Published: 27th April 2020
Here's how this Chennai NGO is helping mentally-challenged persons to live independently within communities
Porkodi Palaniappan's organisation works towards creating inclusive societies where neighbours, friends and others help persons with mental health problems live their own, independent lives
Mental health issues are always stigmatised in our society and inclusion is a word that is rarely found in the dictionaries of people with these issues. This eight-year-old non-profit in Chennai has made the impossible, possible — they get communities to support those with mental health issues and they go on to live independently. Porkodi Palaniappan, a certified art therapist and founder of Better Chances, a wellness centre for persons with psycho-social disabilities, says, "It was kind of an experiment to see if we can work with persons with mental disabilities in the community setting throughout, by taking the support of the community itself, without practising exclusion. As typically if someone is having a mental health issue, they are inside the home, apart from being given medicines they are also kept in isolation in hospitals or within any four-wall structure. Irrespective of their conditions we wanted to see if they can be included in the community at all points."
Until now, Porkodi has been able to facilitate the independent living of 12 individuals who were previously diagnosed with mental health conditions. She tells us that as they began functioning initially, people reached out and asked for shelter homes or places to keep these mentally challenged teenagers, adults, children etc. "That is the only thing they ask. It actually sounds like an easier option to send them away, rather than having them at home and using other methodologies to help them out. That might also stem from the fact that not much is available out there. There are multi-disciplinary approaches in hospitals and homes where a psychiatrist, a psychologist, general physicians and nurses all work together to help them with medication. What about having such services for people within the community? Not doctors but regular people who are willing to talk and listen? Nobody wants to be in isolation or be taken away from their families. So, this was the whole idea behind setting up Better Chances," she adds.
Sessions with children
They first established an activity centre, which was in Villivakkam but has since moved to Anna Nagar. It is a space for people with mental disabilities to express themselves and to have a platform. "We practice art therapy, I do my sessions there in different batches of people — making cookies, cake, gardening sessions, pickle making sessions and other productive activities. Individual attention is required as they are all unique, medicines alone cannot cure their disabilities, is what I feel. We have to look into their stories and thus help them to heal. If I get hold of the story I could work with them better and the baggage they bring. Whatever comes out is the symptom of something major underneath, people are medicating the symptoms but unless you get into the reason why these things are being triggered I don't think recovery can happen, so we look at bringing out the stories," she explains.
Porkodi, who was has been working for the last decade with different mental health organisations, felt that she had to break the conventional ways of dealing with such illnesses and create more awareness among communities.
I began art therapy as I thought we need more of non-verbal communication. Then the healing takes place in that person. This modality works better more than medication. So we began experimenting in these lines. As we were doing art therapy people get more connected to themselves, it's in an informal setup, not the traditional mental health centres with the smell of medicine, doctors
Porkodi Palaniappan, Founder, Better Chances
Involving the community and convincing them in these alternative ways of helping mentally-challenged persons come with a lot of challenges. "A lot of people are not comfortable leaving their wards at our centre as it doesn't have locked doors, strong security personnel or nurses with injections like in hospitals or homes. A family wasn't convinced to send their 35-year-old boy to us, scared that he would beat us up or create tantrums and we wouldn't be able to handle. It took them one year to trust us and send, only after they saw we had hired a male staff member. But to our surprise, this boy was the sweetest who had never had friends in his life or had stayed away from his father and mother because they were overprotective and not sure of what he would do. He felt the openness of the centre, interacted with more people. Earlier, he was struggling to establish his own identity, but after coming to the activity centre he gradually began to interact more and do work by himself," reveals Porkodi.
As people start getting better the team starts moving them to train and employment opportunities are provided. As they create more awareness among communities and advocate inclusion, they also find housing options for clients whose families cannot afford to look after them. "We get them rented houses in the Villivakkam area and we tell the house owners that these are people with a history of mental health issues. Initially, they are scared of the thought that how can someone stay alone. The amount of stigma around this is extremely unhealthy. But after we interact with the owners they understand and we have been doing this for the past 7 years. The community understands eventually that it's not a difficult thing to do. Living freely in the community is the ultimate aim of all our initiatives," says Porkodi.
Porkodi also works with the Institute of Mental Health currently and helps their residents to have a life among the communities. "Mental health as a domain has only been associated with professionals or experts. If someone has some issue they will be asked to speak to some professional. There's a gap over there, people should be able to open up and talk to each other, you don't only need the expert. Mental health should be owned by everybody. The nearest person should be able to step up, without differentiating and judging, gradually the community should also accept and support. That's why we have to create more and more awareness," concludes Porkodi.