In June 2004, a colleague of mine and 6 other students embarked on a journey to Chennai, India, to work closely with the staff in a halfway home (Adaikalam = Refuge) named the Banyan (an East Indian fig tree with branches that send out shoots to grow down to the soil for re-rooting). The Banyan is a shelter for mentally ill destitute women who find themselves again and begin trying to reclaim their rights in society.
It all started in August 1993 by efforts of two inspiring, young, and idealistic Indian women in their early twenties: Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar. They started in a rented bungalow but now are operating in a new facility built on a land donated by Chief Minister Selvi Jayalalithaa in 1994.
Despite lack of support, financial problems, and socio-ethical issues associated with mental illness in Indian society, the project succeeded in establishing itself as a legitimate and effective enterprise for helping women who would not find such help anywhere else. As time went by, the center progressed significantly with the help of Indian government agencies, sympathetic donors, and dedicated volunteers.
We worked with women and the staff in the center for 10 days, trying to come up with designs and media for educating others about what goes on at this home. We also used the occasion to expose our students to the realities of homelessness and mental illness in a traditional society where mental illness is seen as a personal deficiency. Students were able to feel the pain and anxiety of institutionalized mentally ill women who were rejected by their own. What we did and saw in these 10 days had profound impact on each of us, beyond description.
The short narrative of these women's lives is that of a cycle of poverty, mental illness, abuse, and abandonment. The long narrative is that of an unending struggle for survival, dignity, and acknowledgement. Their abandonment by their families, friends, and governmental institutions, along with neglect and invisibility, leave these vulnerable and unprotected women at the mercy of hunger, disease, homelessness, violence, rape, crime, and all forms of abuse. Indian streets, as I described them in an earlier posting, “Streets of India“, are not friendly to homeless women. Mental illness simply increases these women's chances of being abused, both physically and sexually. Unable to fend for themselves, these women are virtually defenseless against assaults and other harms that come in their way. They are the weakest and most vulnerable members of the Indian society.
Once on the street, these women have no resources to work with and no adequate recourse to legitimate rights as citizens. In most places resources for caring for these women are non-existent, and in others inadequate for the size of the problem. Where there are adequate resources available, their distribution is often arbitrary, skewed, and biased. The Banyan is a savior by picking them up, offering them a shelter, clothing, food, and care, even if these services may not be up to the standards expected in specialized institutions of this kind.
The most devastating aspect of homelessness is the cumulative nature of its impact. Homelessness leads to hunger, hunger to disease, one uncared disease causes another disease, and the cycle continues ad infinitum. A hidden aspect of the life for many of these women is domestic violence. Originally, some of them ended up in the streets because they ran away from physical violence by parents, siblings, or husbands.
The stated objectives of the Banyan are to identify mentally ill homeless women, provide shelter and care for them, and offer them medical and psychiatric help to overcome their destitute. It also aims at procuring self-sufficiency through rehabilitation programs and also by raising public awareness about these mentally ill women. A broader goal is to generate positive changes in governmental and societal policies concerning the mentally ill.
The Banyan employs various therapeutic methods to crystallize its ultimate goals of rehabilitation, empowerment, and mainstreaming. Daily activities in the center offer therapeutic exercises (dancing, singing, worship, … ), craft making, weaving and tailoring, block printing, drawing, group conversations, and individual consultations.
Women are encouraged to express their bottled up concerns, angers, and frustrations, leading to the evolution of empowerment and realization of their social rights. Cultural activities are practiced daily in order to prepare these patients for reintegration into their families and a return to society.
An innovative aspect of the Banyan is the Group Home, the rehabilitative unit consisting of a few residents headed by a staff member. This unit is an independent entity that attempts to acquaint its members with social skills they have forgotten. Each unit acts independently and is treated autonomously in order to initiate feelings of uniqueness in the members. Once patients' families are identified and they are able to function independently, they are prepared for reintegration with their families.
The Banyan also makes follow up visits in order to ensure that the patients are taken care of, medicine is available to them, and they are not subject to further abuse and neglect again. Attempts are also made to educate patients' families and community on how they should tackle mental illnesses.
Banyan's leadership hopes to start an “Adopt-A-Village” program compelling local leaders to form their local mental health centers. Despite social and political restrictions, the success stories keep pouring in. Vaishnavi and Vandana are insistent that they need no special admiration. According to them, they are simply doing what they really wanted to do.
Their incredible positive outlook is contagious and admiring. Something that was started small by two young females in Chennai has now become a respectable social institution; the Banyan has embarked on a nation-wide movement to uplift the veil on mental illness and reject cultural rearward notions on it and help the destitute.
Despite the best efforts of the management and staff, things are not always what they are supposed to be. At the time we were there, there were three times more patients in the facility than it was designed for. Patients who are considered at risk of harming themselves or others are kept in a separate floor with a locked door.
Cries and pleas of these women for being freed from the floor or to be allowed to go home are not easy to ignore. Turmoil caused by sudden manic convulsions is painful to observe and extremely hard to handle in front of a large number of distressed women who are prone to further stress.
The Banyan is the best example of caring for people, achieving the impossible, and definitely making a difference in the lives of those who need the most help. Despite the challenging scenes of loneliness, crying, and physical and mental pain, the visit to Banyan and the interaction with the residents are extremely uplifting.
Learning about the difficult life and arduous struggles of these women gives one hope and energy, lifts one's spirit, and increases one's appreciation for young men and women who dedicate their time and energy to these women's lives.