An Answer to Prayers
For a BILLION people, India has 4,000 psychiatrists, 1,000 psychologists and 3,000 social workers. Pioneering innovative mental health programs is crucial. AMHA is one such organization.
By Sujata Devadas, January 18, 2016
Waking up to a dire need
Bhanumati grew up in a family where 3 of her brothers had autism. They received very little healthcare treatment. It was a shattering experience for this small girl to witness one of her brother choking on food while eating. He was rushed to a hospital but they were turned away. Her brother died.
As Bhanu grew up into an educated, capable young woman and marriage proposals knocked at the door, she was absolutely certain of one thing. She had no intention of giving birth to a child of her own. Her brothers needed care, and she was perfectly willing to do her best for them. Saleesh accepted Bhanu’s condition and they married in 1990. From then on AMHA became their mission, their reality.
Low earning power means both parents go out to work to provide for their family's needs. Staying at home to look after a mentally handicapped person invariably pushes them deeper into poverty. Victims of mental disorder are inevitably stigmatized, facing harassment, abuse and discrimination. Thrissur has one institution available for the care of mentally disabled. It was then and now, not affordable for many.
Just so many…
A comprehensive survey of mental disorders in all the states of India is lacking. Dr Mathew Varghese, professor and head of psychiatry, NIMHANS,stated in a report published in dna English broadsheet that for the whole of India, for 1 billion people, there are just 4,000 psychiatrists, 1,000 psychologists and 3,000 social workers. Only a small minority of mentally challenged individuals receive even the most basic treatment. Pioneering innovative mental health programs is crucial. AMHA is one such organization.
Nearing 2 decades
Association for Mentally Handicapped Adults (AMHA) began operations from a class room at Puthoorkara L P School, Puthoorkara, Thrissur, on October 2nd, 1996 - the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
After 1 year AMHA shifted to a rented house near Seetharam Mills at Punkunnam in Thrissur, The founder is Dr.Bhanumathi, by now a professor in the Department of Zoology, Sree Keralavarma College, Thrissur, supported by her husband Saleesh. The sole source of income to operate this institution was Bhanumathi’s salary. Her husband & their like-minded associates were her greatest support. They took in 16 mentally impaired adults.
AMHA shifted to a new building at Karyattukara, Thrissur in 2004, after acquiring 54 cents of land. Physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, regular medical check-ups and counselling for parents and caregivers were offered at the new location.
50 attendees now receive care at AMHA. 27 of them reside there, of which 10 are orphans. Saleesh, Dr.Bhanumati and her autistic brothers stay in the same hostel. “Combined with the staff, Saleesh and I are there to be attentive to their needs and take care of them.” informs Dr.Bhanumati.
16 attendees have autism. 1 has Fragile X syndrome. 2 have cerebral palsy. 3 have Down’s Syndrome. 3 others have Microcephaly. AMHA accepts individuals afflicted with mild, moderate and severe mental problems. 95% of them come from the economically backward section of society. The rest are from the middle-class. “We provide them free education, food, accommodation, medical care, and train them in vocational skills. They are divided into separate groups so that training provided is aligned to their abilities.” says Bhanumati.
Who takes care of them?
“Dr.Shaji from Govt Medical college is AMHA’s President. Dr.Shailaja Ramkumar from West fort High Tec Hospital is AMHA’s consultant psychiatrist. Medical check-ups are done on the first Wednesday of every month by Dr. Vijayaraghavan. “Dr. Vijayakumar is our physiotherapist and Mr.Jayakumar is our occupational therapist, visiting us and when required to offer medical advice. Sri V.V.Joseph, Mrs.Mangala Sashikumar and several of my friends supported AMHA in its initial days. Now AMHA is a registered charitable organization. A governing body consisting of 9 members manages AMHA’s day to day activities.” says Bhanumati. Beyond this, AMHA has 4 special educators, 1 assistant teacher, 4 caretakers, 1 ayah, 2 cooks, 2 cleaners and 1 driver as its staff.
Just compassion or more?
