It was a dark, cold winter evening when the seven of us entered the Republican Centre for Mental Health in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My colleague Tina and I were meeting members of a new self-advocacy group with the promising name New View at Mental Health, who had organized a New Year's concert for people with mental health disabilities living there.
New View provides daycare services such as playing chess and other intellectual games, computer training, organizing picnics in city parks, and simple socializing, as well as referrals to psychiatrists based at family medicine centers.
The Republican Centre is a conglomerate of departments, in rather large grey buildings scattered throughout the vast territory that belongs to the government. One has to walk quite a distance from one department to another. The buildings are separated by fences that remind one of other closed settings: prisons.
As we approached the department for women where we were going to hold the concert, Zarina, one of the leaders of New View, told us a story about her life after she exited this same institution, where she had been placed for some time. “Ever since I got out of here and started visiting the daycare center, my life has gotten better. I just came back from a meeting in Paris devoted to mental health. It is every person’s dream to go to Paris, right? I have a job at New View at Mental Health that I enjoy. I am helping people who are in the same situation as I used to be. I have a son, and my relationship with my older brother got better. I feel good about life.”
The section was locked, and we had to wait five more minutes for a nurse on duty to finally meet with the women. Much like in the neighboring sections, there was little light in the long, narrow corridor. The large rooms adjacent to the gloomy hallway were each packed with six or more beds.
Women and girls met us cheerfully. They were excited to still be in the corridor and not in their rooms after their 7 pm curfew. They were also glad not to watch television like they usually do in the evenings. Zarina and the team brought them small presents, sweets, fresh juice, and cards for the New Year. While I was distributing New View’s information brochures, the team set up the computer and microphone, and we were ready to start the concert. The applause greeting us was so strong that Zarina could not help blushing.
She started singing a melodic Kyrgyz song my aunt used to sing to me before I went to bed when I was little. My eyes were full of tears. I stopped clapping and noticed that so did everyone else around. Some were singing along, some were smiling, some were close to crying like me. The songs that followed were merrier, and there was more dancing—as much as the narrow corridor could allow.
When we were in the cab home from the center, Tina shared her impressions with me:
I have mixed feelings after this visit. Our society does not accept mental diseases. And conditions in which people are cared don't give them any hope to recover. Dark rooms, suffocating smell, and a sense of hopelessness. Such conditions make you feel as if you are in a cage. You just want to escape and run, run, run... These people and their relatives are subject to discrimination and stigma in our society, and it is in our hands to give them hope for a change.
Just one hour in that closed building emotionally drained us. But I was grateful for Zarina and the other girls’ passionate attempts to make the life of those who, unlike us, stayed inside the department somewhat brighter, even if just for one evening. I was happy my organization supports alternative services for people with mental disabilities and felt like everyone should visit the Republican Centre first and then the daycare center to really see the difference. This especially needs to be done by decision makers. I never valued my freedom more than on that evening.