merchant’s confidante. “He was a guy who promised to help people, and was answerable to no one. If you’ve got 30 people and their families showering you with reverence, it just feeds that dark part that wants to be in control of other people.”

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