THE POWER OF THE FAMILY MOVEMENT:
SHARING THE KNOWLEDGE
Chennai, India was the location of our 6th biennial conference, co-hosted by AASHA, the family organization in Chennai, which celebrated its 15th anniversary. Over 350 delegates attended the conference, representing some 20 different countries.
Prior to the opening ceremonies, WFSAD held its inaugural Training College. The idea was to provide knowledge for family members wishing to improve their skills in the management and organization of family associations and for those wishing to begin support and advocacy groups for families and friends. To make the day effective, we had to limit the number of individuals who took part in the college, although the interest surpassed our capabilities. The trainers and facilitators who were chosen to lead the workshops took up the task with great enthusiasm. They put together very comprehensive, interactive presentations that provided the attendees with practical solutions and ideas for their own family groups. Attendees have been asked to implement what they have learned and provide feedback on their experiences. We plan to follow-up with the attendees in the near future and will share this information in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.
The conference began with a press conference, with members of the local media present. Unfortunately, the governor of Tamil Nadu, the state in which Chennai is located, had just resigned the day before, and was therefore not available to officiate at our opening ceremonies. This was a disappointment, but did not deter from the excitement and festivities of the day. We were fortunate to have Dr. J. K. Trivedi, president of the Indian Psychiatric Society, step in to take his place. Dr. Trivedi noted that the role of the family in mental illness had changed significantly over the past 20 years. Rather than being seen as a cause of mental illness, the family was seen as an agent of change, creating a favourable environment for enabling faster recovery.
Dr. Sarada Menon, conference patron, inaugurated the opening ceremonies by lighting a 'kuthuvilakku' (a lamp common in South India). Dr. Menon said the family emerged as a central force and successful treatment of mental illness was possible with family support and professional help.
Dr Radha Shankar explained the aims of the conference - service providers and seekers would come together on a common platform for collaboration and cooperation. She noted that over half the presentations were made by families and patients who recovered. The focus was on finding solutions through collective action and not on problems.
The following day, in The Hindu newspaper, there appeared a large, colour picture of the dignitaries present at the opening ceremonies, with a headline stating 'Family, key unit in treating the mentally ill'.
We were fortunate to have Dr. Norman Sartorius deliver the keynote speech 'Social Capital and the Family Movement'. Following this was 2 days of workshops and plenaries covering everything from stigma, family education, family and consumer support, vocational interventions, legislation and advocacy, rehabilitation and after care and groups with special needs.
At the end of the second day of the conference, we were treated to a lovely dinner at the seaside resort in Muttukadu. On arrival everyone received a fresh coconut and was encouraged to enjoy the milk from it. Dancers entertained the delegates under the starry skies before we enjoyed a sumptuous Indian buffet. The fresh sea air, good food and lively conversations put a smile on all the faces of the delegates and a wonderful evening was had by all.
Our final lecture was the Bill Jefferies Memorial Lecture. Some of you may remember this from our conference in Kyoto, where we first decided to honour the founding President of WFSAD. An absolutely wonderful lecture was given by Dr Pratap Tharayan of the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. In keeping with the theme of the Bill Jefferies Memorial Lecture, Dr. Tharayan explained the latest advances in research and medications in mental illness. His lecture was informative, yet easily understood and he so graciously stayed after to answer the many questions our delegates had for this outstanding psychiatrist.
Following the closing ceremonies the delegates boarded buses to be transported to one of three mental health facility site visits. I had the opportunity to visit the residence and shop of AASHA. Peter Woodhams (UK), Marie Crofts (UK) and myself were given an in depth tour from one of the gentleman who lives at AASHA. He told us with pride about his job and how fortunate he felt to live at AASHA. It was easy to see that this organization has done tremendous work and is having very positive results. We stopped by the store on our way back to the bus, and everyone was eager to purchase something from the AASHA shop, run by the residents. I believe we featured a picture of this in a previous issue of the newsletter, but it was quite something to see it for myself.
I also had the great privilege to visit the Banyan. I know many of those who attended the conference also visited this site and anyone who has been there will tell you that a visit to the Banyan is a spiritual experience. The two women who started this home, for mentally ill, homeless women, had a vision and the love, caring, understanding and determination to succeed. With very little resources they have built quite an impressive home, already busting at the seams, but they manage somehow. Most of these women were destitute, living on the streets, alone and afraid and now have a safe home where the love, caring and warmth emanates from every corner of the building. As I said, it was a privilege to visit the Banyan and I will never forget the women I met there. It touched me deeply. For more information about the Banyan there is a website www.thebanyan.org. There is also a very good book called Out of Mind Out of Sight - The Banyan story told by Kendra. You can find more information about this book at their website.
As I said in my remarks during the closing ceremonies, it was such a pleasure and an honour to meet so many remarkable families and individuals with mental illness in India. For many years I have only had email contact with those people and I was thrilled to finally meet them in person. To witness the love and support and strength of these families is an inspiration and taught me more than they will ever know. I thank all the delegates for sharing their stories with me and for the gifts and kind wishes. My thoughts and prayers are will all of you at this time of terrible tragedy in South East Asia and I sincerely hope all of our members and their families and friends are safe. To those members who have not been directly affected by this tragedy, I urge you to remember our friends at this time and offer what support you can to help them heal and rebuild their lives.