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Seeking comfort from faith healers in India

By George Webster for CNN
  • iReport shows how mentally ill in India turn to faith healers
  • There is one psychiatrist per 500,000 people in India, according to WHO figures
  • Mental health not recognized as medical issue in India, says charity director Shoba Raba
  • Some healers are "charlatans," Raba says, but she doesn't condemn practice as a whole

(CNN) -- At a small Hindu temple on the eastern outskirts of Rajasthan, India's largest state, the spiritually possessed come to have their demons expelled.

For people suffering mental health problems in this part of the country, this is the closest many will ever come to psychiatric care, says Hungarian iReporter Pataki Balazs.

"Exorcism is a way of life" in this northwestern region, he explained in an iReport that documents the daily purification rituals conducted by local faith healers at the Balaji temple.

"There is very little understanding of mental health disorders, especially in the rural north of India," said Balazs, who has been traveling to document the region almost every year since 1994.

According to the 41-year-old amateur photographer, exorcism is performed in a number of ways, ranging from a strict diet over chanting Tantric hymns to, he alleges, keeping the "possessed" in shackles.

"Often the wails and screams can be heard for miles around," he noted. "Sometimes 'patients' have to stay on for days on end to be exorcised."

In India -- where there is one psychiatrist per 500,000 people and only one psychiatric nurse per 2 million, according to World Health Organization figures -- faith healers are commonplace.

"They are everywhere," said Shoba Raba, director of policy at the Indian branch of Basic Needs, an international mental health and development charity. "And they are almost always the first and only person in a community to 'treat' psychiatric disorders."

She said that, like in a lot of developing countries, the medical priority in India remains with communicable diseases.

Beyond this, however, much of the country's establishment "does not recognize mental health issues as medical issues," and therefore "it has not been assimilated into the healthcare system."

"Apart from the most serious cases of schizophrenia and violent psychosis, those suffering comparatively less severe mental health problems like depression and anxiety have nowhere to go, nor will they receive much in the way of understanding."

Except, that is, in the form of a local faith healer.

Christopher Davis, an anthropologist at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said traditional healers can play a role as mental health providers.

She contends that there is epidemiological evidence to the effect that people with mental health issues actually fare as well in communities where there is less medicalization of their condition.

"Anthropologists would argue that regarding faith healers as a less appropriate choice than physicians is a reflection of our own faith in medicine rather than in community as a way of finding a remedy for life's problems," she said.

Davis argues that what makes people more prone to mental health problems is subjection to "structural violence" -- exposure to extreme political, economic or social hardship.

Or put more simply: "Living in conditions where it is impossible to make ends meet takes its toll," she said.

In Raba's experience, there continues to be widespread abuses committed by faith-healing "charlatans" offering quick fixes at extortionate prices. Yet, the mental health activist refuses to condemn the practice as a whole.

"More often than not, they're better than nothing," she said. "A decent faith healer will at least provide an attentive ear and a much less threatening environment than a state hospital for people to express their problems.

"Even if the diagnosis is not accurate, this process can often create a useful placebo effect."

Raba said that faith healers tend to be well versed in Ayurveda, a field of indigenous medicine that focuses on lifestyle habits such as diet and fitness.

"Sometimes chanting a mantra, performing a small ceremonial ritual, prescribing some herbs and instructing a healthier diet is all that it takes to reduce the symptoms of certain mental health problems," she said.