India’s new North East Cluster is spreading vital health knowledge as widely as it can through their poorly-connected region. Mental health is a top priority, and so they recently invited HELEN MORGAN from Uttarakhand Cluster to train Cluster members and others on the subject. Here’s her story. Jake: First of all, tell us about your work. Helen: I’m a mental health trainer and psychiatric nurse from New Zealand. I’ve been in Uttarakhand for four years with Project Burans – a mental health project run jointly by EHA [Emmanuel Health Association] and the Cluster. There’s very little mental health provision in northern India – you’re lucky to find a good psychiatrist who will prescribe adequately. And one of the main things I do is train people working in mental health on how to communicate with the people they work with: finding out what’s going on in the family, and what’s going on with the person who’s unwell. People think counselling is about telling people what to do, and it’s not. It’s actually about listening. And the better you listen, and the more probing and open questions you ask, the more likely it is that a person will come to their own conclusions and solve their own problems. That’s really in a nutshell what I’ve been trying to teach. Jake: That’s identical to the SALT philosophy – if you want to see positive change in a community then you start with listening and asking good questions, rather than doing something on another’s behalf. Helen: That’s right! It’s really difficult to train people to do that. In the end I often get them to role-play, and they’re not allowed to say a thing while the other person shares their story, or shares some issue or problem. And that’s how I get the message across. It’s very challenging! Jake: So tell us what happened when you took your training to the new North East Cluster. Helen: I was asked to travel to them and do some basic training on mental health, mental illness, listening and counselling skills so that local people can understand their medication, and actually come to understand themselves and their problems, and sort them out. We had a brilliant turn-out – Cluster members and others too. Plus a newspaper reporter was there, who did a little write up. I focused on the basics, but actually many of them already knew a lot, and I think as a Cluster they already have huge resources in this area. You could tell by the questions they asked and the level of interest that there’s enormous potential if they share their existing strengths with one another – that was what really struck me. And so that’s what we did – we had a lot of discussion. Jake: So how might this sharing work? Helen: Well one thing we did was visit a Cluster member who runs a residential facility for people with addictions. I’ve worked with addiction in the past, and the facilitators there were supreme. They were in a challenging environment with few resources, but the relationships they had with the men who use the centre were wonderful. But the centre users have a huge issue when they go home, because the family often don’t get involved in helping them overcome their addiction. So they often fall by the wayside. And so this was a point of discussion – if the Cluster gets together, and they share issues like this with one another, then they could find some new and different ways to solve challenges. Groups are so good at solving problems like these. Jake: Did you see this start to happen on the course? Helen: We did, yes. For example, one woman was teaching resilience to children in schools. She was a psychologist and she did a lot of role-play. It was mind-blowing – it was so clever. And then there was another group working on addiction that was having difficulties, and we realised that they’d benefit hugely from this psychologist’s approach, so we linked them up. If I had anything to do with the Cluster, I’d get all members to prepare a brief of what their work involves and what skills they have, and then have a day when they all get together and share them. Jake: You’re about to return home to New Zealand after four years in Uttarakhand. I wonder what your lasting impressions of the country will be? Helen: I came here as a kind of retirement job, following up on an offer from an Indian psychiatrist friend who told me about Project Burans. You know, after four years a lot has changed in the country. And actually I’ve got a really strong sense that my usefulness is finished. India is producing some amazing people who are very passionate and knowledgeable and who know far more than I do and would be far more appropriate to be doing the work that I’ve been doing. The members of the North East Cluster are a great example of this.
If you'd like to learn more about community mental health, listen to our podcast interview with the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme here.