Matrika grew up the youngest of 3 brothers in a small village in the hilly Nepali district of Gorkha. He attended a mission school and by the age of 15 had shown himself to be one of the top students, with a bright future ahead of him. Then he was struck by illness: pounding headaches, pains throughout his body, choking sensations, and constant tiredness.
As months passed, even writing became an overwhelming task and by the time he took his high school leaving certificate he barely achieved a passing grade. Despite suffocating feelings of hopelessness and failure, including an impending sense of death, Matrika pressed on to take a 2 year certificate in forestry. His mother was very religious and as he struggled through his illness, Matrika often considered what lay after death, but he found little appealing in the options presented by his mother’s Hindu faith. By then in his early twenties, Matrika remembered his missionary teacher and a missionary doctor whom he knew, and how they had endured many difficulties living as foreigners in Gorkha. Speaking with the doctor, and later reading a Christian pamphlet, Matrika found the comfort he was looking for and turned to Jesus Christ with his life.
Despite his new-found faith, Matrika continued to struggle with his illness. His sense of hopelessness and extreme anxiety led to his isolation from friends and neighbours who saw him as a lazy, good-for-nothing youth who would do better to pull himself together and get a job. It was only when a neighbour suggested he might see a psychiatrist at the nearby mission hospital that Matrika finally got an explanation for his crippling illness.
10 years after it first struck him, Matrika was diagnosed with unipolar depression. He spent the next 5 years coming to terms with his illness and investigating treatment options as he tried to cope with the heavy side-effects of anti-depressants. Matrika prayed fervently that God would heal him so that he could become independent of these medications, but that did not happen; in his own words “it is good, it reminds me of my true situation”.
While starting work as a forester, Matrika continued to ponder his situation and that of the many other people he encountered in daily life whom he could see were also struggling with mental illness. He had a vision from God in which he saw a channel of water carrying love to dry, desert banks, but wondered how God could use him when he himself was so weak in his own mental health. He now understands that “having this pain in my own life allows me to have not sympathy, but empathy from my heart” for others with mental illness. After a few periods of working with mental health NGO’s, Matrika enrolled for a Bachelors in Social Work.
From the earliest days of his own treatment, Matrika has made an effort to respond practically to the needs of those with mental illness. Keshar was such a person: a young Christian man with a steady job at a hospital, he became ill with schizophrenia and, like so many, ended up living alone on the street. He was distinctly recognizable, expressing his mental isolation in the wearing of layers and layers of stinking rags so that he looked like a perverse Michelin man.
Matrika, armed with the dual confidence of his training and God’s calling, as well as the financial support of a woman involved in Keshar’s childhood, stepped in with appropriate legal measures to have Keshar taken into residential care for the administration of his medicines. Several years on, Keshar lives a simple but contented life as part of Matrika’s family. A member of the church choir in his youth, he now writes folk songs that raise awareness about mental illness.
In August 2008, one month before he passed his final exams, he established and registered Koshish Nepal, a national mental health self-help organisation. “Koshish” is the Nepali word for “making an effort”; the organisation works in advocacy and awareness-raising to have mental health recognized as an essential element of overall health, to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and to have treatments included in the country’s primary health care system. A defining feature of the organisation is its inclusion in its governance and membership of those who themselves are living with mental illness.
Koshish continues to be involved in the rescue of mentally ill persons who are imprisoned by their families or living homeless on the street. In 2011, Koshish opened a transit home for homeless women with mental illness, where they receive treatment and are stabilized before efforts to reintegrate them back to their families and communities. Koshish continues to advocate for people with mental illness and last year Matrika won the prestigious Dr Guislain Award as recognition for his efforts.
You can read more about the work of Koshish on their website – http://koshishnepal.org/ – and donate to the charity through the website of the United Methodist Church.
This article was written by Deirdre Zimmerman, a long-term development worker in Nepal.