It was in 2007 when Custodio Mali Dao started noticing changes in his teenage sister’s behaviour at their family home in Atabae, a sub-district of Bobonaro in Timor-Leste.
“We noticed that she had unusual communication, sometimes she talked to herself,” remembers Custodio. “She would leave the house often and it became a security issue as it was sometimes difficult to locate her.”
Without any information on mental illness or how to get support, the family lived with Genoveva’s illness for eight years, seeking only traditional treatments and confining her to the house for her own safety. Custodio recollects this time as difficult for the whole family.
“Sometimes we would be at work and receive information that she had escaped from the house. We had to spread information to the community, so that whoever found her could bring her back home,” he said.
“As a family, we felt really stressed. Many times she could not recognise who we were. We could not focus on our own lives; we had to always be alert and look after her.”
Seeking mental health support through PRADET
It was not until a chance meeting with a television crew that Genoveva was finally referred to Psychosocial Recovery & Development East Timor (PRADET) who encouraged her to access immediate treatment through the St. John of God Centre in Laclubar. After taking part in the centre’s three-week mental health program, PRADET provided ongoing support to both Genoveva and her family.
Custodio noticed a “huge difference” in Genoveva’s behaviour after the treatment and says she is now an active member of the household.
“With PRADET’s intervention we can see huge changes. She helps the family to prepare meals, wash clothes and sweep the floor,” he said.
“But we also understand that she is not yet 100% recovered. We will continue to support her as a family until she is better and normal again.”
Supporting community reintegration
PRADET was established in 2002 and is the only organisation providing mental health services in Timor-Leste. With funding from the Australian Government, PRADET supports people suffering trauma, mental illness and other psychosocial problems as part of its mental health assistance program.
The Director of PRADET, Manuel dos Santos, says stigma and a lack of information on mental illness are the main barriers to people seeking support.
“But it is through professional help that patients and families can gain strength, and receive valuable information on mental illness,” he explains.
“People in the community who are displaying signs of a mental illness can be referred to us by family members, neighbours, hospitals, NGOs and police.”
The main PRADET office is based at Guido Valadares National Hospital in Dili, which includes a psychosocial rehabilitation centre. The centre assesses and treats mental health patients, and teaches them a range of techniques and skills to become functioning members of society.
Now 26 years old, Genoveva was able to graduate from secondary school and has moved to Dili to support her brother Custodio’s family. She continues to be visited by PRADET case workers who assist with her reintegration into community life and has dreams of opening her own shop in the future.