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Lost, found and reunited

Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation, led by Dr Bharat Vatwani and his wife Dr Smitha Vatwani, has reunited more than 7,500 mentally-ill street people with their families.

Published on December 20, 2020 at 4:34 am

Updated on March 20, 2021 at 06:50 am

Celebration at Shraddha Rehabilitation Centre.

Revallamma, a 35-year-old lady, was picked up from Mumbai’s streets and brought to Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation. She was laughing, muttering to herself and displayed classic symptoms of mental illness. Within six short weeks of nursing and psychiatric care and treatment, she improved significantly and informed the doctors, the name of her native village, which was about 200 kilometres from Hyderabad. Dr Smitha Vatwani, who along with her husband Dr Bharat Vatwani started Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation in 1989, herself escorted her back home and witnessed the happy reunion of Revallamma with her mother after four long years of separation and despair. The Vatwanis have been behind more than 7,500 such reunions of neglected, mentally-ill people who would wander on the streets. Dr Bharat’s noble gesture of treating, rehabilitating and re-uniting mentally-ill homeless people has even been acknowledged by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. He won the Raman Magsaysay Award, regarded as the Asian Version of the Nobel Prize, in 2018.

The destitute or mentally-ill street people whom Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation has rescued are from across the country. Mostly they are from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Citizens from our neighbouring country are also on the list of people rescued by Shraddha Foundation.

“Most of the cases have a happy ending—the family members accept the patients wholeheartedly. But we have also been a witness to a few cases wherein the families are not willing to accept the patients. There are also cases in which we are not able to trace the families of patients. In such cases, we hand over the patients to NGOs which house the destitute,” shares Dr Bharat. Nearly 85 per cent of the cases that we handle are of patients with schizophrenia, he adds.

Dr Bharat Vatwani interacting with an inmate at Rehabilitation Centre.

As mentally-ill people can be found anywhere, Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation makes it a point that its members fan out in different places to find such people. Police and other people who know about the Foundation’s work also contact them and provide information about such people. Once these people reach the rehabilitation centre, the doctors and staff there take care of them.“Medication is provided as per need and many of them are able to tell about their families after a couple of months. This helps us in the reunion,” says Dr Bharat. Typically these patients suffer from Schizophrenia, characterised by a profound disruption in thinking and perception, affecting the patient’s loss of sense of self, language and thought, and the impaired functioning causing loss of acquired abilities, leading to loss of livelihood and relationships. “While schizophrenia is treatable through medication, its effectiveness requires a supportive environment, productive engagement and socialization,” stresses Dr Bharat. Unlike the claustrophobic custodial care of other psychiatric institutions where patients are locked up to prevent straying, patients at Shraddha are housed on a wide land area and permitted to engage in a range of productive activities including farming, vegetable cultivation, etc. With professional psychiatric counsellors and care providers, the approach is to rehabilitate the patient through preserving and enhancing productive skills, while attempting a reunion with the patient’s lost family. The approach is more humanistic than professional and thus has a greater interest in its practice.

Dr Vatwani with his staff.

The greatest strength of the organisation is its sustained perseverance over the years. From a small two-room tenement to a 6.5-acre full-fledged rehabilitation centre, it has been a definite growth spanning 31 years. Other strengths include a committed hands-on workforce as on date which despite better lucrative salary offers have held on to their current assignment purely because they believe that they are doing genuine social service and the job satisfaction is very gratifying.

A report by National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) says mental illness afflicts 13.7% of the population viz. a whopping 180 million Indians, with 1.9% of the population afflicted with severe mental disorders, which if left untreated could well result in the patient walking out under the influence of the mental illness and becoming a wandering destitute. Eighty per cent of our districts run without a single psychiatrist. India has a ratio of 3 psychiatrists for every million population. Patients of Schizophrenia from both rural and urban areas without treatment are unwittingly separated from families and end up as roadside destitute, unclothed, unfed and uncared.

Shraddha is a humane experiment, perhaps the only one-of-its-kind in India, providing treatment, custodial care and rehabilitation to a neglected group of mentally ill wandering roadside destitute and reuniting them with their lost families. It is an approach that combines medication, innovative psychosocial intervention and occupational engagement.

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