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Voyagers talk mental health, illness in Kochi

On the first day the MV World Odyssey was docked in India, voyagers were able to reflect and compare differing cultural attitudes around mental health treatment and stigmatization by visiting two mental health facilities near Kochi, India. The field class that facilitated this visit, ‘Abnormal Psychology,’ is taught by Scott Fraser, an Emeritus Professor in the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio who is currently sailing as a Fall 2018 faculty member.

“This is one of the most popular types of courses at any university,” said Fraser. “We start off with the idea of asking ‘what’s abnormal?’ followed by discussing the concept of difference and asking the question ‘is being different and abnormal always bad?’ ”

Voyagers were accompanied by Interport Lecturer Dr. Anthony J. D’Souza, who has been a counselor and psychotherapist in India for over 30 years.

“Most of our addictions are symptoms of a deeper want which isn’t satisfied,” said D’Souza, who currently works as the Director of Premanjali Family Counseling and Training Center in Vasai, Maharashtra, India. “If I were to help people explore that want, they would realize deep down that their identity of who they are comes from spirituality.”

Religion and spirituality played a key role in both mental health institutions — a notable difference between western and eastern medical practices.

“Spirituality is about transformative, internal experiences and the journey toward getting in touch with one’s self,” said D’Souza. “I’ve seen people give different names and different labels to spirituality, but the biggest question is ‘how does it influence the quality of my life? Does it make me more compassionate, more loving, more free?’ That’s the bottom line.”

The first stop was the Kusumagiri Mental Health Center (KMHC), founded in 1971 by the Congregation of Medical Sisters of St. Joseph. According to their website, it is one of the pioneering institutions for mental health care in the non-governmental voluntary sector in Kerala.

“Mental illness is just like a physical illness, and we have to treat them how we would treat for any other kind of illness,” said Nancy Veter, a social worker for KMHC. “Someone who has a mental illness may be isolated by other people, so by creating awareness, we can help ensure they are getting proper treatment.”

Students discuss mental health with leadership staff at Kusumagiri Mental Health Centre in Kochi, India.

After a tour of the facility and a brief Q&A session, voyagers moved on to Lourdes Hospital, which has been servicing international patients for the last 53 years.

In addition to focusing on mental health, the facility also provided medical aid during the recent Kerala flood that claimed the lives of nearly 500 people.

“We were all devastated because we could see all these families and people we knew losing homes, and other things they cherished,” said Divya Ajay, a clinical psychologist for Lourdes Hospital. “It affected me personally, but professionally, I had to give them support.”

During another Q&A session, voyagers learned that the stigma of mental health is still an underlying issue in India, much like the United States. So much so that the hospital staff admitted to calling psychiatric services ‘behavioral science’ so that patients “wouldn’t have to worry about being labeled” after being admitted.

Another key difference in Western and Eastern approaches to mental health was the aspect of family support. In India, it’s common to have the family involved in the patient’s treatment, and both facilities allow families to stay in the hospital with them. This has ultimately made it “much easier” to treat patients in India.

The day ended with a small dinner and a discussion on why understanding mental health is approached in different countries is important.

“The biggest takeaway I hope students get from this course is asking ‘how does culture shape our view of normality and abnormality? And to what extent does adopting a western point of view skew what is done from an eastern perspective?’” Fraser said.

A conversation that will continue as voyagers head east on their journey around the world.

  • Culture
  • Life on Land

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