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Mental Health Care and Faith Healing in India

In India, mental illness is often believed to be the result of a curse, a demonic possession, or earned karma for misdeeds in a past life. In a nation with about 5,000 psychiatrists for an estimated 100 million people suffering with common mental disorders, and perhaps 20 million with severe mental illnesses, “faith healers from across India’s diverse religious mosaic have long filled the gap,” notes correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro in a seven-minute news video report prepared for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source for cutting edge reporting and analysis at the intersection of faith and society.

Motivated in part by healthcare activist Milesh Hamlai, whose brother suffers from schizophrenia, state mental health officials visited the tomb of an Islamic figure who has been revered in western India for 500 years. “Thousands of faithful — not just Muslims but also Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and others from across India — come here each day to pray for a blessing or a miracle” said de Sam Lazaro. “It’s also the closest thing for many Indians to a mental health facility.”

Because of the pilgrimage of the state mental health officials, an uneasy alliance between traditional faith healers and new mental health professionals has been worked out. “When I came here … there were 40, 50 people chained up to a post, often because they’ve had violent episodes. Some were abandoned by their families,” said Dr. Ajay Chauhan. “Conditions were also very unhygienic and completely inhumane.” However, once the officials were able to assure the shrine’s leaders that they were not there to shut them down — a move that would have affected several thousand jobs — it became possible for the faith healers and doctors to work together. It is now not unusual for faith healers to engage their patients in prayer and ritual, and then to lead them to a psychiatric doctor. Similarly, the psychiatrists are careful to show respect for the work of the faith healers, who in turn often pray over medications. The psychiatrists have even been able to train many faith healers to identify telltale signs of common mental illnesses. Hamlai’s efforts have so far resulted in bringing some 16,000 patients into the medicine and prayer program. Although that is a tiny number, it is seen by experts as a promising prototype that can expand psychiatric services in India without disrupting or antagonizing age-old belief systems. Also take a look at our feature article, “7 Ways Congregations can Embrace People with Special Needs.”

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