Written by Jonathan Glass and Alan Doyle, Fountain House, New York
November 12-17, 2009 — Taking on the role of representing Fountain House in a foreign country, one where the mental health system is considered in its early stages, was a challenge. We were confident that we could shed light on what can be accomplished. But we also knew that we needed a much clearer understanding of the culture before doing so. We had a lot to learn about how mental health services are delivered in India and what our hosts—SEVAC Mental Hospital and Turning Point, a rehabilitation center for people with mental illness, would look like and what they really expected of us. We were convinced however that it was crucial that our message be delivered “side-by-side”, and that Jonathan, a member of Fountain House, be included as a speaker in all formal presentations. More than anything else this was the message we wanted to communicate—the abilities of people with mental illness if given a chance.
We first spoke at a national seminar on Mental Illness and Human Right Violations sponsored by SEVAC. We were joined on the panel by three federal judges, all ex-members of a recent Commission on Human Rights that criticized the scandalous care people with mental illness receive in the nation’s hospitals. We presented Fountain House as a social program whose presence alone would help to break the stigma of mental illness, or as Chief Justice Dr. V.L. Malimath, one of the presenters, called it “sensitize” mental illness. It was apparent from the conference we attended that the cause is so immense that it can get lost in the rhetoric of what needs to be done rather than taking action. The next day we visited with Dr. Arnab Banergee—the person who organized the national seminar—at his hospital located outside Kolkata; we spoke with the staff and patients and in the evening, met with the families and other patients. SEVAC sees itself as a humanitarian alternative to the current inhumane conditions that exist in the nation’s mental hospitals. They were frank with us about their need for outside resources as there are no public resources available to fund their work. The next day we spoke at an employment conference sponsored by Turning Point and attended by the family members of Turning Point participants and local psychiatrists. Our presentation focused on reaching out to local businesses to help with job placement in a similar way to how we work here in the United States. However, in India employment is not really a viable option for people with mental illness due to the stigma associated with the illness. As a result Turning Point is actively seeking to set up its own businesses so that their program, and programs like it, can be sustained through the profits of the businesses, in the absence of public funding for psychiatric rehabilitation.
While conditions may sound bleak, there was hope and positive feedback from our visit. Jonathan personally met with Chief Justice Dr. V.L. Malimath, at his office in Vidhana Soudha (India’s equivalent of the White House, according to his driver) Although he felt a little intimidated by the palatial exterior of the building, he was encouraged to learn that they were intent on continuing the dialogue started at the seminar we attended.
There was no mistaking where Dr. Malimath’s alliance was. The walls in his office were sparse except for a portrait of Gandhi. He said “Gandhi once said if a law is passed because it is approved by 51% of the people, this is not a democracy. What about the other 49%…Most of the laws are not driven by the needs of the whole.” And he continued, “That is why the sensitization of people for the cause of mental illness must take place!” He understood immediately that the “side-by-side” approach of Fountain House represents a step forward from the current practice and admitted its representatives, “have bigger hearts than I and most others.” But since the government is unwilling to support programs like Fountain House, he saw no immediate option other than “to stay on point and pursue the ‘sensitization’ of the illness.” Dr. Malimath agreed that professionals in India could learn a lot from the ways in which Fountain House is funded and that he would stay in touch.
Although our impact in India is yet to be determined, if nothing else, Fountain House made friends in India who will continue to fight for mental health. Dr. Malimath obviously understood the problem he faced better than we. We do not know if India will be given the chance to provide all that we professed in our dialogue. But we did come back grateful for the services that exist here and honored to have represented Fountain House in its global initiative towards mental health. We continue to look for ways to further assist our new our new friends in India.