Jagannath Lamichhane is a columnist, a global mental health rights activist, and the director of the Nepal Mental Health Foundation. For World Mental Health Day, Mr. Lamichhane writes a blog about his experience visiting The Banyan, an Indian non-governmental organization supported through Grand Challenges Canada’s Global Mental Health program.
She could not remember her past. She was struggling hard to remember her family, childhood friends and the place she was born. She needed the help of her own imagination to recall her origins, with which she had lost contact a decade ago. Yet, nothing gave her greater joy than to talk about her family, passing every day in the hope of being reunited with them.
She told me her parents were very lovely. They took good care of her. They sent her to a boarding school and she had one elder sister and one younger brother. But when she was sixteen, she had a fight with her sister and fled home. It has been more than a decade since she has lost all touch with her family. “I desperately want to see my parents, my sister and brother,” she would tell me.
Sanchi (name changed) was just one of many women I spoke to in Chennai who had lost all hope, but have slowly begun to rebuild their lives.
During my conversations with the homeless women with mental health problems who were rescued and rehabilitated by The Banyan, a leading mental health organization in Chennai, India, perhaps the most striking characteristic I noticed among all the women was the desire to share their stories. I had not realized how happy and dignified people could be simply by calling someone by their name. I will never forget Sanchi’s glowing face when she first told me her name. “I have a name and my name is Sanchi”, she said.
In each conversation I had, I introduced myself and then encouraged participants to do the same. I could see how eager each of them looked to give their detailed introduction. Of course, the name was always top priority.
Sanchi was repeatedly raped on the street. She spent nearly five years roaming homeless. She was infected with HIV AIDS. She also developed other physical health complication as well as skin diseases. As a result, she naturally experienced a series of emotional hurdles leading to a psychotic problem.
She lost everything living on the streets. No one cared about her name or her identity. She said that to society, she had become a ‘mad’ and bad woman. In the eyes of the community, her ‘madness’ justified the way she was treated and alienated. In a city of 4.5 million people, she was invisible to the general public. The government and political class never recognized her womanhood or her vulnerability.
Sanchi’s story bears striking resemblance to so many other homeless women with mental health problems in India – it is as though they share some kind of collective fate.
After being taken in by The Banyan and off of the streets, it took several months for Sanchi to recover from the shock and trauma she had experienced. Her eyes still look scared. However, she has gradually become stronger, both physically and mentally. She is getting the opportunity to participate in vocational training schemes which teach her to make bags, bakery items and household decorations.
Early this year, when The Banyan, with the support of Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), started a new community-based “shared housing” initiative it brought a new dawn to Sanchi’s life. She was moved to the shared housing from the health center. In the beginning, she had no idea whether it was the wrong or right decision to move from the health centre where she was able to enjoy most necessities, except freedom, to the community space.
But after moving into a shared house, the value of human freedom was the first thing she realized. She told me, “The freedom of movement is the most important thing I enjoy these days.” I could notice that the sense of freedom was actually contributing to her recovery and self-confidence above any other support she was getting. She has also made new friends in the neighborhood. She feels a part of her new community. She said: “This is real life and I have finally started to enjoy it after a decade. Here, I have my own identity and freedom. Some people know me by my name. I am invited to the important local events. I have some skills to share with my community and the kids.
People help me learn essential social skills, which I had already forgotten. I feel I am cared for and loved by other people here. Despite some exceptions, generally people do not try to distance themselves from me here. We are not neglected on the basis of our disease status. People in the community are very kind and encouraging to us as they closely understand our reality.”Sanchi added that she wasn’t sure how long she could remain in the house, as without the support of The Banyan, she would have to leave. But now, the very idea of returning to the health centre or institution is daunting. “I want to be married, have my own kids, home and work. I love my freedom. I value my dignity. Could you help me to find someone nice to marry me?” she asked.
It has been more than three months since I came back home from my visit to Chennai. But the faces and voices of Sanchi and all the other women I met remain with me. It angers me that they have been made victims of an ill social system, as I know there was never anything inhuman or unnatural with them. They were ordinary human beings like us but denied the basic opportunities and dignity to live meaningful lives for so long. I often remember what Sanchi told me about feeling vulnerable about being judged about her problem. “I feel vulnerable when people patronize me. I feel vulnerable when people do not call me by my name. I feel vulnerable when my identity is attached to mental illness. I feel vulnerable when people do not recognize my emotions but constantly perceive me as being abnormal and dangerous to them”, she had said.
I am reminded of the questions that Sanchi left me with at the end of our conversation: “Tell me sir, am I abnormal? Why do people not call me by my name? Why do they want to deny me my dignity?”
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Dignity in Mental Health.” The Banyan, supported by Grand Challenges Canada, will continue to bring dignity to persons living in poverty and mental illness in India, enabling them to live meaningful lives as valued members of their families and communities.