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Times of India
21 October 2009

Much was expected from a regional workshop on mental well–being held in Colombo earlier this month under the auspices of the World Health Organisation. The choice of both the venue of the meeting and its main theme could not have been more apposite. But the way things turned out left one with the taste of ash in the mouth.

Here we were in the capital of a country that has just about begun to emerge from a protracted civil war. Yet, throughout the deliberations, spread over three days, you barely heard a mention of the havoc it has caused: thousands dead, many thousands more injured or uprooted from their homes, properties destroyed, sources of livelihood snuffed out. The sheer scale of the violence and its aftermath should have prompted the experts drawn from many countries of South and South East Asia to speak about the fears, anxieties and traumas of the victims.

But that was not to be. You heard the Sri Lankan health minister hold forth on the topical pertinence of Lord Buddha’s teachings to rid the world of want, fear and disease. No participant asked him about the nearly 300,000 Tamils languishing in congested camps placed under high security surveillance. The reason? The minister took no questions.

The theme of the workshop was eminently relevant. Information available on the WHO website lists chilling facts about mental problems prevalent across the globe today. As many as 20 per cent of the world’s children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders. Some 800,000 individuals, more than half of them between the ages of 15 and 44, commit suicide every year largely on account of mental illness. The rate of mental disorders tends to double as a result of natural and man–made disasters.

Adding to this litany of woes is the stigmatisation of patients and their families, the acute shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to provide treatment and care and the near–absence of mental well–being in the public health agenda of most countries. The workshop would have done well to examine these very issues within specific social and cultural contexts. However, for reasons that were difficult to fathom the organisers chose to spread themselves thin. Worse still, they chose to tread a terrain strewn with deadly mines.

On the first count, they expected participants to identify social and economic sectors and suggest ways and means to integrate them. In other words, WHO extended its remit, hitherto restricted to public health, to public policy as a whole. On the second count, the risks it ran were, if anything, even more hazardous. Instead of harnessing the expertise of social scientists engaged in public health and of psychiatrists, psychologists and cultural anthropologists, the organisers turned to spiritual leaders, faith healers, exorcists and sundry practitioners of esoteric cults for guidance on mental well–being.

Participants spent hours learning how to breathe and smile. They received instruction about the therapeutic benefits of certain sounds and mantras. Much knowledge was also imparted about yoga, alternative systems of medicine, the teachings of the Buddha, the glories of the Upanishads and so forth. (Incidentally, there were no representatives of the Muslim and Christian faiths even though Islam and Christianity boast of millions of followers in the countries covered by the workshop.)

One trouble with the choice of speakers was simply this. Each one of them with the exception of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar whose infectious charm held the audience spell–bound gave the impression that the path one indicated to attain mental bliss was the best, if not the only, one because it was secular and therefore had a universal appeal. The fact, however, is that yoga and reiki, ayurveda and unani, vipasana and zen all come with a specific religious and cultural baggage. What is best for some may not be good for all. This explains why certain Muslim countries frown on yoga or why republican France keeps votaries of spiritualism and mysticism at an arm’s length.

This is not all. Discourse after discourse at the workshop harped on the alleged infirmities of ‘western’ medicine as against the innate superiority of ‘traditional’ healing systems, on how individuals can lead a robust and fulfilling life of mental well–being regardless of one’s economic or social situation and so forth. Absent from the discourses were references to the state’s responsibility to guarantee the health of its citizens. On the other hand, you witnessed laborious efforts to bestow a scientific cachet on esoteric practices, including some that were outrageously sexist (dance and music to cure the neurosis of barren women!).

At the end of the deliberations one was left wondering whether the WHO, aware of its limited human and material resources, might now consider dispatching these proselytisers to combat mental disorders worldwide. You were reminded of a doggerel written by an anonymous author in 1878 on learning that Indian troops were sent to Malta to help English forces face their enemy: “We don’t want to fight/ but, by Jingo, if we do/ we won’t go to the front ourselves/ but we’ll send the mild Hindoo.”

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