Minding the Mind

When The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM) was established by Banyan in 2007, the objective of establishing this “strategic initiative” lay in the desire to take on a more academic approach towards mental health. In doing so, what the NGO also planned to achieve was a threepronged approach (dissemination of The Banyan’s work, increase human resource and train future personnel) to furthering its cause. “The plan was to keep the focus on mental health and social action towards the same,” says Mirjam Dijkxhoorn, Deputy Director of BALM. With a specific focus on mental health and conducting extensive research on the same, the initiative has today, come a long way.

“Working at BALM since 2008 has been a whole new experience for me,” says Mirjam who is the Deputy Director of the initiative since 2010. “The fact that we get a chance to research, publish articles, and utilize forums like seminars to express our findings goes on to give the work we do that extra fillip,” she says. What an initiative like BALM has also managed to do, is provide an academic platform for the kind of work that we do, and thus allow education to takeoff in a big way.

BALM has initiated the Institute of Mental Health, Social Sciences and Transdisciplinary Research (IMHST) in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and VU University Amsterdam, which offers an MA programme in Social Work (Mental Health) and is preparing to start another MA programme in Social Work and Counselling which is expected to commence in the coming year. But the academic prowess of the organization aside, it’s the major contributions to government schemes that have won it many a laurel. The most noteworthy of these is the feasibility study that it conducted last year, on the central government’s MNREGA scheme. “Our study focused on inclusion of differently abled people under this scheme, including working on suggesting what would be suitable working hours for such personnel,” says Mirjam. The results of the feasibility study were then handed over to the government, which is now actively looking at its implementation. However, the bigger indication of its great rapport with the government – undoubtedly an endorsement of its work – has been the manner in which The Banyan’s clients are not necessarily relocating to government run health centers, but are co-locating mental health clinics in government run centres, which are accessible to anyone in the community. The one area that makes BALM’s work in mental health truly special is its non-clinical approach towards researching the same. “We study the social factors involved in mental wellbeing,” says Mirjam.

She continues: “Our studies focus on what kind of role society plays in shaping the mental makeup of the individual, and how his or her mental framework changes based on the society he lives in. Many studies at BALM are action research studies, by implementing programmes on the ground and studying it’s implications during implementation.” In the process of this non-clinical-yetacademic approach towards researching and understanding mental health better, BALM has also managed to enhance The Banyan’s understanding of mental health. Proof of this lies in the many training programmes for The Banyan that it has organized; even going on to help implement these programmes. The seminars that it has conducted have thrown light on various burning topics like Social Entitlements and Mental Health Issues, Perspectives of Mental Illness in India, The Role of Faith Healing in Mental Healthcare, Human Rights and Mental Health Institutions and Media and Mental Illness.

A well-thought-out structure with customized steps to ensure the right approach towards mental healthcare includes the following strategies: Contextual Analysis, Strategy formulation, Partner visits and exchange of ideas, Creation of a Training, Capacity-building and Implementation plan, Monitoring and Evaluation of impact and fine tuning of practices, and Hand Holding and Phase off. BALM has also partnered with the Chennai chapter of the Family Planning Association of India(FPAI) until 2012, and is also in the process of integrating Mental Health Services into FPAI’s urban community level clinic (Chennai Corporation’s Health post). The target group of such an initiative includes people with mental illness, their caregivers, the community, community-level workers, general practitioners and government health facilities. Other partnerships with Catholic Relief Services and Missionaries of Charity have also helped further the cause of BALM, allowing it to care for inmates of the Missionaries of Charity Home in Kolkata, also engaging in their rehabilitation – work that will continue even after BALM’s role ends.

Through its efforts, two goals continue to remain atop its list of priorities: to expand access to mental healthcare and increase active participation the mental health sector. However, Mirjam herself believes that the drive to research some more, is no doubt, the biggest goal at hand.

“There’s no doubt that continuing to engage in research is a priority,” she says, “international research grants are being given for it, and there’s a whole lot of encourage to conduct extensive research in mental healthcare, today.” Needless to say, with research, strong emphasis is also laid on publishing articles and information dissemination. However, another area that Mirjam hopes BALM will focus on is the introduction of diploma courses, in addition to the already-existing MA courses at the IMHST academy. “They will really go on to make a difference towards education in mental healthcare,” she adds.