The Banyan

The Banyan, Chennai

Madhurya Sai Amirapu on March 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘Just as trees require roots in the earth, man requires roots in his existence for life to be able to grow towards the light’


Indian roads and public spaces are often the subject of critique, ridicule and even light party talk. That which its presence is common is often taken for granted. The sewage-water soaked litter, the potholes that resemble the moon’s craters, the neighborhood stray critters- while all these are issues that need more efficient addressing, a truly unfortunate point and black spot on society is our ability to drive past a homeless individual on these streets. Their tattered clothes and unkempt appearance deter our wheels and with it our humanity. A subset of this group is a grossly overlooked population in greater despair i.e. the homeless with mental illness. Their inherent inability to gauge the outside world, navigate their way or even take care of their own basic needs is what makes this such an important and urgent issue.

The seed of the Banyan was sown as part an emotional and energetic response to the need of one homeless woman with a mental health issue. In 1993, Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar encountered a woman in ragged clothes and poor health who look confused, scared and like she had been abused. It became clear to them that the lady had no idea where she was and what was happening. They immediately acknowledged the need to find her suitable shelter and care, however in their search for such a facility, they realized that no such one existed to specifically cater to her needs. The homeless shelters were overflowing, the women-based NGOs hadn’t the ability to treat those with mental health issues and the hospitals couldn’t offer shelter and personal care for longer than a certain period of time, despite intent. All this culminated in the grave realization that an appropriate institution didn’t exist for this truly marginalized section of society. This further impressed upon the two perspicacious young women, the need to start their own initiative. From then onwards, the plant has been tended to with dedication, insight, and tender loving care.  Today it stands tall and sturdy as The Banyan, providing homeless and mentally ill individuals with the care and values with which it has been brought up.

The Banyan is an NGO named aptly, it believes in sustainable care and complete shelter of its people. Its roots were made to grow long and deep, with the institution covering a number of health and wellness aspects. These include emergency and acute medical, psychiatric, psychological and social care offered through their street-based services, hospital settings, shelter-based services, community-based outpatient care and inclusive long-term care options for persons with high support needs.

Mrinalini Ravi from The Banyan’s Senior Management Team, takes time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about their unique NGO. On being asked how they efficiently manage the varied medical, material and psychological services they provide, Mrinalini replies, “The medical care provided is stead forth and pretty straightforward and we acknowledge its importance as the foundation of the treatment, but what sets us apart is our wider view of their homeless and trying situation. Along with psychiatric aid we make it a point to provide psychological support. There is no point in treating the psychiatric symptoms and sending them back to place that triggers these symptoms, however good the medicines. Instead we must rehabilitate them in an environment that is conducive to their recovery and socially compatible with their needs.

She explains further, “Similarly if they’ve suffered some sort of trauma in the past, or if they have some psychological or cognitive issues that they need to get through, then along with therapy and counseling we try to rectify their bio-socio-psycho dynamic. After treating the immediate symptoms and addressing the homelessness issue we tackle the social component through our paradigms” The Banyan provides a truly holistic and innovative approach to therapy. They concentrate equally on short-term as well as long-term solutions that ensure the patients wellbeing and development rather than just treating the individual as a patient with a set diagnosis.

Mrinalini further reveals the reasoning behind their extraordinary and work, “95% of the people we take in are from below the poverty line. So, most of them are either homeless or from such destitute poverty that they have homes that make it the equivalent of being homeless. This is significant as poverty is a huge factor for the exacerbation of mental illness. Hence, we like to address and rectify poverty through various portals like job opportunities, disability allowance, housing support, education and vocational training and such.

We basically put together a ‘care package’ that is tailored to their specific needs and can help them overcome their vulnerable conditions. Once the day to day worry of ‘how will I get my next meal/when will my next meal be’ or ‘how will I sustain myself/my family tomorrow’ has been resolved then the individual is less stressed and can focus on their personal recovery as well as start living a more fulfilled life as the stability brings routine and hope back into their life, which is our ultimate goal for them.”

And thus, The Banyan gets straight to the root causes and weeds it out with a holistic and inclusive perspective. In a country where mental illness is grossly overlooked and under-treated, their approach is nothing short of visionary.

