SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Voice in the wilderness

FOCUS

A DECADE and a half after the Mental Health Act of 1987 and eight years after the historic people with disabilities Act (PWD Act) of 1995 (which first brought within the ambit of the disabled, people with mental disability due to mental illness), the voice of the mentally disabled could be heard in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

At the just-concluded National Consultation on the Bikawo Millennium Framework, which has declared 2003-2010 as the Asia Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, the Banyan, a Chennai-based non governmental organisation working for the rehabilitation of mentally ill destitute women, drew the attention of policy makers to the plight of this most marginalised group among the disabled. Among the recommendations made by the Banyan and accepted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment were the following:

As a matter of urgency, night shelters — existing school buildings and government offices with lighting and security — should be thrown open at night to destitute women to prevent physical and sexual abuse on the streets. This will also enable early rescue by NGOs working in that area.

The centre should direct the National Commissioner for Disabilities and the State Commissioners for Disability to implement the PWD Act and use the Indian Disability Evaluation and Assessment Scale developed by the Indian Psychiatric Society to certify mental disability among the mentally ill. This will assure access to disability benefits such as the Disability Pension and Concessional Railway Travel, to those who have been denied these basic rights though they have been eligible for about a decade.

The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHAMS) has, after an in-depth study of the Banyan, recommended that similar centres be set up in every district to address the problem of destitute mentally ill women. The organisation has been able to mobilise available community resources to achieve what was considered impossible.

For example, India has few psychiatrists and nurses trained for psychiatrist care. How does one attend to the destitute mentally ill? The Banyan surmounted this problem by inviting young rural women who were so inclined to come and help.

After a trial period, if they liked it, they could stay on. They mastered the art of street rescue, caring for the women, getting a court order for treatment, reporting to the psychiatrist and beginning treatment, documenting details, giving medicines, helping with vocational training, building self confidence in the patients and finally travelling across India to reunite these women with their families. The Banyan has trained over a hundred such psychiatrist caregivers in the past decade.

The Banyan has not only been able to reunite and rehabilitate over 500 hundred women with their families ensuring continued treatment (medicines are sent by post) but also, more importantly, prove that a cadre of competent psychiatrist caregivers can be raised from among the rural young women. Today these village women spread awareness about mental health in the villages and ensure help reaches the mentally ill in the community. They view this opportunity as a boon for they would have otherwise been labourers or housemaids or at best worked in the garment export sector. In contrast, this training has given them gainful employment and, above all, recognition and self-confidence. This cadre will have to be replicated if more such rescue-treatment-rehab centres are to be started.

The question of making the training more professional with a certificate at the end was discussed with the National Trust. between the National trust SCARF (Schizophrenia Research Foundation), NIMHANS and The Banyan it should be possible.

Another milestone has been the establishment of a lok adalat at the Banyan. According to the law legal sanction is required before destitute mentally ill person is institutionalised for treatment. For the Banyan's staff, this used to mean languishing in court with a mentally ill woman in tow for hours or days before anything could be done to help. Thanks to the sensitivity of the Madras High Court, these women now get medical aid at the earliest with legal sanction. At the National Consultation it was pointed out that such lok adalats would also have to be set up wherever such rescue-treatment-rehab homes are to be set up.

Over the past decade, of the 1,000 women helped by the Banyan, about half have been reunited with their families. Thus for every destitute woman rescued and reunited with her families, there is another with nowhere to go. For these women, the Banyan had started a rest home and group homes. Depending on their state, they can help in the home or work individually as housemaids, beautician's assistants or work as a group in weaving, printing and coffee shops with some guidance from volunteers and social workers.

For such micro enterprises started by the mentally handicapped, the Banyan has sought financial support, concessional access to raw materials, preferential access to markets and tax waivers. The request was well received by the house who admired the Banyan saris and bags modelled by the Banyan representative at the National consultation. "I exist; therefore I am" is the Banyan's motto. "I too have a voice and I will be heard", stated the mentally ill destitute women of India at Delhi and the powers that be listened.

For details about the Banyan, call 044-26530504 or visit www.banyan.org

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