New Delhi: Despite their age, some people might overlook their own health issues, but continue to work towards bettering the lives of others.
What she started at the age of 34, Dr Joyce Siromoni, now 85, is still at it — working to rehabilitate and integrate persons suffering from mental illnesses.
A medical graduate (1954) from Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu and D (Obst) RCOG from London (1960), she worked as a gynecologist in various hospitals in India and the UK. But in 1964, set new goals and decided on giving hope to mentally ill people.
Long before rehabilitation centres and health care workers addressed issues of personal trauma and mental illness, Siromoni had begun working on these. Her work goes back to the time when prisons in India housed inmates to a life of captivity because they suffered from mental illnesses.
“Instead of being provided health care, the inmates were left to die,” Siromoni tells Gulf News.
Working in an entirely different field, what made you change track?
I was neither a psychiatrist nor a counsellor, but the feeling for the suffering of fellow human beings led me to work for them. After marriage, I moved to Bangalore (from Allahabad) in 1963 with my husband Paul Siromoni, who joined the Industrial Team Service of St Mark’s Cathedral. Awareness was created about psychosomatic disorders and a need was felt for clergy and doctors to get together to look into the suffering of such people. We formed the Medico-Pastoral Association (MPA) in 1967 and initially, opened our home to emotionally disturbed men and women, providing them family care. Also, awareness was created on issues of drug addiction, particularly among college students, and to help those attempting suicide.
What age group did these people belong to?
Most were 15 to 25 years old and to counsel them, we trained volunteers and where necessary, referred them to a psychiatric centre. (Now, the MPA runs 24-hours service). Later, in 1972, we set up the country’s first Half-Way Home (HWH) in Bangalore. The government allotted a 100-year old disused burial ground. To me, it was significant that the ground, which buried the dead, could become a place for new life to blossom.
What is a Half-Way Home?
Those suffering from depression and other mental disturbances need a place of their own to recoup because the family and society rejects them. Such people were either sent to prison, mental hospital or left homeless. The idea was initiated to provide a midway home for their rehabilitation and reintegration in society. Though HWHs were already operational in western countries, it was relatively unexplored in India, as it was felt that there was no remedy for the mentally ill. Gradually, we saw them get rejuvenated, which gave their lives a second chance.
What steps are taken to help them integrate in society?
We introduced programmes aimed at bringing wholeness to their lives. These include: using of art (music, drama and dance), group and social interaction, domestic skills, occupational therapy (training in tailoring, sewing and block printing), food processing (making pickles, fruit squash and sauces), and art and craft (paintings and making greeting cards and calendars).
When did you visit prisons in West Bengal to see the conditions of the mentally ill?
My husband and I moved to Kolkata in the late 1980s and in 1990 I read a news report about mentally ill patients languishing in a prison. These people were referred to as ‘Non Criminal Lunatics’ (NCLs). I visited the prison to know if I could do something to help. Passing through three padlocked barred doors to reach the women’s cell, I was appalled to see their living conditions. They were locked in dark, dingy and unhygienic cells for years, without having committed any offence! I still remember how some of them cried and pleaded with me that they were not mad. I realised they had to be taken out of the prison and rehabilitated.
But why had they been imprisoned?
It was a time when the concept of extended families had begun to decline and people began having nuclear families. Instead of being taken care of, those with mental disorders were dumped in prisons. Some were abandoned because their families were ignorant that the mentally ill could be healed. In those days, the treatment was not only expensive, but a long drawn process. Also, the stigma and the violent behaviour attached to mental illness forced the families to get rid of them for their own safety and societal acceptance.
So, were you able to get them out of prison?
Yes, we managed, but only some were taken back by their families. That led us to start a HWH in Kolkata and setting up the NGO Paripurnata (‘hope for wholeness’) in 1992. The path was extremely challenging, as emotional scars ran deep in the minds of both — the inmates as well as their family members. Since some patients had been violent and uncooperative in the past, the families refused to have anything to do with them, whereas some were reluctant to go back to their families. There was also a case where a woman ran away from our place and reached her home. Upset with her sudden appearance, the family tied her to a pillar. We rescued and brought her back to be rehabilitated.
Was it during this time that you actually got recognition?
Yes, it came unexpectedly in 1994. In response to a Public Interest Litigation, a judicial commission was constituted by the Supreme Court to look into the conditions of the mentally ill. This commission visited Paripurnata and examined the process of psychosocial rehabilitation. Following that, it recommended that the process and method undertaken by our NGO should be replicated in every district of the State and that no mentally ill person should be admitted in prison.
What are you occupied with now?
I settled in Chennai in 2010. Ever since, I have been a volunteer in a Chennai Corporation-run shelter home, where over 16 homeless men are mentally ill. The NGO Banyan Rehabilitation Centre for Women has now joined hands to assist them.