One man's efforts to bring mental healthcare to rural communities in Rajasthan

One man's efforts to bring mental healthcare to rural communities in Rajasthan

One man's efforts to bring mental healthcare to rural communities in Rajasthan

Dr Dhanesh Gupta has been working with people from the rural areas of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana for the past ten years to enhance mental health awareness, and has been instrumental in the treatment, recovery and rehabilitation of several patients.

Hanumangarh: Sangaria is a small town situated on the border of Punjab and Haryana in the Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan. The people of Sangaria and its surrounding villages have undergone a significant change in the last decade, in terms of their understanding of the importance of mental health alongside physical health. Earlier, it was common in these villages to keep mentally ill people tied and restrained with chains. However, now the villagers are sensitised to the concepts of stress and depression. If symptoms of mental stress is seen in a family, friend, or relative, the first advice is to visit a psychiatrist. 

Subhash Bishnoi of Kishanpura Utarada village captured the impact of mental health awareness in his remote hamlet when he said, "Earlier it wouldn’t take too long to label depressed people as ‘insane’, but now the villagers have started to understand that mental illness is just like other diseases of the body and that its treatment is possible.''

The man behind the movement

Mental health awareness has advanced not only in Kishanpura but also in neighbouring villages. This has been made possible by the efforts of Dr Dhanesh Kumar Gupta, a psychiatrist working as a senior consultant at the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore.

Dr Gupta was born in Sangaria and completed his school education there. He obtained his MBBS degree from Sardar Patel Medical College, Bikaner and his PG degree in psychotherapy from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi in 1994. He held the position of Additional Professor at the Institute of Human Behavior and Relationship Sciences, New Delhi for about 15 years. Dr Gupta joined the Singapore government service in 2009.

He visited Sangaria often and remained deeply concerned for the mental wellbeing of the people here. He started a psychiatric awareness campaign in Sangaria in January 2011 with Rs 20,00,000 that he had received as part of the Humphrey Alumni Award.

Dr Dhanesh Gupta (first from left at the back row) with a team of volunteers at Sangaria (Picture courtesy of Dr Dhanesh Gupta)

Impact of the pandemic

Dr Gupta, under the aegis of the Nishkam Foundation, has campaigned for the treatment of mentally ill people who have been chained in villages for the past ten years. He has freed them from inhuman conditions and continues to follow up with them even during the coronavirus pandemic. Before the pandemic, he would travel from Singapore to Sangaria every month to take care of such patients in the camp. However, since last year, he has started treating patients via online camps twice a month.

Mahavir Goswami, a volunteer associated with the foundation, told 101Reporters, “If we did not organise these online camps, the condition of dozens of people freed from chains would have deteriorated again. We are not only continuing to look after those released from chains during the pandemic but also treating people who are facing mental health problems due to the fear of covid and those suffering from post-covid symptoms.”

Mental health teleconsultations and e-camps are organised every fortnight in Sangaria since the spread of the coronavirus in March last year. Dr Gupta listens to the problems of people and provides guidance. Prescriptions for medication are also made available to them online.

Police constable Noorsamand from Nawan village brought his family members to Dr Gupta. Noorsamand said, “I came to know the importance of mental health when my father and sister were treated at the Sangaria camp. I have been making people aware of mental health ever since. There must be at least one patient sent by me to every camp in Sangaria. Dr Gupta's speciality is to treat his patients using only two or three medicines that barely cost INR 500 a month.''

Freedom from chains

When he started this campaign, about two dozen psychiatrists heeded his call and came forward to offer their expertise in the service of the community. The campaign has since spread to the entire district of Hanumangarh after Sangaria; this was followed by the commencement of work in Churu, Sriganganagar and Bikaner and then in Muktsar of Punjab and Sirsa district of Haryana. Dr Gupta also started the 'Mukti Abhiyan'. This campaign was specifically for the mentally ill people who were labelled ‘insane’ and were tied with chains by the people of the village. Dr Gupta saw to it that these chains were first removed when he started their treatment. Hence, the name ‘Mukti' meaning freedom/liberation. The campaign has four steps that include finding the mentally ill patients, beginning their treatment, freeing them from chains and finally rehabilitating them into mainstream society. 

Dr Gupta said, "This campaign for mental health is "by the people and for the people". More than 150 people from different sections of society are actively associated with our campaign and they are helping by spending both their time and money. There is always someone ready to bear the cost of each camp in Sangaria.” He added, “7500 patients have consulted 17,281 times with us in 127 camps so far. About 120 mentally ill people have been freed from chains and are now leading normal lives. I am glad that I have been able to do something for the people of my town. I am immensely satisfied with this service.''


(From top left) Villagers of Sangaria registering for a mental health camp; Dr Dhanesh Gupta; Dr Gupta interacting with people at the mental health camp (Pictures courtesy of Dr Dhanesh Gupta)

Freedom from social stigm

When farmer Vinod Saharan's sister-in-law of Daulatanwali village, received free and successful treatment at Sangaria camp, Vinod became an activist and started making people aware of psychiatric illnesses. His sister-in-law was suffering from depression and was being treated by doctors in Jaipur but to no avail. Eventually, she recovered from Dr Gupta's treatment. Saharan told 101Reporters, “I have been contributing to mental health awareness for seven years. I have freed five chained villagers and had them treated by Dr Gupta, after which they are all leading a normal life.''

Dr Gupta, articulating his passion for serving the local people, said, “Even in today's era, having a mental illness warrants being tied with chains like animals. Mental illness is still a stigma for us. We are trying to eradicate this. Now in Sangaria, people bring the mentally ill for treatment not only from nearby villages but also from faraway states. I will retire from service in Singapore, in four years. After that, I would like to build my house in Sangaria and serve the local community.” 

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