In a country with more than a billion people, relying on faith healers for health needs is a part of life for many people in India, particularly the poorest members of society. This is especially true for families of people suffering from mental illness considering the deep stigma involved. In rural areas, people with symptoms of serious mental illness are typicaly brought to local priests rather than medical doctors. While access to mental health care, including psychiatric treatment, is becoming more common, belief that mental illness is caused by evil magic requiring divine help is still widespread. Cases continue to be reported of mental patients being subjected to chaining, beatings, and forced isolation. As well, religious remedies, including exorcisms and mandatory participation in prayer are also common.
To combat the misconceptions that often surround mental illness and ensure that people in need get proper treatment, India's government has launched a new training initiative directed at faith healers in the Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts. According to Dr C Ramasubramanian, state nodal officer for the mental health programme in the region, approximately three percent of Indian society suffer from serious mental disorders and can benefit from prompt medical treatment. That figure does not include more common diagnoses such as depression and anxiety issues which would push the number of cases far higher.
Since religion is an important part of India's society, not to mention that fact that faith healers are far more accessible and cost less than conventional treatment, family members will continue to seek religious solutions to treat loved ones. As well, faith healers can often help solve minor problems since they are familiar with the cultural beliefs and family circumstances of the people they see. Getting faith healers to take part in the government project was difficult since many of them felt that the government was infringing on their livelihood. Correcting misconceptions about mental illness also met serious resistance. Participating healers attended a sensitization program run by the M S Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation in Madurai where they could see mental patients being treated and learning to live a normal life.
In describing how faith healers are responding to the sensitization project, Dr. Ramasubramanian said: "They were made to interact with patients and overcome their misconceptions. After that faith healers refer patients to mental health clinics in district hospitals, paving way for their speedier recovery" To foster greater cooperation between religious healers and medical practitioners, spirituality-linked mental health centres are being established to allow people with mental health issues to access medical treatment as well as addressing their spiritual needs.