As Ratnaboli Ray enters the male ward of the mental institution at Pavlov Hospital, a man in his 40s comes to greet her, radiant with his new purchase - a gold earring. It might be a small item, but for someone who was once an inmate at the institution, it is a novelty. Subroto (name changed) is now leading the block printing unit at Pavlov, as part of the institute's livelihood programme spearheaded by Ray's mental health rights organisation Anjali.
A new skill, however small, is a crucial part of integrating patients back into society. "A sense of self is the most important aspect of recovery because with it comes their sense of identity," explains Ray. Due to the stigma attached to mental health, often families don't accept them back even if they are recovered. "As a result, they forget who they are and start referring to themselves by their patient number."
Realising lack of awareness around mental health, Ray, a clinical psychologist by training, started her journey as a mental health activist in 1999. While many organisations are working on mental health, she identified the need to work with the state for a systemic change in mental health care.
She started working at Pavlov, West Bengal's largest mental hospital in 1999. Initially, hospital staff opposed the change, thinking she will take away their jobs, but later she received due recognition. "There was a lot of resistance as it was believed they will not be able to take the pressure, but these initiatives have given them a sense of worth. It makes them aware of their rights and gives them the confidence to interact with society," says Ray. The state government invited her to work at four other institutions.
Six women inmates run the hospital canteen, while 26 work at Dhobi Ghar where Pavlov Hospital gives them the laundry instead of outsourcing it.
Over the years, Anjali has moved from a service delivery platform offering rehabilitation and reintegration services to people with psychosocial disability, to an advocacy organisation fighting for their rights. Ray fought to ensure no coercive methods or electroshock treatments are administered without patients'consent and anaesthesia.
Ray realised unless the taboos surrounding mental health are dispelled, all reintegration efforts and policy changes would remain ineffective. Through their latest project - Janamanas Programme, Anjali is trying to create peer-led support systems in districts. They conduct workshops to train women as barefoot counsellors so that they can take responsibility for the psychosocial health of their community. These women also advocate for the inclusion of people with psychosocial disabilities into services and facilities. Anjali has trained around 500 women till now.
"We need more such Anjalis to push forward the agenda to make the voices of the voiceless heard and the faces of the invisible seen," says Ray.