We are looking into establishing a donation account in order to help raise funds for some of the agencies and facilities we visited! Please keeping checking the blog for updated information about this!
As we begin to sort through the thousands of pictures that we took these will begin to be posted. Thank you all so much for taking the time to read this!
Today we had our closing session with the social work students and faculty from Amritapuri. It was a very bittersweet morning! We realized our time in India was quickly coming to a close and we all felt saddened by this. However, we also felt proud of everything we had accomplished, as well as beginning to look forward to traveling home. After today, our time will be spent in airports and on planes making our way to Chicago. Reflecting on these past three weeks have us all realizing that we are changed for a lifetime. Thank you so much to Saint Ambrose University and Dr. Johny Augustine for making this trip possible!
Dan, Anna, Hannah, Kristina, and Lisa
Wednesday the 15th gave us a chance to meet the chancellor of our host university, Amma. We experienced this as her followers do. We attended what is called “darshan,” which translates to meeting, at the ashram. Amma begins to meet people at 11am every day, Wednesday through Sunday. She stays until she has met everyone that comes to see her. Monday and Tuesdays she saves for those who work for her and live at the ashram. She does this about five months out of the year, the rest of the time she spends traveling around the world working and attending conferences. Meeting Amma was an unforgettable experience and sparked a lot of debate between group members about religion and beliefs. Ultimately, we came to this conclusion: if whoever a person chooses to believe in causes them to better their life or rescues them in some way, they should be entitled to have this belief. However, other people’s beliefs should not be forced on anyone. We also decided that as social workers we need to increase our knowledge about the resources we offer people. For instance, if we thought that following Amma would better a person’s life and pushed this on the individual as the only solution to their problem this is not only disempowering them, but also taking away their freedom of choice.
Thursday the 16th was spent on the water taking a backwater cruise! The sights were beautiful and the cruise was extremely relaxing. As usual for our group, conversations that started unrelated to social work or mental health usually ended with these as the main topics. We can’t say that we’re not okay with this. Our time in India gave us ample opportunity to grow personally and professionally. We were able to make the best of these opportunities, even on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala.
Monday the 13th we traveled to Trivandrum in preparation for our scheduled meeting with policy makers the next day. En route to the place we were staying we stopped to visit Don Bosco. Don Bosco is a program for boys who were either homeless or refugees from neighboring states and countries. Don Bosco provides school, therapeutic services, recreation activities, religious and vocational opportunities to their residents. The majority of the boys were sixteen or seventeen but there were some younger residents as well. One of the Fathers there introduced us to an intervention called biofeedback therapy. The purpose of this therapy is to have the client identify major life events and then work through these events one at a time using a machine that targets specific areas of the brain when processing about a certain event. As fascinating as that was, our favorite part of the visit was getting the chance to play ping pong with the residents!
Monday evening we were invited into the home of a person Anna’s supervisor previously worked with. This person and his family were wonderful hosts. They spent the majority of their day preparing a meal (not too spicy!) for us. One thing that our group had notice was the level of respect and hospitality that people here show for others, regardless of their nationality or how long they’ve been acquainted. We had an amazing evening with this family!
Tuesday the 14th was our scheduled meeting with policy makers. Unfortunately, due to the state government decision and the status of our visas we were unable to meet with policymakers. We were all disappointed by this. However, we are planning to email the policy makers our fact sheet including an addendum in hopes that our recommendations will still be heard. Today we visited Padmanabhapuram palace located in Kovolam. It was so fun to be able to tour the palace and learn about the history of the previous rulers. From the palace we returned back to Kollam, with occasional stops so the girls of the group could engage in some retail therapy to help cope with the disappointment from not meeting with the policymakers!
The 10th was a full day of class! We started in the morning reviewing “The Mental Health Bill, 2013” with our Indian colleagues. To prepare for our recommendations that would be presented to policy makers, each group was assigned specific chapters of the bill to analyze and then present to the rest of the class. After our lunch break we separated into larger groups in order to create two lists of recommendations. When we had completed the two recommendation lists we then combined these in order to come up with our final list of recommendations. This was a challenging day for all of us, but at the end of the day we were all in agreement that we felt as if we had made contributions that had the possibility of having a lasting effect.
The 11th was mostly a free day. We visited local shops and places around the area we are staying. We also spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We have had conversations that have ranged from in-depth and serious to some of the most superficial topics a person could ever imagine.
Sunday the 12th consisted of us reviewing the list of recommendations we had created in class. From this two page list of recommendations we had to reduce it down to a single page called a fact sheet. Our final document consisted of only five recommendations that we felt encompassed our values as social workers and would be most beneficial to the mentally ill population of India. Anna took charge of this part of the class and put together an amazing fact sheet for us to present!
Our day started bright and early with an almost four hour van ride to Pala. While in Pala we visited the Maria Sadanam Center. This is a facility for homeless individuals with mental illness. The center was started by Santhosh joseph in 1998. He decided to create a place that he could welcome people into. Currently, there are 267 adults and 11 children residing in the Maria Sadanam Center. The center places a large emphasis on using artistic expression as therapy. Residents of the center participate in orchestra, drama, and singing. Residents also earn a small wage through making and selling candles. Before we left we were honored to receive a performance by a resident who is considered intellectually disabled, he cannot read or write but was able to memorize lyrics and sang beautifully. We all wish that we would have been able to record this experience to share it with you, as words cannot do it justice.
After this first visit we were invited to have lunch with Johny, his brother, and his brother’s family at his brother’s home. They prepared us a home cooked traditional Indian meal, which Johny made sure to point out to us he had observed were our favorites: chicken fried rice, garlic chicken, egg noodles, fresh pineapple (that they grew on their farm!), curry cauliflower, vegetable rice, with ice cream for dessert. We are so appreciative of the chance to meet such kind and welcoming people that would make us a delicious meal.
Following lunch we visited a combined institution for substance abuse and homelessness. This center was called the Divyarakshaka Social and Charitable Society, located in Idukki, Kerala. The substance abuse part of the center was a place where men suffering from alcoholism could receive intensive inpatient treatment that lasted between 21 and 31 days. The homeless side of the center, established for homeless males with mental illness, was very different from the substance abuse building. Whereas the substance abuse building appeared well kept and functional, the building designated for the mentally ill was very disempowering. The living conditions were poor, bordering on unsanitary. The furniture was very scarce. The residents had to lay or sit on cold, cement floors. They’re sleeping quarters contained no privacy, as many beds as possible were pushed together. The majority of the time the residents are kept in a locked building. The workers explained that because many of the residents had been living with untreated Schizophrenia, mood disorders, and other mental illness for upwards of twenty years it would be unsafe to grant the residents more freedom or space than they are allowed because the likelihood is that these persons would run away and return to the street. After leaving this facility we immediately began discussing the conditions we had just witnessed. We brought up aspects of the mental health bill we are reading and how this facility was violating the right of a person with mental illness to safe and hygienic living space, as well as a right to privacy. This argument was countered with another inclusion in the bill that references a facility’s right to use the least restrictive means necessary in order to ensure safety for a person with mental illness. Due to a lack of funding and other resources, this institutions least restrictive means violates a lot of other rights that a person with mental illness is entitled to. So which is worse, poor living conditions because the alternative is that a person will return to the streets with no protection, or being locked in a room with no privacy, living in unclean areas, laying on cement floors, locked in a building with little to no opportunity to venture beyond the walls that are keeping these individuals safe, yet also imprisoning them?