Works and Days

Alternative Mental Health Care, India: Savanah Walseth, Winter Fellowship for International Travel 2015

Savanah Walseth, junior Sociology major and recipient of the Winter Fellowship for International Travel, reflects on her time in India, exploring alternative models of mental health care.

My trip to India was a series of dichotomies. Anxiety about traveling to a country alone; pure joy in discovering things that only I would have found. Seeing some of the most fabulous beaches and most expensive buildings in the world; visiting the largest slum in Asia. Exhaustion from constant conversations about money and worry about theft; witnessing immense kindness from complete strangers. I was there to study mental health in the country and while I did this, I also learned a lot about my own. 

I think the only way to sum up my trip is to take it one city at a time and share the lessons learn and a few tidbits about the people I met and things I saw.


A city of tradition and culture. Religion of one kind or another surfacing around every corner. A place that weeks earlier had experienced a terrible monsoon, but had risen up with incredible resilience. I learned to haggle and bargain, fight with auto rickshaws and learned to get lost in Chennai. I witnessed the grand celebration of New Year’s Eve and Day where the whole city cheered in joy. I went to the opening ceremony of the Madras Dance Academy’s annual festival where I saw traditional dances such as the Bharatanatyamand the dance drama Kalakshetra performed live. Dance and music are so much more than entertainment in Chennai—they are a way of life, a way of health, and a way of connection. In this city of tradition, I learned that tight social bonds, rituals and traditions are the way that the community stays mentally healthy amidst the chaos that surrounds them.


Through Christ University, I attended the International Conference on Counseling, Psychotherapy and Wellness as well as the Conference in Integrating Traditional Healing into Psychology, Psychotherapy and Psychiatry. I met delegates from Italy, Canada, UK, Japan, USA, Sri Lanka, Thailand and of course, throughout India. I debated with students about the current state of mental health in our world and argued that the west did not have all the answers. I spent a day in a dance and movement therapy class where I learned how the body is able to speak wonders about the mind. I listened to speakers share how they are using indigenous healers to be gateways into the mental health system and how western therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, may be just another indigenous therapy, no better or worse than the rest. I learned the importance of culture and connection in mental health, that there is a context for every treatment and every individual and lumping together what seem like symptoms into what we call diagnoses can, at times, be much more harmful than helpful.

India is building a mental health system from the ground up. They are realizing that they cannot copy a Western model and probably do not want to. People are learning that mental health is so much more than once a week therapy. I talked to one woman who works as a counselor, gets paid next to nothing and sometimes gets calls in the middle of the night from patients who had just been in a violent situation and had nowhere else to go. She would get up and find a temporary shelter or help them to the hospital. I listened to a researcher in India who is working with Hindu patients, using stories and songs from Hinduism to explain complex diagnoses or treatments. I learned about different transgender communities throughout India, many of whom are looking at transition as a complex ritual within their religion. The communities and wider public look at these communities in a completely different way than much of the western world.



From two cities of intense traffic and constant chaos, I was brought to Goa on a long overnight bus ride. The region has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but also has one of the highest rates of suicide per capita in the country. After swimming in a waterfall and visiting the beach and a spice plantation, I also got to visit with my hostel mates from around the world and talk to residents about seeing so many tourists without much break for themselves.


My final city. I visited the Gandhi museum and the Elephanta Caves, but most importantly, I was able to visit the Dharavi slum, the largest slum in the world. There are near 1 million residents in the Dharavi slum. While I know a lot about poverty in America, this felt so different. It reminded me most of many of the tent cities of individuals living homelessly across the US, trying to make community in a somewhat illegal environment. The difference is that the tent cities, besides a few, are usually temporary and often significantly less organized. The slum has been around since 1882 and has generation upon generation of families, a history and a surprising amount of organization and culture. Yes, the poverty was thick, 1700 families sharing two small bathrooms, garbage and wires strewed everywhere you walked, but there was also kids playing cricket, women cleaning their homes, men playing cards. The working conditions were beyond rough: chemicals, smoke, children making western brand clothing and finding plastics for recycling, almost no pay, and never-ending hours. There was also little shops, celebrations from a festival, decorations and an air of happiness.*

India was an amazing experience and I am so thankful for the opportunity. I came away with a better understanding of the world around me, what it means to be mentally healthy, how culture affects mental illnesses and a better understanding of myself.

*If you want to learn more about slums in Mumbai, I strongly suggest Katherine Boo’s book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. It is written by a white woman, but a very aware white woman who did extensive research over many years to get an account through the residents’ eyes.

Tags: winter fellowship for international travel, international travel, mental health, health care, healing, india, psychology, psychopathology