How Bengaluru’s Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society has been driving impact in mental health and rehabilitation services with its community-based approach

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A paper by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) showed that in 2017, 197 million Indians were suffering from mental disorders, of whom 46 million had depressive disorders and 45 million had anxiety disorders. A report by Lancet, a well-known general medical journal noted that Indians accounted for 26·6 percent of the global suicide deaths in 2016. The report highlighted that the proportional contribution of mental disorders to the total disease burden in India almost doubled between 1990 and 2017.

Today, the pandemic has further put the spotlight on the gaps in the mental healthcare ecosystem in India and the need to plug them. An online survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society in 2020 showed that 40.5 percent of the 1,800+ participants either had anxiety or depression, and that more than two-fifths of the people are experiencing common mental disorders, due to lockdowns and the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid greater acknowledgement of the importance of mental healthcare, the global economic crisis brought about by the pandemic impacted many institutions in the sector negatively. Today many are facing a deep funds crunch and are finding it challenging to continue the impactful work they have been doing for many years. One such organisation is Bengaluru’s Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society, a non-profit residential therapeutic community, that has been providing services in the field of mental health and rehabilitation for the last 40 years.

Watch this interview where Dale Peacock, Director, Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society in conversation with Dipti Nair, Editor-at-Large, YourStory, shares the journey of the organisation, the impact they are driving and the challenge they are facing today

Driving impact with a community-based approach to healthcare

Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society was established in 1979 by Fr. Hank Nunn S.J, ASV, a Canadian Jesuit priest, who made Bengaluru his home and dedicated himself to providing treatment for the mentally ill. The organisation, through the years, has provided treatment to hundreds of individuals suffering from schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorders and other severe psychiatric disorders, through a treatment process that emphasises community living with therapy.

What stands out about Athma Shakti is its focus on healing and therapy as a community process. Explaining why this is at the core of their intervention, Dale Peacock, Director, shares, “Living in a community with others who are diagnosed with mental illness enables the person to accept that they have an illness instead of denying it. Within a family setting , the person feels like an outcast or the odd one out. Many feel they bring shame and disgrace to the family. This is despite genuine efforts of families’ to accept and include the family member. However, in a community, the person finds it easier to identify with other community members and is able to slowly come out of denial. Acceptance of their illness is the key that opens the door to treatment.” Dale explains that this atmosphere is conducive to therapy and when guided by the therapists, they are enabled to express their thoughts and feelings and are able to form a positive identity of themselves.

“Athma Shakti translates into “strength of spirit”, which is reflected in the treatment model, shares Dale. He says, “The treatment embodies empowering oneself based on the values of communication, respect, interdependence, participation and responsibility.” He explains that every activity within the community is a part of the therapeutic process and residents are encouraged to actively take part in the daily proceedings. Athma Shakti provides accommodations and round-the-clock care to its residents and follows a highly-structured environment with set rules and timetables. The day is highly structured, with time allocated for chores and other responsibilities, group activities, seminars, meals, and formal and informal interaction with peers and staff members. “Therapy sessions are group-based and on an individual basis as part of the program. Group sessions have an interpersonal and psychodynamic focus. Peers are role models, and staff members are rational authorities, facilitators, and guides in the self-help method,” shares Dale. The organisation also encourages patients to succeed in the areas in which they have the ability to progress.

Dale is a certified practitioner in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Transactional Analysis, Gestalt, Hypnotherapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Cognitive Behavior therapy, Reality Therapy and related therapies. Dale affirms that the experience at Athma Shakti, since its inception in 1979, has shown that people with mental illnesses can be successfully rehabilitated and integrated through the process of education that involves helping them to be aware of their thoughts and feelings and to take responsibility to find useful and healthy options to express them. “With over 40 years of experience in helping people manage and overcome their illness, I believe Athma Shakti Vidyalaya leads the way in restoring hope, dignity and self-respect to our clients and their families, empowering them with the skills to choose a healthy lifestyle.”

A testing challenge at hand

While the non-profit survived through the years through the nominal fees that the residents pay for their treatment and their stay and external funding, the pandemic brought some serious challenges that made even day-to-day operations challenging. Dale shares, “We had to reduce the number of patients to manage during lockdown. The new admissions were postponed amidst the uncertainty. This reduced our income. Many staff members had to go on loss of pay and we had to use all the refundable deposits, which were paid by residents . However, we were lucky to have family members of residents who offered to pay some of the staff who worked during lockdown.”

The lack of funds to pay the salaries for the 28-member staff was just one of the challenges. The expenses incurred for regular maintenance was another. “During the lockdown, the pump broke down. This affected the water supply. We were left with no choice but to buy water from water tankers. This again, affected the finances”

Today, the organisation is able to support just 19 residents; when in its full capacity it can support 28. This is in spite of the fact that the organisation has seen a jump in the number of enquiries. “As an organisation that has been passionately driving it even when it was considered a taboo subject, today we are fighting for survival,” says Dale signing off.

Today, an organisation like Athma Shakti Vidyalayala which has been driving impactful work is in need of funding support. Dale Peacock, Director, Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society can be reached at  98867 32845 / asvtc@athmashaktividyalayasociety.  


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