The Banyan: Rehabilitating Homeless Women with Mental Illness

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If you thought starting & running an orphanage is the biggest challenge, think again!

The Banyan is an NGO based in Chennai that focuses on rescuing, curing and rehabilitating mentally-ill homeless women (primarily). Recently, I went to their Madras Day event, ‘From Madras to Chennai: The Banyan Journey’ and this post is a recollection of the happenings on that day. The above photo shows one side of their simple but thoughtfully designed conference room.

I am familiar with the name of this organization, but I didn’t know what exactly they were doing. It seems, everything started in 1993 when one of the founders saw a homeless mentally-ill woman stranded on the street and (unlike us) did something about it. Thereupon, they rented a small house and now own a fairly large (and well maintained) facility – Adaikkalam. The land was donated by the Government and the funds provided by kind-hearted people. You may call it a Public-Private partnership!

The Banyan is a residential facility where they take in mentally-ill & homeless women, provide them with professional treatment (through psychiatrists  occupational therapists, general physicians, etc.), teach them some form of life-support skills (if required) and then (try to) rehabilitate them with their families.

But this center can accommodate only as many people. Hence, they have started other facilities –

  • An Out-Patient Center at Nungambakkam ~ For people who don’t need to be admitted.
  • Community living project at Kovalam ~ For people who cannot go back to their homes.
  • BALM (Banyan Academy of Leadership & Mental Health) ~ Education and training for creating new mental health professionals.
  • Night Shelter at Santhome ~ Open transit care and night shelter for homeless men and families.

 

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A few professionals/volunteers from Banyan spoke to us on that day. Note: Photos are random as I am not able to recollect the exact persons. Dr. Kishore, spoke about homeless people in general and how that affects mental health. It seems, one in three homeless people become mentally-ill (some become homeless due to that reason) and most of them do not have access to treatments.

He said that if the ailment is identified and treatment given at an early stage, mental illness can be remedied quickly (like, in a couple of weeks). But many people don’t know that mental illness is a treatable condition or whom to approach. Also, the stigma attached to visiting mental health centers keeps many from doing anything. He felt that a huge (societal) mindset change and awareness is required and mental healthcare should be integrated with primary healthcare (for quicker/accessible treatments).

He insisted on the importance of preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, as it is economically/practically not feasible to treat them after they are inflicted with some form of advanced mental illness.

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The Banyan is one organization that enjoys the support of passionate volunteers. Volunteers can get trained to offer technical services or even non-technical services. Two long-term volunteers RK & Diwakar told us how they used to accompany people  who were cured, to reintegrate them with their families (often outside TN). They also help organize fund-raising events.

Other volunteers spoke on how they engage homeless people (on the street), as a part of their street engagement program. They carry food-packets, give it to homeless people, strike a conversation with them and explore how they can help. It seems, people often view them suspiciously and sometimes it took weeks/months to build any trust. They then suggest that people could stay in their Santhome transit care center.

Public can join The Banyan as a volunteer and assist them with their programs or they can help homeless people by themselves. Banyan’s inmates make a few products (like baskets, folders, decorative items, spreads, etc), which people can buy to show their support. Exhibition organizers (or any organization like schools, IT parks, etc) can offer them some space to exhibit their crafts.

I saw a board in their campus – ‘This hall is sponsored by Infosys Foundation’ – Wasn’t I glad to see our corporate segment pitching in with support! Numerous people (including movie stars) have supported The Banyan in different ways. Have a look at one brilliant video made by Trilok/Sharda, Santhosh Sivan & A R Rehman for the Banyan.

The Banyan Movie –


Destination Infinity

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24 Replies to “The Banyan: Rehabilitating Homeless Women with Mental Illness”

  1. A very thought provoking post.The faces and expressions of homeless and ill persons depict the dejection and pain.It is heartening that the Banyan is taking good care of them.The video showing their smiling faces and dancing with joy is so encouraging. Good work! Humanitarian approach has transformed them. Wish more people should come forward to give succour to such needy ones.

  2. Mental disorders afflict a large population and since the awareness and stigma attached with it is high the patients are ill-treated and abandoned by their own families. This initiative from Banyan is so noble and a step in the right direction. Kudos to the team. More power to them!

    1. Yes. Such initiatives are very much required as mental health professionals are very few. More people should focus on mental health professionals and the society should stop discriminating against this much-needed stream. Of course, this profession is very lucrative.

      Destination Infinity

  3. You have done a yeoman service by highlighting about Banyan and the admirable work they are doing for the mentally challenged people especially the destitute.It is heartening to know that quite a large percentage gets cured if treated in early stages.

    1. Yes, if treated in early stages, mental-health gets restored fast. It can also be cured later, but patients may require more time. There are some advanced mental illness (which they named, I forgot the names) which are very difficult to cure.

      Destination Infinity

    1. If we genuinely believe that the world is a wonderful place, we’ll make sure that it is. In the process, we’ll reinforce that concept in our own minds and inspire others too. Many leaders believe in it.

      Destination Infinity

    1. Volunteering is an excellent way to spend our (free) time. It can improve our interpersonal skills and understanding of our life, better than any ‘corporate training’ program. Also, the connections we make during volunteering is also invaluable. I am not saying that we should volunteer for our self-gain, but we should not forget that there are intangible benefits that one can get while volunteering…

      Destination Infinity

  4. I had read about the founders of this organization and an act that none could take easily. One of my mom’s aunt also got treatment there for her mental-illness, anyhow she’s no more now but only then I know they treat out-patents as well. Hope your post get know many on this noble organization.

    Touching video!

  5. You mentioned that homelessness can also cause mental illness. I think so too. I mean, imagine what would happen to us if we were homeless and abandoned!

  6. I would love to visit this place someday. I will be in Chennai next week just for a couple of hours sadly, that too in transit and in the railway station for a while, I guess. I am really interested about their several projects…. must have been such a good learning experience for you! Thanks for sharing this Rajesh 🙂

    1. Learning experience, yes. I am always interested in people/organizations that do challenging jobs. This is definitely one of them. Try to visit them sometime 🙂

      Destination Infinity

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