“Training in vocational skills equips AMHA students with the knowledge to make medicine covers, paper bags, writing chalk, detergent powder, bath soap, candles, incense sticks, phenyl disinfectant solution, coconut shell crafts and greeting cards. This may not be commercially profitable, but it is an engagement that inmates find meaningful, a great way to spend their time.” Saleesh points out. “Apart from this, we use yoga and music to reduce hyperactivity and behavioral problems in our students, especially in those afflicted with autism.”
Kerala’s cultural festival, Onam, Independence day and Christmas are celebrated at AMHA, inviting the local community to join in, using this as a way to remove stigmatization and aid the social mainstreaming of mentally challenged people.
Earning an income
“AMHA attendees are above 15 years old. Some of our students have the ability to earn an income. One ex-AMHA attendee, Kesu, does a pretty good job as a caretaker at AMHA, with a bank balance of about 2.5 lakhs now. Another ex-AMHA attendee earns money by selling lottery tickets. A third person is employed in a workshop. One more ex-AMHA attendee studies in a normal school.Two of our students, Kannan and Suril, go to Govt. Mental Health Centre to teach them how to make coir mats at their day care centre.” says Saleesh with quite pride.
To be applauded
AMHA chooses drama and music as a therapeutic tool as well. Enacted exclusively by the inmates, AMHA has staged plays or dramas at the Regional Theatre and at the Town Hall in Thrissur for the public to appreciate, One hundred percent a rarity in Kerala, this is a novel attempt. Teaching and training their wards to perform different roles has increased the confidence and communication abilities of these frail human beings with mental health impairment, fostering faith and hope in all of AMHA’s compassion and care.
The attendees were trained by Sri Ganesh from ‘Rangachetana’, a Theater group, to perform their roles with competence. 4 dramas have been enacted by AMHA in front of a public audience: As of now, 4 plays have been performed: Oridathoru Poonthottam (‘In a garden’), Thatha (‘Parrot’), Ammakili (‘mother bird’) and Samadooram (‘Equal distance’)
The Power of a Woman
Dr.Bhanumathy is retired now. But AMHA receives financial donations from well-wishers and staunch supporters who know: this is an answer to prayer. The Kerala government does not give any grants for AMHA; neither do they or the central government give financial assistance.
On World Disabled Day December 3rd, 2015, the state government of Kerala recognized AMHA as the best special school in the state. The efforts of Dr.P. Bhanumathi have not gone unnoticed. 27 awards have poured in. Just recently, Dr.Bhanu received the ‘Sthree Shakti Puraskar’ (The Power of a Woman Award) from Rashtrapathi on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015 (Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of Women, Govt of India).
It happens often that the birth of a mentally ill child causes one parent to leave.The other parent deals with the situation they are left with, but as they age they are clueless how to cope with the mentally impaired adult offspring. Many parents asked AMHA whether they can live within the AMHA establishment.
In 2000, Kairali News Channel aired a story about AMHA in a programme called “Samakalikam”. After watching the programme, a lady from Thaikattussery, Thrissur donated 1 acre to AMHA. Now AMHA has decided to build independent but physically joint 30 living units, where mentally challenged persons can live here either independently or with a care taker or parent. The residents can live as independent families in a secure environment, with common amenities. During the day time, the mentally challenged take part in vocational training and in activities that entertain them.
Construction work has already been started by COSTFORD (Centre Of Science and Technology For Rural Development). Each unit will coast Rs.10, 00,000/ to construct.When this project is finished, this will be the first of its kind in India and one of a very few in the whole world.
In 2013, a letter came from Kerala government, allotting a plot of 25 cents at Aranattukara, Thrissur jointly to AMHA, Pain and Palliative Society and SOLACE - 3 institutions working for similar causes. SOLACE, for instance, aims to give social, moral and financial support to underprivileged children suffering from serious illness in and out of a hospital. The condition of the government is that we are supposed to construct a single building, without misusing the land. AMHA is planning to start a sensory Integration Therapy centre with an intension to start early intervention in the behavioral problems of autistic and other mentally challenged children. When it is finished this will be the 2nd or 3rd one in Kerala. This can be utilized by any person affected by autism.
“I am not sure whether anybody has learned from me - AMHA staff understand my way of caring and follow the same.” says Bhanu. In that, she rests her faith.