Paromita Chowdhury, Programme Officer, OAK Foundation and
Rachel McKee, Communications Officer, OAK Foundation
In parts of India, mental illness is feared – families worry about the financial burden involved in taking care of individuals who are perceived to not be able to work.
Shampa works in a cafeteria located within the Pavlov Mental Health Hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal. On entering the cafeteria, also known as the Cha-Ghar (in Bangla), one cannot help but be struck by the warmth of its staff. The six women who work here, including Shampa, welcome everyone with a radiant smile, a hearty snack and a hot cup of tea or coffee. However, it wasn’t that long ago that these women were languishing as patients in the same hospital.
In parts of India, mental illness is feared – families worry about the financial burden involved in taking care of individuals who are perceived to not be able to work. This fear adds a layer to the stigma surrounding mental illness. It drives families to reject their family members, even though they may have completely recovered. Anjali is a leading organisation that works with mental health institutions and among the communities to advocate for the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities. In working with the mental health hospitals in Kolkata, Anjali became concerned that patients were not receiving support to help them reintegrate back into their communities.
Anjali staff raised their concerns to two hospitals in the region – Pavlov Mental Health Hospital in Kolkata and Baharmapur Hospital in the district of Murshidabad. They then worked with the hospitals to diversify treatment processes, using approaches that do not include drugs. Generally, patients are eager to learn new skills, as they hope to re-establish themselves as independent in the real world, and able to contribute to the family income. Anjali provided the opportunity for patients to take part in sessions of performing arts, music, painting and theatre.
Over a three-year period, Anjali partnered with the two hospitals to design micro-enterprises. In Pavlov Hospital it set up a mini-launderette, a tie and dye-unit and a cafeteria. In the Baharmapur hospital (district headquarter of Murshidabad), it built a delicate embroidery unit. Those who participate in the micro-enterprises are mostly individuals who live in the hospitals. However, some of the staff who work in the cafeteria have since returned to their families and travel daily (sometimes with commutes of up to two hours) to work.
The more than 50 volunteers who participate in these micro-enterprises have unknowingly scripted powerful stories of resilience and hope. Their individual accounts of neglect, violence, stigma and dishonour are often hard to believe, but they are also the source of the courage and resolve it takes to rebuild their lives. For example, Shampa fought a court battle to win back custody of her daughter, who her husband had taken away from her, claiming “the unsound mental status” of his wife.
These micro-enterprises are helping to break harmful stereotypes. They demonstrate clearly why people with mental illnesses shouldn’t be written off and show how women with psychosocial disabilities are functional and employable.
In some sectors of society, people with psychosocial disability are considered dirty. Therefore the fact that these women and men work tirelessly to ensure that the hospital has crisp, clean linen is enough to dispel the age-old myth which denies these people access to respectable, productive lives on leaving the hospital. The volunteers work in shifts and earn approximately USD 5 for 8 hours’ work 15-16 days every month.
The Cha Ghar quietly makes the point that it is fine to accept food from people who have once suffered from mental illnesses and that they too have equal rights and can enjoy dignified lives. It records a daily footfall of 200 customers – including hospital staff, patients or their family members. The customers are pleased that they do not have to leave the hospital premises in search of affordable and healthy food. With the USD 50 (approx.) that Shampa and her co-workers earn every month, they no longer have to ask their family members for money to pay for minor expenses or to send their children to school.
Anjali seeded the ideas for the microenterprise, supported hospital authorities to carefully pursue these ideas, and moved the systems to implement them in ways that captured the imaginations and hopes of these women and men. The success of these efforts has motivated others to try such initiatives in other locations.
Anjali and its government counterparts are only too excited to lend this support. Shampa and her co-workers will soon become an inspiration for others who have forgotten their hopes of a life beyond the “wards”. Anjali, the hospitals and the volunteers will continue their work to find suitable alternatives to the institutions, where individuals can move in the pursuit of independent and successful lives.
**To protect the privacy of certain individuals the names and identifying details have been changed.