Breaking stigma, building hope

This year, Namma Area took to the stage to celebrate two years of helping people find comfort.

CHENNAI: You are not alone” — a reassuring phrase frequently spoken, yet rarely felt in the depths of our loneliness. Despite its comforting intent, these words often fail to do away with the isolation that many experience. However, when theatre, music, and discussions unite, it creates a symphony like none other. Add to that a hall full of a compassionate, joyful audience, and one is bound to leave with a heart teeming with love for the abundance of kindness in this world. Such was the atmosphere on May 24 as Namma Area, a social hangout space for mental health service users, celebrated World Schizophrenia Day with much fervour.

An initiative launched by Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) in May 2022 to commemorate this day, Namma Area is a safe space for mental health service users; it is their home. It aims to give service users autonomy and ownership, allowing them to engage in activities they enjoy with people they are comfortable with. Namma Area was explored as part of the PIECEs project, a collaboration between India and Pakistan to improve community-based care for patients with psychosis and reduce the need for institutionalisation, with funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Queen Mary University in the UK.

This year, Namma Area took to the stage to celebrate two years of helping people find comfort. The Namma Area team, along with support from SCARF, put together a stellar event aimed at bringing awareness to and igniting crucial conversations about mental illness and its impact on our society. “Community engagement is a major aspect of this project. It’s not just about us going and talking to people about mental health; rather, it is about involving the service users and the families,” said Dr R Mangala, assistant director of SCARF.

When standing at life’s crossroads, we often find ourselves grappling with two starkly different thoughts: ‘I can do this’ and ‘I cannot do this.’ Namma Area staged a compelling theatre performance titled Mudiyum Mudiyathu, a thought-provoking production that delved into the paradox of these two powerful statements. In less than 20 minutes, the play portrayed four common mental issues — depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia — and how they are received by society.

Theatre has long since been a powerful tool for illuminating societal issues and fostering a deep community sense. Dr Mangala shared about SCARF’s aspiration to establish a theatre group comprising exclusively of service users. She explained about their ‘Waiting Room Theatre’, where service users get together, identify a theme for the day, and with 10-15 minutes of practice, they enact a few scenes, followed by a detailed discussion with the audience.

“We’ve been facilitating the ‘Waiting Room Theatre’ for over a year now, and it brings us great joy when families tell us that they see hope that their child can also get better one day,” said Dr Mangala. Through these plays, service users are given a forum to shine light on their experiences and share them in a way that fosters meaningful discussion and engagement.

After the soulful play, Aravind, a member of Namma Area, left the audience in awe with an enchanting and evocative violin performance, while Sharmila Nilofer recounted her experience with the platform, highlighting how it has helped her grow personally and professionally. In a compassionate and empathetic community such as this, one’s success is everyone’s success.

The event also witnessed the announcement of winners of a cooking competition as well as a quiz competition held on Instagram for a month, starting from May 6, leading upto World Schizophrenia Day. Dr M Suresh Kumar, an experienced psychiatrist, graced the celebration as the chief guest, moderating a panel discussion involving Dr R Padmavati, director of SCARF and Omkumar, Malathi, Pratibha, and Kumaravel, all active members of Namma Area.

The session delved into the various ways in which Namma Area has served as a respite for service users and how they are looking to create a space for it outside SCARF. Dr Suresh Kumar emphasised our society’s need for compassion and empathy, and highlighted the importance of empowering service users. He talked about how service users find hope in witnessing their peers get better and stood firm with the belief that recovery is possible. All it takes is a little bit of support, patience, and kindness.

“Our vision for Namma Area is to ensure that it is not restricted to service users of SCARF; rather, any individual who feels that they need a space where they feel understood and supported should be able to walk in,” explained Dr Mangala. Namma Area strives to foster the belief that you really are not alone and that when you feel like there is nowhere else you can turn to to feel listened to, you can always visit Namma Area.

Namma Area functions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, between 2 pm and 6 pm on SCARF premises in Anna Nagar.

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The New Indian Express