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Restoring Peace of Mind in Kerala

India’s church-run mental health institutions take the lead

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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In Kerala’s rural region of Chennaipara, the hallmarks of the state’s upwardly mobile urban culture are remarkably absent. Though less than 16 miles outside Trichur, Kerala’s third–largest city and a major financial and commercial hub, no billboards obstruct the idyllic view along the narrow highway. Rubber and coconut plantations blanket the lush, rolling hillsides.

Here, set back at the end of an unpaved drive, far from the stress and anxiety of urban life, is the home of the Friends of the Birds of the Air (FBA). Founded and operated by the Syro–Malabar Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, the home offers its 335 residents more than just the fresh air and tranquillity of Kerala’s countryside. It offers them a measure of hope.

The home cares for mentally ill men and women who would otherwise face unthinkable fates — homeless, alone, untreated. Most adult residents suffer from schizophrenia and other serious disorders. Many have no family or relatives able to care for them.

“They’re totally abandoned people,” explains Father George Kannamplackel, who has headed the home for the past 15 years.

“We gather people found on the streets, in the railway and bus stations, anywhere. We give them shelter and the maximum care to treat their mental illness. If they’re in old age, we’ll keep them here as long as they want to live here,” he continues.

The FBA facility in Chennaipara is located in a compound that also houses the congregation’s motherhouse and headquarters for the more than 20 similar homes it operates across India.

“If they need different or greater treatment, we move them to another center that provides it. If they have little ones, we give them schooling and support them until they find a job in a professional field. And if a patient’s family or loved ones somehow misses them, or if a patient, who has forgotten his family due to mental illness or disorder and later remembers after treatment, we try to contact the family. If we can return them to their homes, we do that, too,” concludes the priest.

Though the staff works to reintegrate residents into society, such breakthroughs are rare. All too often, they stay in the FBA homes for the rest of their lives.

The facility in Chennaipara underscores a painful reality facing the region. Though Kerala has a nearly universal literacy rate — head and shoulders above all other states in India — it is also notorious for its alarmingly high suicide rate. Keralites represent 3 percent of the country’s total population, yet they commit 10 percent of all suicides in India each year.

The underlying causes for this are multiple and complex — including the decade–long crisis in the agriculture sector, which has driven large numbers of sustenance farmers to take their own lives.

“The reason you commit suicide is because you have a mental health problem,” says Professor Usha Marath, dean of the Lisie College of Nursing in Ernakulam. That’s why people — adolescents and young adults in particular, the two groups with the most mental health issues — commit suicide.”

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Tags: Kerala Health Care Socioreligious programs Alcoholism Mental health/ mental illness