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Ramon Magsaysay award winner helps thousands of mentally ill destitutes

Ramon Magsaysay Award winner appeals for better understanding, care of destitute psychiatric patients

New Delhi: Bharat Vatwani, a psychiatrist who works for the welfare of mentally ill persons, was recently awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, an annual award named after Ramon Magsaysay, the 7th president of the Philippines, and  is recognised as Asia’s Nobel Prize counterpart; the highest award given to Asians who have made a difference in their respective fields.

Vatwani runs Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation (SRF), an NGO in Mumbai that helps mentally ill people who live off the streets: abandoned and bereft of love and kindness by society.

Vatwani has been recognised for “his tremendous courage and healing compassion in embracing India’s mentally-affected destitute, and his steadfast and magnanimous dedication to the work of restoring and affirming the human dignity of even the most ostracised,” the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said in its citation for the winner.

Vatwani is one among two Indian winners of this year’s award, the other being Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer and educational reformist from Ladakh.

Vatwani said SRF’s seeds were sowed in 1988. “One day, my wife and I were at a restaurant and noticed a young boy in a dishevelled state pick up an empty coconut shell; he dipped it into a drain and drank the gutter water. Instantly, we approached him, realising he needed psychiatric treatment and brought him to our private nursing home in Borivli. His condition improved within no time. He informed us that he was a science graduate from Andhra Pradesh. Immediately, we contacted his family and he was re-united with them,” he recalled.

Along with his wife Smitha, also a psychiatrist, Vatwani began providing temporary custodial care for homeless and destitute schizophrenia patients, from their two-room nursing home. It could house barely 5-6 patients at a time and was probably the only one of its kind in the country that focused on mentally ill people living on the streets.

In 1992, the couple rehabilitated an artist who was a former lecturer at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai. Vatwani said: “The artist had suffered setbacks in life and we found him wandering on the streets — jobless and unsung. We treated him and after several bureaucratic hurdles, were finally able to have him reinstated. Our work was recognised and the artist’s colleagues and students suggested we have a fund-raising exhibition to set up a proper care home. In a collective outpouring of goodwill, over 150 artists from all over the country offered their paintings and sculptures for the cause.”

The proceeds helped immensely. In 1997, they started the psychiatrist institution SRF (with 20-bed capacity, infrastructure and facilities and recognition from the Government of India), in Dahisar, a Mumbai suburb. It provided free shelter, food and psychiatric treatment to mentally ill patients.

Meanwhile, inspired by the pioneering rehabilitation experiments of noted Indian social worker and activist Baba Amte ­— particularly in rehabilitating poor people suffering from leprosy — Vatwani met Amte and his brother Prakash. With their blessings, SRF expanded in 2006 and moved its operations to Karjat, on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Noble work

SRF ambulances pick up patients from the streets of Mumbai and take them to the centre. Once a person is treated and recuperated, his or her background is checked out and they are then reunited with family. SRF has rehabilitated people who were picked up from Mumbai and Pune, but come from far flung states and cities, including Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Kolkata, Orissa and Assam. Till date, more than 7,000 people have been reunited with their families.

“Many patients, especially from rural and tribal areas, don’t recollect the names of their villages. In such cases, our vast network of social workers are a great help. In current times, technology and social media is a big boon. One patient claimed he was from Madhya Pradesh and we futilely toured several villages there with him. But someone in Nagpur, Maharashtra, identified him through Whatsapp and he was taken home,” Vatwani said.

Mental illness is not so much the loss of control over one’s mind, than that of society in accepting the illness. “A person is allowed to wander on the streets where he simply loses track of his life forever. Mental illness could affect anyone from any strata of society and reduce the person to pathetically inhuman condition. But mostly, the poor roam the streets and need psychiatric help. Stigmatised at every step, they certainly do not deserve to be left on the road. Many of them have faced traumatic experiences and need just some care to get back to normal life.”

Vatwani added: “Even though sensitivity exists within the family towards their mentally ill; it is lack of knowledge (on treatment), which is the stumbling block. We need to do away with the perception that such people are weird. This is absolutely wrong. They have a genuine psychological problem which is treatable. We need to understand and empathise with them. Most people we have rescued suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. They are often left uncared for and unfed.”

The reatment, in such cases, could last from two to over six months. But the medication has to continue, perhaps for two years. “Sadly, in some cases, once the patient goes back, he stops the medicines which results in a relapse,” he said. “It proves that medicine is the crucial ingredient for a patient and not religious beliefs or myths of black magic.”

Vatwani says there must be several such cases wandering around in various cities and towns. They just board a train and land up somewhere the train takes them. In some cases, families refuse to acknowledge or take them back. Then, SRF relocates them to other NGOs that look after them long-term. SRF, too, finds space for some, particularly women. Many of them work for the centre and assist others. They are also involved in activities like agriculture, dairy farming, poultry farming and cooking.

“Awards like these certainly help in creating awareness. Though the situation has improved since we started out, a lot more is required. A great deal of stigma is attached to psychiatric patients and mental illness is grossly misunderstood and neglected. Accord them their dignity as human beings and treat them with love and care,” Vatwani appealed.

Fact file

• Mental disorders affect 50 million Indians.

• About 80 per cent of districts do not have a single psychiatrist.

• Over 90 per cent Indians with mental illness are not given treatment.

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