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Despite World Mental Health Day, the world remains an unkind place for the mentally ill

October 10th is observed as World Mental Health Day when programmes are held across the globe, highlighting the various aspects of mental health, and creating public awareness about the subject. Such initiatives notwithstanding, the stark reality is that those who suffer from mental illnesses are generally considered a burden, both by their families and by society at large

Does society dare to care? Do we care to be concerned? October 10th is observed as World Mental Health Day. On this date, programmes are held across the globe, highlighting the various aspects of mental health, and creating public awareness about the subject. This year, the theme was ‘Mental health is a universal human right.’ Such initiatives notwithstanding, the stark reality is that those who suffer from mental illnesses are generally considered a burden, both by their families and by society at large. Whether they’re living with their families or roaming the streets, there’s usually no one to support or care for them.

Perhaps it’s time that awareness was created, not just on the occasion of the designated ‘Day’, but regularly, about organisations that can be contacted to reach out a helping hand to those struggling with mental health issues. Here are two case studies from Chennai-based NGO Udavum Karangal, one with a happy ending, and another awaiting a ‘happily ever-after’. It is a sad comment on society that both persons would have fared much better if they had managed to get help sooner.

Sankara Narayanan at the time of rescue.

It was when the second wave of COVID-19 was at its height, in August 2021, that a social worker from the NGO was informed about a mentally ill man in his forties roaming the streets near Poonamallee, Chennai. The unkempt man was brought to the Udavum Karangal shelter in Tiruverkadu and given food and clean clothes. S. Vidyaakar, the founder of Udavum Karangal, says the emaciated man was in a depressed state. After being given counselling, he was able to tell them his name and some other personal information, including a few details about his family and where they were based. He said he was separated from his wife, but wanted to be with his brother. After much effort, social workers at the institution found the brother’s address, and took the man there. They handed him over to the brother’s son, Mohan Raj, on October 4th this year.

Mohan Raj said his uncle, Sankara Narayanan, had been missing for ten years after he separated from his wife and 15-year-old son. He said they used to get information that he had been seen at some place or the other, but always, when they went to those places, they would find that he had left. The family had lost all hope of seeing him again. Mohan Raj thanked Vidyaakar and Udavum Karangal for rescuing his uncle and restoring him to them. The family was given counselling on how to handle psychiatric patients. A month’s supply of medicines was provided free of charge.

Pandi Raman with Vidyaakar.

In a similar incident, on October 8th this year, social workers of Udavum Karangal rescued a 42-year-old mentally challenged man from the streets in Ambattur, north Chennai. He was given food, clothes and other care at the Thiruverkadu home. Following counselling and interaction with social workers, he revealed that he was Pandi Ramu from Sivaganga District. He wasn’t in a position to say how he had come to be on the streets so far from home, though he mentioned an accident. After just a few days of counselling and care, his transformation was remarkable, leading social workers to feel that if only he had been found and rescued earlier, he would not have lost so many valuable years of his life. The problem was that no one had intervened on this emotionally numb man’s behalf for ten long years.

Pandi Raman at the time of rescue.

In the last 40 years, Udavum Karangal has rehabilitated thousands of destitute, mentally ill people, and around 5440 of them have been reunited with their families all over India and even abroad. The organisation’s ‘Parivartan’ (change) programme aims to create awareness of mental health at the grassroots level, and works in the villages around Coimbatore and the tribal areas of Coonor, providing free treatment to patients at their doorstep, operating on the premise that ‘home is where wellness begins’.

Udavum Karangal can be contacted at 9940188011. Meanwhile, the NGO hopes to discover more about Pandi Ramu, and reunite him with his family, giving him a new lease of life.

Editor’s note: Mental health is a pertinent and important issue of our times and affects many, or probably all of us in some way or the other. Yet, it is a subject we’d rather not much talk about. A lot has to be done to raise awareness about mental health issues and to get more and more people to support those in need of mental health care. It is in this context that we highlight such stories, to show how ordinary, poor people are affected and how organisations like Udavum Karangal keep working ceaselessly at the grassroots to try and give succour. We need to talk more about such work and share similar stories.

(Based on a press release from Udavum Karangal)

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