At The Banyan, they believe in active assistance and they believe in delivering it respectfully. Most times charity work is done with a sense of fulfilling one’s own purpose, The Banyan branches further into the domain of dignity, wherein they help restore it in the homeless and give them to chance to find their purpose too. They don’t see the various services as tasks but see an individual being deprived of basic human rights on the whole and they lovingly welcome them under their shade.

Mrinalini, who has been with The Banyan for 8 years now, explains how intricate their advanced system is, “The whole process of rehabilitation is dynamic, and so is any typical day at work. I myself started off with a research portfolio, and then went into project management, worked with the men’s shelter and other civil construction programs among others. We believe a lot in practical experience and hands on learning and thus every volunteer, even if they have just a research portfolio, will be given a case load as well. There is no point of being here and disconnecting from the people. Our founder believes that one won’t be able to provide the richness that comes with experience if the students/researchers/interns don’t interact with the patients.  Most of the learning with The Banyan is on-the-job.”

The Banyan is a one of a kind institution which, along with services such as Emergency Care and Recovery Services, Reintegration and Aftercare, Nalam (rural, urban and mobile multi-interventional community mental health clinics), and Inclusive Living options (which include Clustered Group Homes, Home Again otherwise Independent Living), also places unique emphasis on education and research and has its very own academy called The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM) which also provides internship opportunities. This not only proves their work is sustainable and teachable, but also that it should be taken forward in the progressive spirit of betterment.

“35% of the homeless population suffers from mental illness or substance abuse. As we work with many age groups in whom we see ourselves it dawns upon us that the disturbed homeless person could’ve very well been us if we happened to be as unfortunate. We could’ve fallen through the cracks of society and straight onto the streets and no one would’ve noticed, or worse, cared! This is the motivation behind all the work we do. We refuse to live in such a world and strive to make it better. That’s how it started as well, when our founders found that poor lady outside their college she was just as old as them and that fact hit home. We work with a sense of radical empathy and unconditional love.”, says Mrinalini about the inspiration behind their inspiring work.

She sums up this wonderful and replicable approach similar to an algorithm, “Along with the sense of responsibility, we are a strong believer in organized work. The Banyan is not a charity, it is an organization built on multiple evidence based and scientific systems that have been woven together. We like to think as such- A) That homeless person could’ve been us B) If it were, what would be the help I’d need, what systems would be the best for me to go through and what is the most efficient way to integrate them into my life.”

A human on the streets would’ve been through trials and tribulations that those of us with a roof above our heads couldn’t begin to imagine. We ask Mrinalini how they gain such people’s trust. “Well, obviously trust isn’t built in a day so the key to it is consistency. Giving up on them if they refuse help the first few times is the worst thing you could do, because if someone who is in a position to help and wants to do so gives up that easily, then they will never trust anyone again. Also, it’s a step wise process. It starts with offering small monetary support or even a few meals and then slowly they recognize us and trust is gained. We never expect them to immediately respond positively or be grateful. They are in a different state. We stay honest and persistent, and believe me, they pick up on that vibe. If you keep at it, you can see such radical change that is absolutely rewarding to get through to such a person.”, she explains wisely.

Another aspect that sets The Banyan apart is their aftercare protocol. “We put in quite lot of effort to locate a person’s original home and reunite them with their family. Finding it is many a times the joyous fairy-tale ending we hope for, but even if the family seems supportive, we provide an Aftercare Package that reduces the chance of relapse. Many may think the reunion is the ultimate job but this is often where the work starts!”, Mrinalini tells us, chuckling lightly. “The comprehensive package includes periodic home visits, clinic checkups, postal medication, phone follow-ups, employment linkages and family counseling. We also give them the option of staying at one our Inclusive Living groups in case things do not go as planned back at home. At times the family is hesitant to take them back or they outright refuse to and then we take them back into The Banyan. This is often healthier for both the patient as well the family and we give them a chance to forge new bonds of understanding in a safe and controlled environment. We’re all about options for the person. We leave no stone unturned for them and take no risks.” From having no choice and no hope on the streets as well as in their own minds, to having a family that gives them these many options with love, those that have been taken into The Banyan are the recipients of inspiring care. Life turns a full circle with some of the individuals who return to do good work there after fully recovering themselves.

The importance of their work in a society where mental health is ignored, disdained and misunderstood cannot be emphasized enough. Their providing it to the homeless population makes it even more so special. Our various societal issues all require strong support systems in their own right and The Banyan has provided the perfect one for the vulnerable subset that they tend to. We must all take a leaf out of their noble book.

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