Earlier this month, for the first time ever, two residents from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) moved out from the facility to live in a rented house on their own in Chennai. While it is common for IMH residents to be employed outside or even go back to their families, such a move to live independently is not.
This was made possible by a community-driven inclusion programme, says Porkodi Palaniappan, Art Therapist and Founder of Better Chances, an NGO working in the field of mental health. Porkodi has been closely working with IMH, organising art therapy programmes at the centre for over a year.
“I would not even want to use the words ‘rehabilitate’ or ‘reintroduce’. It is inclusion. We need to create spaces and encourage communities to be inclusive and supportive of people with mental health issues. To accept them completely with full knowledge about their stories,” says Porkodi.
Muthu* and Mari*, former IMH residents who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, have now rented a house together in Villivakkam. Villivakkam is the neighborhood in which Better Chances is currently actively working. While Muthu is employed as a computer operator at the Directorate of Medial and Rural Health Services, Mari, who is a ME graduate, has found temporary employment as a security guard. The entire house hunting process was done with complete involvement from the two, says Porkodi.
“This idea is not new. There are people from mental health institutions who move out to live in houses, but the differences is that they are monitored 24*7 by a staff member whereas here, there’s no monitoring. We just have a very strong peer group that watches over them,” Porkodi explains.
We meet Porkodi for coffee on a hot afternoon, with the sun streaming into the café and rendering the air-conditioning inadequate. She introduces us to Swathi* and Geetha*, who have been living independently for over two years, finding work at Better Chances by making pickles and cakes.
Making pickles at Better Chances
Cakes at Better Chances
“When I say a community that watches over them, I mean friends and neighbours who keep track of them. They also take part in their daily lives. For instance, sometimes Swathi has the habit of hiring an auto and just leaving without informing anyone. When this happens, her neighbours immediately call me. Also, now the auto drivers in the area know Swathi so well that they will just drop her back home after a short ride,” she says, while Swathi chuckles.
Seeking better chances
Porkodi, who was previously working with a different mental health organisation for about 10 years in different positions, felt the need to break the mould. “I thought it was a very straight-jacketed approach. Everything is seen from the lens of the illness and there is no greater understanding. I started finding it claustrophobic and so I had to leave,” she shares.
After a period of internal turmoil and overcoming depression herself, Porkodi found her footing. “I wanted to tell people how to take care of themselves, instead of just talking about ‘identification, referral, medication, treatment’. It is easy to give someone a diagnosis and identify the mental health issue. I wanted to talk to people about mental wellness and not mental illness,” she says.
And Porkodi also hopes to tap into the goodness of people to create a safe community that is accepting of people with mental health issues.
“Muthu told me of a friend at work who brings him lunch. This friend does not know much about mental health but he wants to help. We should tap in on that goodness and start building a community. I want to meet such people and open their minds more and encourage such offers,” Porkodi points out.
So far, Porkodi has been able to facilitate the independent living of 12 individuals who were previously diagnosed with mental health conditions, of which two were from IMH.
“Now, we cannot say this is achievable for everyone,” Porkodi cautions. “Of the 10 who were part of one unit at IMH, only these two wanted to move out and live on their own. They had the urge and so we were able to support them on it,” she adds.
These initiatives are not without challenges. “Sometimes, people refuse to give them houses. People do not want to be responsible or held accountable. There is also the stigma at workplaces. Mari, for example, has not been able to tell his employer about his story for fear of being stigmatised or exploited. These are areas we will have to study and improve,” she adds.