A safe and social sanctuary

Creating an inclusive and safe space for mental health service users, Schizophrenia Research Foundation launched Namma Area, a recreational centre to suit their needs
The skit at the event highlighted the struggles of caregivers | Gnanadarshan John
The skit at the event highlighted the struggles of caregivers | Gnanadarshan John

CHENNAI: Our society has often estranged people who we choose to consider “different”. Where there is any discomfort in engagement, we tend to pull away. Imagine how isolating that can be when you’re fighting a battle not just externally, but also internally. Such is the case for those who have schizophrenia, who face difficulty in making and maintaining social bonds in the face of inevitable societal stigma.

In a bid to make a dent in this reality and host interaction for mental health service users, Schizophrenia Research Foundation or SCARF found a simple yet effective solution in Namma Area — a recreational centre fitted with seating areas, books, television, indoor games, and more. The same was inaugurated on Tuesday, on the occasion of World Schizophrenia Day, in the presence of chief guests Paul Heritage, director of People’s Palace Projects in the UK; Mariana Steffen, arts project manager, PIECEs in London; and Renata Peppl, program manager, PIECEs; SCARF employees and volunteers; and a roomful of caregivers, patients and other interested folk.

“Many people have told us that they are bored with life; that they have no social life. It’s difficult to make friends and older ones often move on with their life. And we, in general, only leave our homes when we have a purpose to do so; patients don’t get permission to leave just for the sake of it as families worry. We thought of a place for when they need a purpose to leave home, a place where they can have an unstructured life,” elaborated Dr Mangala, assistant director at SCARF.

Mariana Steffen, arts project manager, PIECEs in London; and Renata Peppl,
program manager, PIECEs were two of the chief guests

A first for many
Namma Area is is a first-of-its-kind initiative, open to all mental health service users. In fact, the original plan was to establish the same outside SCARF to invite a larger crowd, but after some research and contact with families, it seemed the SCARF building was familiar to them and the safer option. That being said, it still welcomes everybody, even those who wish to understand mental health service users.

“We are honoured that we are getting a space for ourselves — a room, a television to watch and a space to relax. I can be myself in the room. I feel as though I got a demarcated area for me. It’s like it’s my zone where my rules apply,” narrated DV Ramana, a mental health service user in the introductory video, and later explained to CE, “As I mentioned, it’s like my zone. That is a sort of declaration of liberation for us. It’s a tsunami-free area, I’ll put it that way. All the coast is tsunami-prone but here there are no tsunamis, no threat to us.” The facility is open — free of cost — on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3 pm and 6 pm.

Firsts were in the air for SCARF’s World Scizophrenia Day celebrations, as the newly introduced Dr M Sarada Menon Award for Mental Health Service Users was also awarded. Ramana was a recipient of the same, along with Vetrivel, Mohana Jothi, Neelakantan, Nagarajan, and Akilandeswari. This, as SCARF mentions, is a new award in the memory of Dr Sarada, the founder, to recognise efforts of mental health service users in coping with their challenges and moving forward.

For the ones who care
These year’s events may have brought attention to mental health service users, but it did not take away from the annual recognition of the efforts of caregivers with the Maitri Awards for Caregivers of Persons with Schizophrenia to appreciate the support and care provided by families and friends in taking care of persons with serious mental illnesses and putting them on the road of recovery. The acknowledgement of all that it takes to be a caregiver and highlighting personal stories of the winners — Gowri, mother of Shravan; Sivagami, mother-in-law of Aruna, Lakshmiprasad, nephew of Suresh, Kavitha, neighbour of Rajeswari, Ayesha, neighbour of Andrew Jacob, and Ashok Seshayee — was an affair for which the applause hardly paused.

Clad in black, a team took to stage, enacting stories of struggle, love and duty, from the eyes of a caregiver. Masterfully, the actors brought to the fore the sacrifices of caregivers while simultaneously acknowledging that it is simply a reality, nobody’s fault. “Without caregivers in a developing country like India, mental health service is incomplete. We do not have as many doctors and psychiatric facilities. Without families, there is no complete care. Like they showed in the play, many times, the things that caregivers do without even realising it are not acknowledged,” Dr Mangala shared. Apart from these awards, there were also special awards bestowed upon Tanya Dutt, co-founder and managing trustee fo Aatmanirbhar and P Karpagavalli. It was a good day to look back at good deeds.

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The New Indian Express