Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would travel to India. Never did I imagine speaking before a group of distinguished men and woman from all over India about my experience at Fountain House.
But this September, the Director of the Fountain House Center of Leadership and Education, Alan Doyle, and I were invited to Kolkata, India, to present at a national seminar hosted by SEVAC. As translated, SEVAC is the Sane and Enthusiast Volunteers Association of Calcutta, which is a mental health and human rights resource center located in that city. We were invited by Dr. Tapas Kumar Ray, the Founder Secretary of SEVAC Clubhouse.
Cyrus and Alan at SEVAC Seminar in India
All of the speakers at SEVAC were inspiring, yet it was Dr. G.V. G. Krishnamurty, the former Election Commissioner of India who made an immediate impact on me. Dr. Krishnamurty spoke eloquently, not only about democracy and the role of government in helping those less fortunate, but about how when India gained its independence from Great Britain, which had imprisoned him when he was younger and tortured him, he spoke about how India incorporated human rights into their new constitution, prior to their adoption by the United Nations. This was something that he was quite proud of, and he should be. The people of India are extremely proud of the fact that they recognize basic human rights, and that is demonstrated by their multicultural nation, that struggles to meet the needs of a an ever-growing population. It was because of the formal recognition of human rights in India that changes in national policy regarding mental health began to take place.
Alan spoke of his background as a teacher, a researcher, and a lobbyist, before he came to Fountain House. He talked about how Fountain House, as a recipient of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, helped to firmly establish us as a global leader in community mental health, and how we best can meet what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls mental illness, “one of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.” Alan talked about how human rights isn’t enough, but that Fountain House offers a successful, cost-effective, and evidence–based model, that values and empowers the individual, so that they may live full, productive and meaningful lives.
Cyrus speaking at the SEVAC seminar in India
When my turn to present came, I offered the audience something that I think is a little different from what they may be used to hearing and seeing. I spoke about how even though I have a diagnosis of mental illness, that I don’t see myself that way. I explained that because of what Fountain House has provided me through community and opportunity; it has helped me to shape a new and more complete view of myself. When I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I don’t see someone with mental illness. I see the following: “I see a filmmaker and a journalist. I see an editor of an employment newsletter. I see a teacher and a mentor. I see a small businessman. I see a devoted son and brother. I see a friend and a colleague. I see a mental health advocate and a human rights activist. I see a facilitator and an administrator.” You could see the look on people’s faces as I spoke. The gears were turning and some of them, I believe, were seeing me not as a representative of someone with a mental illness but as an accomplished individual and not as a “sick person.” This is tremendous progress!
At the end of the day’s presentations, Alan and I had the opportunity to chat with various individuals, including Dr. Justice V.S. Malimath. He was very encouraging and hopeful about the future of care and treatment for people with severe mental illness in India, because of the work that we do. At one point, he turned to me and asked that God bless me because of what not only I do, but Alan, and everyone else involved in making Fountain House and clubhouses work around the world. He understood what I always tell people about Fountain House, that not only are we saving lives but that we’re helping to transform them, as well, one person at a time.
None of the work that occurred to help make this seminar and trip successful could have happened without the support and efforts of Dr. Prativa Sengupta, the Chief Psychologist at SEVAC, and former Fountain House Fellow, who was pivotal in helping to make the necessary changes at SEVAC to receive accreditation by Clubhouse International. As a member of the Education Unit at Fountain House, where Prativa spent part of her Fellowship, it was interesting to see her development from the time she was with us, to becoming a driving force behind bringing the Fountain House Model to India. Her dedication and strength, I believe, will ensure the success of this goal.