Medication over superstition: How Karnataka’s Davangere achieved self-sustainability in addressing mental health | Bangalore News

Eight years ago, Nagamma from Channagiri taluk of Karnataka’s Davangere was battling suicidal thoughts even as her son Chandan grappled with a mental illness. Now, Chandan is working as a security guard for a private firm in Davangere city with the right intervention of a rural mental health programme.

Chandan was severely injured and was diagnosed with mental illness after falling off a two-storeyed building when he was trying to catch a pigeon. His violent and aggressive behaviour in the aftermath of the accident caused a lot of distress to his family, which eventually led his mother to suicidal thoughts.

Interestingly, all the six taluks in Davangere have now identified many such people who have battled mental illness through community-driven rural mental health programmes backed by LiveLoveLaugh (LLL)—a charitable trust supported by actor Deepika Padukone—which is working in collaboration with the Association of People with Disability (APD), ASHA workers, and other stakeholders.

‘Awareness, accessibility, and affordability’

2023 is also a landmark year for the rural communities in Davangere for achieving self-sustainability in identifying and addressing mental illness with the appropriate medical interventions. The district-wide programme covering all six taluks in Davangere has impacted 2,178 Persons with Mental Illness (PWMIs) and 8,172 caregivers. The programme is now run by the local communities themselves after being supported for seven years by APD and LLL.

Anisha Padukone, CEO, LiveLoveLaugh, said: “LiveLoveLaugh partnered with APD to kick-start the Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP) in Davangere in 2016 using a holistic approach centred around three key elements: Awareness, Accessibility, and Affordability”.

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anisha padukone A charitable trust supported by actor Deepika Padukone—which is working in collaboration with the Association of People with Disability (APD), ASHA workers, and other stakeholders. (Express)

“Through a strategic combination of activities such as street plays, wall paintings, consistent training for frontline workers in mental health care, treatment access, livelihood support, and connecting beneficiaries to government schemes, the community has made significant strides in expanding mental health support across the district. We are delighted that over the last seven years, we have empowered the community to run the programme independently,” added Anisha.

From social boycott to supernatural intervention

For many years, the rural community in Davangere and other rural sections of Karnataka has been grappling with mental illness and the stigma attached towards people diagnosed with mental illness. People of Davangere were subject to supernatural interventions and were sent to the Ukkadagatri temple, on the outskirts of Davangere. Here people were made to carry 50 kg of stones on their heads and walk as a cure for mental illness.

While speaking to The Indian Express, Nagamma said Chandan’s aggressive behaviour towards villagers was seen as an evil spell cast on the boy and as someone who needed ‘supernatural’ interventions to cure it. However, little did Nagamma know that this was a mental illness caused by the accident and was curable with simple medical interventions.

“My son faced a social boycott because of his aggressive behaviour and the villagers asked me to take him to Ukkadagatri temple to check if he was possessed by any evil spirits. He appeared normal and was free of any paranormal behaviour,” said Nagamma.

anisha padukone Lakshmana and Ellamma. (Express)

Meanwhile, organisations like APD and LLL with the support of other stakeholders advocated the need for identifying and curing mental illness at the taluk level with accessible healthcare at affordable prices.

She added, “This is when APD intervened and showed us the way and filled in confidence about curing my son’s mental illness with the right counsel and medication. It took my son nearly seven years to gain normalcy while he showed erratic behaviour at times. We used to spend nearly Rs 5,000 for medications and travel expenses when we used to consult private hospitals outside the city. With the availability of medicines and psychiatrists at primary health care centres, we are spending Rs 20-30. My son is now employed as a security guard and is contributing to the family’s livelihood.”

‘Don’t isolate us’

Diagnosed with schizophrenia after an accident, Lakshmana is now championing mental health awareness in Davangere. From shouting at passers-by and smacking small children on their heads to speaking in fluent English and addressing people with respect, Lakshmana has come a long way in the last eight years.

“In retrospect, I believe that a person diagnosed with mental illness should not be left isolated. I lost my precious time of five to six years, doing nothing while my sister and mother worked in the fields to make a livelihood. As someone who has fought mental illness, I believe they should be engaged in some sort of work like herding sheep or farming activities. After eight years, I feel confident and ready to open up about mental illness and help people suffering the same to cure it with medical interventions,” said Lakshmana.

anisha padukone Chennappa’s family. (Express)

K T Adhish, a farmer from Channagiri taluk who was battling mental illness, said, “Two years ago, I fell unconscious and hit a hard surface, which gave me sleepless nights. I was feeling uncomfortable from within and succumbed to depression. However, with APD advocating mental awareness, I was upfront in admitting about mental illness and reporting about it to the primary healthcare centre (PHC).”

Wading through challenges

In fact, as part of the programme, six ‘fellows’ are involved in advocacy, spreading awareness, and coordinating the rural mental programme at various levels. From helping people with mental illness get their UDID (Unique Disability ID) cards for pension benefits to fighting superstition in society, these women work at the grassroots level to streamline the mental health programme.

“We face a lot of challenges in implementing this programme. First, the process of applying for and obtaining UDID is an exhausting one. While physical disability is visible to the naked eye, mental illness is an unseen disability. Hence, it is hard to convince doctors while assessing people with mental illness to avail pension benefits. Second, a lot of villagers become offended and try to attack us when we advise against superstition as they believe we are hurting their religious sensibilities. At the same time, the government also needs to make efforts to make available adequate psychiatrists at PHCs for timely intervention,” said Lakshmana’s mother Yellamma.

Meanwhile, Dr Siddareddy, district mental health programme psychiatrist who has worked in Davangere, believes that in the last eight to 10 years the rural community in Davangere has made more visits to PHCs for mental illness than visiting Ukkadagatri.

anisha padukone Caregiver speaks to the people. (Express)

Out of the four patients visiting PHCs at least one or more are people suffering from mental health complications, according to Siddareddy.

“Although people who are religiously inclined still believe in superstitions and visit temples for curing mental illness, the trend has reduced over the years owing to the efforts by APD. We still advise such families to be rooted in their beliefs but also balance them out with the right medical interventions. We mostly see mental illness among middle-aged individuals because of social factors, lack of family support, poverty, and family issues among others,” said Siddareddy.

Besides Davangere, LiveLoveLaugh’s rural programme outreach extends to Gulbarga, Belagavi, and Bidar in Karnataka; Theni and Thiruvallur in Tamil Nadu; Idukki in Kerala; Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, and Koraput and Puri in Odisha. So far, 4,314 Persons With Mental Illness have been treated, 13,005 caregivers supported, and 21,079 community leaders and 3598 ASHAs have been trained across these six states.

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