It is hot, humid and it smells of fish – everywhere. Men and women are sitting in front of their houses; most of them just stay there, some of them seem to sleep. Nearby, nets have been put and fixed with basket, covering fish that has been put there, one by one. The nets make sure that birds and other animals running and flying around cannot take it away. Some clothes hang on roofs and enormous yellow painted signs at every corner of the ten short paths on the right and the left indicate the street names. It seems as these newly painted signs are the only future-oriented parts here. No, there are also some new houses, smaller ones, but visibly newly built …
We have taken a small road, just a 2 km from the main road. There, in front of the beach we have arrived in a very small community in the south of Chennai, somewhere close to Kovandrum. A community that was hit by the Tsunami disaster years ago and had lost everything.
The Indian government has helped to construct a few houses. Together with the yellow signs, I assume. A big contrast to what is obviously the case: extreme poverty. Hopelessness.
“This is where mental health issues often start,” a Banyan staff member explains. “Poverty and a critical psychological status that can lead to mental illness are directly connected. When the income goes below the critical limit – 70% of people live with less than 1-2 $ per day- also basic family structures fail. Sometimes the family members are very stressed. Some of them get ill, mental disorders. This results in disorientation and disability to take care on their own, even less of others. People with mental illness often finish on the streets, homeless. Their families are unable to help.
In this fishermen community there are three houses for mentally ill people and one house for the caring team. In each house (that consists of two rooms each and a common open space where two houses cook together) live 5-6 patients. Mixed female groups in terms of mental ability to conduct their lives. Most of them spend their day at the health institution in the next town where they get checked regularly and get tasks to do , according to their abilities. Some of them make bags and jewelry, design, others just sit there and observe, talk or are asked to do some exercises. A 40 women and four team members spending their days together.
In the main house new patients and or their relatives arrive. Medicine is handed over. Daily packages. A doctor consultation is offered for free.
I have spent my day at the Banyan, an organization that has set up a mental health center for women. Just years ago. And from there developed to an entire mental healthcare program. Vandana and her team have set up a holistic health support system. Day care centers, house sharing models and re- integration support. And, of course, also the medical care, direct collaboration with clinics and hospitals.
But that’s not enough. “We need better, sustainable solutions. Solutions where these women can make their lives and become part of the communities again.” Therefore, she started to collaborate with universities around the world and has built an academic center inside the mental health center. Students can stay here and do their studies as usual, MBAs and master studies, professors join and teach – and they stay together with mentally ill people. That’s where theory and practice meet. Some of the students have rented also a sleeping room from women reintegrated in their own surroundings. Some ill women have started to cook meals for ‘their students’. Back to life again!
A three women living at the health center have opened a cafe now. For the students and to gain – maybe for their first time in life – own money.
An unbelievable, but great organization.