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Message for the World Mental Health Day

In Tonga, at the Langi-Ma'a Mental Health Symposium, 9-13 October, 2017

Tonga MH and Disabilities Association, Nuku Alofa, Tonga.


Bhargavi Davar


Sharing a  bit of my story.... I identify as a 'survivor' of psychiatry.  I have had early childhood exposure to the Indian mental asylums, where my mother was incarcerated and kept chained inside cages. When I was 5 or 6 years of age, I repeatedly visited many asylums, both private and public, to meet my mother briefly. India is a part of the commonwealth, an erstwhile British colony. The British left behind a blueprint for such asylums, which continue to grow in India, post Independence.

I carried for several decades, traumatic memories from those days, the smell, the shackles, the shock treatments, the cages.... and my mother at the receiving end! Stigma and exclusion within family, poverty, and gender oppression in many ways through growing up years. I could not 'make sense' of those experiences, why my mother was in there, and I felt angry, guilty, helpless and powerless for years. And ofcourse I missed a nurturer in my early growing up years. My father could not fill the gap, though he tried! The memories of mental asylums haunted me for many decades into my adulthood, leaving me with a fierce will to change those systems into something more humane.

I have experienced long term trauma born of those memories, and deep depression well into my adulthood, even while I was writing many academic papers and books. The depression was all consuming, but it gave me a lot of important learnings about how to live my life, and what choices I need to make.  It was quite a spiritual, awakening experience, and lasted about a decade, through my 40s. It was also  a good experience in terms of many lifestyle changes I needed to make - What food I ate, whether I got my dose of daily sunshine and exercise, and to pursue happiness and being useful to others, as important long term spiritual goals for my life.

I developed a deep hatred for closed door colonial type mental institutions,  and psychiatry, which continued the inhuman practices such as solitary confinement and restraints, and other unthinkable human rights violations.  I devoted my life to saving people from such institutions, by creating a range of community based services through Bapu Trust (Seher program).  Seher is now 12 years old, and doing very well, with support of the government. Now I carry my learnings to different countries in Asia, using the platform we created called TCI Asia.

I dedicate this day to people with mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities, their families and communities, in Tonga, the pacific island countries, to people living in Asia, and in all of the global south. Luckily many parts of Asia and the Pacific, despite being colonized, or being a protectorate, do not have many closed door lock up facilities for people with mental health issues; Nor, are there many countries with mental health laws through which people are forced into lock up / or forced to take their medications.

I urge you not to bring those practices of force and violence, into your amazing nation, where nature and community seems very strong, from all that I have read in the past weeks, while preparing for my sharings with you. 

This is also the core message recently given out by Mr. Dainius Puras, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Health, issued in June of 2017. I share some of the wordings from this important report[1].  On the World mental health Day, it is really important to recall his words to the world. Briefly,

"Despite clear evidence that there can be no health without mental health, nowhere in the world does mental health enjoy parity with physical health in national policies ... ".

"Forgotten issues beget forgotten people. The history of psychiatry and mental health care is marked by egregious rights violations, such as lobotomy, performed in the name of medicine. Since the ... adoption of international conventions, increasing attention has been paid to human rights in global mental health and psychiatry. However, whether the global community has actually learned from the painful past remains an open question. While mental health services are starved of resources, any scaled-up investment must be shaped by the experiences of the past to ensure that history does not repeat itself.  [I have lived through this history, and completely agree with this sentiment.]

 "Recently, through the disability framework, the limitations of focusing on individual pathology alone have been acknowledged, locating disability and well-being in the broader terrain of personal, social, political, and economic lives. 

 Finding an equilibrium between the extremes of the twentieth century has created a momentum for deinstitutionalization and the identification of a balanced, psychosocial model of care. Those efforts were reinforced by WHO in a report in 2001, in which it called for a modern public health framework and the liberation of mental health and those using mental health services from isolation, stigma and discrimination".

In my further interventions at this wonderful symposium, I will share what different organizations are doing in the area of psychosocial interventions. We expect 'inclusion' to be a favourable outcome for persons with mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities, not just 'reduction of symptoms'. We expect a good quality of life and standard of living, on a par with other citizens in nations, and not just 'cure' to our problems.

From my own experiences, and experiences of several peers in India and in Asia, I know that we can imagine together a better world that will include us, and will acknowledge our contributions. We can indeed share our insights about mental wellbeing, and illness, with the world; with our doctors, our family care givers, and with people in our neighbourhoods.  We can share, what is the kind of services that we want, who we want be with, what we want to eat, where we want to live, who we want to marry, what work we want to do, what hobbies we want to pursue; all in all, how we want to 'live our lives'.



[1] A/HRC/35/21 , Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, UN, Geneva, 2017

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