It was 6:30 on a Sunday morning in May when we set out to visit Chittadhama – the residential unit set up for the rehabilitation of homeless people with mental illness. I had already set up an appointment with the team members of the Chittaprakasha Charitable Trust, which runs the residential unit.
A group of philanthropic professionals set up the unit in 2010, with support from corporate agencies, such as the Infosys Foundation, to care for the mentally ill individuals who have absconded from their homes, to rehabilitate them, and when better, to reunite them with their families.
In India, nearly a quarter of the 78 million mentally ill people are homeless. The overlapping problems of poor socioeconomic status, homelessness and mental illness create a desperate situation for the patients and their families. In some cases, mentally ill people are abandoned by their families, while in some others, they simply abscond from home.
Dementia and schizophrenia are the two most likely conditions to cause a state of confusion, disorientation to time and place, and a lost sense of reality, resulting in patients wandering away from familiar surroundings.
Providing Care to the Homeless Mentally Ill Patients
The place itself is located about 50 km away from Mysore, in a rural area known as Heggadadevanakote (H D Kote). This is only a short distance away from the Nagarahole National Park, and is known for its elephant training camp. The verdant area is watered by quite a few reservoirs and is home to several local tribes, and a variety of flora and fauna.
It is in this idyllic location that a four acre plot of lush greenery has been set aside for the care of homeless mentally ill individuals. The plot is cordoned off by an electric fence to keep away rogue elephants and other wild animals. Still, this did not stop a krait from slithering past one of the doctors during our visit.
As soon as we arrived, I was taken around the plot by one of the team members. The staff members of the unit have planted several fruit and vegetable trees, the produce of which is used in cooking food for the inmates. There is also livestock in the form of cows and rabbits, donated by people, and a borewell that has been set up to draw ground water.
There are about 25 residents in the unit; people who have been missing from their homes from all corners of India and beyond. These are usually picked up by the police from the roads and brought here for treatment and rehabilitation.
One of the senior doctors who regularly visits the unit saw the inmates, while I, along with the others, saw the outpatients who had come from the nearby villages and tribal areas. The range of conditions that we diagnosed was surprisingly large; not just psychosis that is usually more prevalent in these settings, but also depression, anxiety, dementia and psychosomatic illnesses. The fact that the Trust also provides free medications, made it easier for us to prescribe them to needy patients.
It was amazing to see the transformation in the physical and mental state of the inmates, from the time they arrived in the unit to the present day, all of which has been depicted in the photo album that the staff members have lovingly maintained. It was particularly touching to see the photos of those patients who have been successfully reunited with their families.
Ours is a country where the destitute and homeless struggle on a daily basis to eke out a living and to have one square meal a day. Add to this the burden of mental illness, and the problem is magnified much more.
The stigma associated with mental illness, its patients, and the families looking after the patients is so rampant in India, that any endeavour to alleviate the misconceptions about mental illnesses and rehabilitate the patients is highly commendable. It is because of this that the efforts of a few pioneering individuals who have set up Chittadhama assumes paramount importance in the field of mental health care in India.