A week ago, writer Sharada Sharma called and told me: “Jagannath, today is a happy day for me. Maila has recovered and has now found a job as a security guard.” Maila had spent several years on the streets of Kathmandu suffering from acute schizophrenia. Sharada Didi and a local women’s group had rescued him from the streets in Maharajgunj nearly 10 months ago and provided him with treatment in a rehabilitation centre in Kathmandu.
I congratulated her and said, “Didi, in an effort to mainstream mental health advocacy in Nepal, you and your women’s group (Nepal Samaj Sewa Mahila Sangh in Chundevi) have generated powerful evidence that people suffering from acute mental health problems end up on the streets not as the result of mental illness but as a result of social neglect and a lack of treatment.
Maila is a living example of this.”
Recently, I went to visit Maila. When I reached the rehab centre in Lalitpur where he works Maila was on duty. He opened the door and asked the purpose of my visit. I asked him, “Are you Maila Dai?” He nodded his head. I said, “I am here to meet to you.” His eyes looked puzzled.
While looking at Maila, I was reminded of a discussion between Sharaada Didi and I that had taken place about 10 months ago through articles in the Post. It was about people like Maila—homeless and suffering from acute mental health problems. Sharada Didi used to see Maila on the street. For many years, he was ignored and neglected by his community, and society as a whole. She was frustrated and didn’t see any hope for people like him. In one article, she wrote, “people who are living in cities are increasingly losing human sensitivity. There are many examples. The widespread neglect of people who are fated to live on the street is one of the visible examples. But, something should be done.”
Sharada Didi decided to rescue Maila from the street. She spent her first month in search of government bodies and organisations that could provide him with help. But there was no help to be found. However, for Sharada Didi this empty search made her aware of the lacking mental health support system in Nepal. In her late forties, it was the first time Sharada Didi realised that “no support exists in Nepal for people with mental health problems. When in a poor economic condition, family members abandon mentally ill members. They often end up in the street, where they spend the rest of their lives eating garbage and sleeping on the road. They are not eligible to be human and human rights don’t apply to them. Our social education teaches us to ignore such people.” It was a great disappointment for her.
Because of political connections and her own social status, Sharada Didi managed to accumulate some resources from the Social Welfare Council. To achieve this, it took the help of her husband, Narahari Acharya—a renowned politician and current Constituent Assembly member. She was also able to mobilise a local women’s group in Chundevi, Maharajgunj, and eventually admitted Maila into a rehab. After eight months, Maila recovered and returned to his community. Sharada Didi says when she compares Maila’s past to his present condition, it is unbelievable. Before, she didn’t believe that “mentally-ill people living on the street, if cared for and properly treated, could become well, live a productive life and contribute to society.”
Because of the generosity and commitment of Sharada Didi and the women’s group in Chundevi, Maharajgunj, Maila’s life now has a happy ending. This case has also generated hope for many others struggling with serious mental health problems. But lots of work is still needed for help to effectively reach those in need. There is an urgent need to find institutional ways to tackle these issues; in order to create a mental health system that is capable of addressing the needs of people like Maila, the government and society must hold themselves more accountable.
One major hurdle standing in the way of systemic improvement is that a large number of our politicians and bureaucrats—those responsible for designing public policy—are guided by incorrect mental health stereotypes. They lack basic awareness about the value of mental health, both for each individual and for society as a whole. These misconceptions have left concerns about mental health out of the social and governmental sector. As a result, people like Maila don’t get the help that they need; such people continue to suffer either on streets or at home. For me, these people are a reminder of the failure of the social belief system that guides our politicians and bureaucrats—a belief system that constantly invites preventable tragedies into the lives of millions of people.
In giving hope and support to individuals and families battling serious mental health problems, our politicians and bureaucrats can learn something from Maila’s transformation. There are multiple benefits to investing in mental health—investing in the mental health sector is an investment in the nation’s overall health and future. People like Maila have the right to live a hopeful and dignified life. They deserve resources and the attention of the state and society. They should not be ignored.
Posted on: 2011-05-19 08:48