Mental illness is one of the many difficult challenges facing the developing world today, but it is also one of the most often neglected. Because psychiatric disorders are difficult to diagnose, rural communities without access to trained specialists tend to lack an adequate understanding of them. Many cases go unrecognized and untreated. The ailed, however, often remain unable to work or marry and therefore become chained to their position at the bottom of society.
Raghu Kiran Appasani recognized this issue, and in 2010 founded The Minds Foundation to address it. “Something like mental health is very hard, and it’s also uncomfortable for some people,” Raghu explained. “Even in the U.S., for those people that want to support us, it’s hard for them to talk about it. The stigma is prevalent everywhere.” Especially in rural communities that lack an understanding of mental disorder, there is a great need for programs to cultivate awareness, and for access to proper psychiatric services.
To address this growing need, The Minds Foundation has organized itself into a three-phase program. During Phase 1 they hold educational workshops, designed to expand awareness of mental illness, in rural villages. “So far we’ve done a general education workshop in about 19 villages in the last year. Those have targeted about 2,500 people already, and from those villages we are currently treating over 70 patients free-of-cost,” Raghu explained. “What were working on now is developing education modules for women, children and general practitioners that are practicing in rural clinics that can’t pick up on these illnesses.”
Working with volunteers, social workers, medical students, and psychiatrists, Phase 1 also entails a nine-point mental assessment of adults in the communities to determine the presence of psychiatric illness. Those who show symptoms are directed to Phase 2 of the program.
In Phase 2, The Minds Foundation addresses the second major need: access to professional medical services. The scarcity of accessible treatment for patients with mental disorders in rural communities only adds to the lack of understanding and to the stigma against it. Mental illnesses are seen as inherent weaknesses, rather than treatable ailments. The issue, however, is not a lack of resources, per se. “Looking at the numbers alone – 3,500 psychiatrists inIndia- you think it’s not enough,” Raghu explained. “But I started talking to a lot of these psychiatrists and the reason is not that there’s not enough of them. The biggest reason is that a lot of them are just focused in urban areas. The resources are there but rural citizens don’t have the money to spend or they’re not willing to spend this money to go to these urban medical centers.”
To ease the burden of seeking treatment, Phase 2 of the program provides villagers with free transportation from their respective villages to health clinics to receive medical consultation. Here, patients are screened for mental illness by professional health specialists, and provided with free medications prescribed by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
After the education, diagnosis, and treatment, it is the final phase that brings the program full circle and moves it towards sustainability. In Phase 3, the reintegration phase, newly treated patients are given a new role within the community through vocational training and new patient outreach. Working with preexisting vocational rehabilitation programs at the mental hospitals, The Minds Foundation helps provide training in production of simple goods, giving patients the means to flourish within their community. “[These programs] train the patients in making simple products like art or textiles or different fabrics, tapestries and things, so they can start making products in their own home,” Raghu told us. “The other option is talking to employee unions and local businesses for people who are younger and might want to work in an office.”
Patients are also encouraged to expand the knowledge base within their communities by helping drive campaigns and running the educational workshops during Phase 1. It is this innovative solution to sustainability introduced in Phase 3 that earned The Minds Foundation funding from United States based Gray Matters Capital (GMC). With the funding, Raghu and the team hope to spark a continuous cycle of ever expanding awareness, acceptance, and treatment of mental illness in Indian villages.
While the GMC funding came as a nice reward for all of the hard work that has been put into building the organization, for Raghu, it is experiencing the impact they produce that makes it all worth it. “It’s really about taking a step back and thinking about the reason why you’re doing it,” Raghu told us. “It didn’t really hit me until I was in the village, in one of the halls and people were filing in to be part of the education workshop. Moments like that keep you going for an extended period of time… you definitely need that reminder when your up late writing business proposals or business plans. It’s really the people that encourage you and support you to keep moving forward.”
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