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House of Healing

In a new study, sacred environments have been shown to have a healing effect on the mentally ill.

By Linda Knittel

Often it is not until a study appears in a prestigious medical journal that traditional Eastern healing practices make Western medicine take notice. A fine example of this is a study in the British Medical Journal 325 (July 2002: 38-40) regarding the role Indian healing temples play in the treatment of mental illnesses in underserved rural areas.

In India, sacred centers are believed to provide curative and restorative benefits. For the last 60 years, those seeking to remedy mental conditions have journeyed to the Hindu temple of Muthuswamy in South India, where the study took place.

According to the research team led by R. Raguram of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, individuals who stayed at the temple reduced their symptoms by nearly 20 percent—an overall improvement in mental health that is equal to that of many psychotropic drugs.

The study followed 31 individuals who were evaluated by a psychiatrist on the first and last days of their stay. Patients' initial diagnoses included paranoid schizophrenia, delusional disorders, and some bipolar disorders. Each patient moved into the temple at no cost to them and was accompanied by a single family member.

Over the course of several weeks, no specific treatment was given—patients were simply encouraged to participate in the daily activities of the temple, which included a 15-minute morning prayer (puja) and light chores like cleaning and watering plants. At the end of their stays, patients showed marked improvements to their psychiatric evaluations. In addition, the families of 22 of the patients agreed they had improved, while three patients felt they had recovered completely.

Such highly impressive results are thought to be due to the power of the temple itself, along with the nurturing, comforting environment it provides. Furthermore, Raguram has been quoted as suggesting that, "It's also about the de-stigmatization of mental illness."

Darlena David of a nonprofit community health organization called the Hesperian Foundation agrees: "The temple serves as a safe place where one can reclaim direction by participating in small tasks," she says. "It is not a religious thing—benefits are brought about through a feeling of community and cultural acceptance."

What all of this means for the future planning of community mental health services in developing countries has yet to be determined, although it seems clear that approaches respecting a culture's system of beliefs are not only more accepted but also potentially more effective.

"Even in the West, people seem to benefit from healing environments that are centered around spirituality rather than depending solely on medicine," says David. "A lot can be learned from age-old traditional practices."

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