Between mind and heart

Mehac, a public health organisation, is engaged in taking mental health care to the homes of the afflicted

October 10, 2013 05:03 pm | Updated 05:03 pm IST - KOCHI

Dr. Chitra Venkateswaran (4th from left) Clinical Director, MEHAC interacting with staff at MEHAC office, Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Dr. Chitra Venkateswaran (4th from left) Clinical Director, MEHAC interacting with staff at MEHAC office, Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

It’s a heartening tale of recovery of a man who lived tormented for 17 years by the demons in his mind. They ranted and raged and left him broken, till he received long-term help from a city-based public health organisation that is taking mental health care to the homes of the afflicted. After finding his bearings the man got the confidence to begin a small enterprise, to run a pettikada . Today, rehabilitated, he is savouring plain day-to-day living.

Dr. Chitra Venkateswaran, clinical director and one of the founders of Mehac (Mental Health Action) that saw the man through his torment and his treatment says, “Mental health conditions need direct, timely and continuous intervention. There are many government as well as private initiatives in this field but we differ by the mode of our action. We work with the community through local collaborations and volunteers.”

Reaching out

This method of working with the community is encouraging people to report more cases and remove the stigma attached to the illness. It is a help-at-hand outreach programme.

“People still believe mental illness to be a curse. The stigma attached to it is very deep. It is not seen as a biological disorder,” says Chitra stating that it is a combination of genetic, demographic, psychological and socio-cultural factors.

Chitra, a psycho-oncologist specialising in palliative care began Mehac in 2008 after combining her specialisation in psychiatry and her work, “for a good number of years” in palliative care, with the Pain and Palliative Care Society attached to Calicut Medical College. Over the past five years, Mehac has reached out to over 1,200 persons in need of mental health care. “I realised mental health service has so many gaps and one major gap is treatment. The only way to reach to the most isolated case would be through the community,” says Chitra who charted out a sustainable, simple plan towards this service.

Mehac works in partnership with local groups, NGOs, panchayats, homes for mental care as also with palliative care units. “In fact, whoever seeks our help, we tie-up with them,” she says.

Harikrishnan M. from Perumbavoor joined the organisation in 2011 as project co-ordinator. He says, “We help with medical and psychiatric care. Our social workers and psychologists look at other forms of therapy and even rehabilitation in cases, wherever possible.” Chitra stresses that their first priority is symptom control, stabilising the patient, preventing further occurrence of episodes after which come other therapies and rehab.

The common disorders identified are usually psychosis that is schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorders, severe learning disorder, and seizure disorders with behavioural problems. Depression and anxiety are other very common disorders .

Currently Mehac doctors and volunteers are spread over 10 centres in the districts of Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Palakkad, Kannur and Thrissur and visit the clinics on a weekly basis. On an average they see 50 cases on a given day. “This is pure voluntary work. But we pay our social workers and a number of medical professionals, including doctors,” says Chitra who discloses that the funds for the organisation are from donations, for which she and others in the Mehac team personally present “our case.”

In Muhamma, every Thursday, in a space provided by the panchayat, Mehac doctors and social workers see patients. Besides the space the panchayat also provides them with a nurse, vehicle and medicines. In South Mararikulam, the panchayat governing body has tied up with a local school interested to host a programme for children with behavioural and learning disorders and has entrusted Mehac with the programme. Mehac runs the programme jointly with Vigyan Valley school for special children from Kochi and is now seeing children in eight other schools in Mararikulam.

Expanding network

A priest in Alappuzha gathers the wandering mentally ill and brings them to Mehac clinics. Their clinic in remote Attapady, manned by a dedicated paediatrician, is bringing hope in the tribal areas. Keshav Das, a social worker in Palakkad, says that they reach out to patients who have been house-bound for more than 20 years.

Sr. Caroline, director of Snehabhavan, Kalavoor, says that roughly about 100 outpatients visit the facility. She speaks of successful treatments of afflictions like depression, anxiety and alcoholism.

Chitra senses optimism. She says, “There is an increased participation by local partners, increase in understanding of the nature of illnesses, reflected as increase in people being brought, demand for services, interest shown by panchayats to initiate clinical programmes and take responsibility in leading the programmes.”

Rehabilitation too has taken new forms like engaging the patients to work in coir units, farms and gardens.

For Chitra starting this venture has been a “personal journey”. She knows of cases that are on road to recovery, of challenging cases, of lost causes, but she and her dedicated team are happy with the way Mehac is bringing hope and comfort to troubled minds.

Mehac works out of a small office in Vigyan Valley School, Palarivattom . They can be contacted at 9747002244 .

Mental health and older adults

Every year October 10 is celebrated as World Mental Health Day. The day is celebrated at the initiative of the World Federation of Mental Health and WHO supports this initiative through raising awareness on mental health issues. The theme of the day in 2013 is “Mental Health and Older Adults”

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