I just returned from one of my favorite places in the world, a place that always replenishes my soul; my annual clown trip to the Amazon with my holy brother Patch Adams MD, and 100 clowns from around the world. We go to the Festival de Belen, in Iquitos, Peru where we work with kids conducting workshops, performing street theater, community art projects, health education. For the last 5 years we’ve also been conducting mental health clinics in the streets, staffed by clowns who are also healthcare professionals. We find a suitable location and then walk through the streets with a bullhorn and leaflets announcing our mental health clinic. We say we are health professionals and will talk to anybody about anything that might be troubling them.
I’ve written about the impact that these brief encounters can have (healingdoc.com/articles). Twenty minutes of active listening, where the emphasis is less problem-oriented than it is solution-focused. We focus on strengths and resilience, what you want and how to get there. We prescribe no drugs, but do provide vitamins (for adults and kids), and sometimes give sacred amulets.
I’ve previously described my meeting Maria at such a clinic three years ago; a middle-aged woman who emerged from the church across the street from where we were setting up; she was weeping openly. A clown approached her and suggested she might want to talk to a mental health professional who happened to be here right now. Maria sat and told me her story, and this morning in church, after eight months of prayer without receiving a sign from God for relief, decided that today was the day…and I believed it was possible. There are no hospitals, treatment centers, emergency shelters for the poor, so at the end of our talk Maria promised not to kill herself until she came to see me again at another clinic 2 days later. Indeed she returned along with her 2 daughters and together we made a plan to help move them beyond their suffering.
Last year I revisited Maria, her daughters and new grandson in their new home, where they were happily sustaining themselves. We talked, and when it was time to say goodbye, it was filled with such passion and love that I promised I would make this an annual visit. So last week I visited Maria and the family again, was greeted with passionate hugs and tears of joy, and then sat down to review our lives. She told me that people in her community now come to her for counsel when they’re suicidal. Her neighbors know that she had felt the same and survived. Maria tells them her story, the miraculous appearance of a tall, gringo, clown-doctor, who saved her when she had decided to kill herself. She tells them what she learned about how to build on her strengths, how important it is to stay connected to your children, and how to reach out for support so you don’t have to face your burdens alone. Maria reminds them of hope, she is a credible witness who helps them see possibilities. This is my vision of community mental health!
We always begin and end with hugs, kisses, and tears; and we always remind each other of the miraculous. I told them I’m coming back every year, because feeling such unconditional love reminded me of my Mother who greeted my weekly Sabbath phone calls with the same intensity, as if I were the coming of the Messiah.