Sonia’s story – Helping people affected by leprosy overcome depression

April 6, 2017

This a story from our member Lepra. Facing intense stigma and discrimination, Sonia developed depression but was able to overcome it by attending a self-help group.

Leprosy is not just a disease which affects the skin and nerves – the damage is often felt on a much deeper level in areas that you cannot see from the outside. This unseen damage relates to mental health and studies show that up to 50% of people affected by leprosy will face depression, anxiety and even have thoughts of suicide.

Due to poor health education, misunderstanding and incorrect beliefs, leprosy often goes hand-in-hand with stigma and discrimination. Sadly, this has a profound effect on people affected by leprosy, where they are often cast out of their communities – isolated from their friends, family, work or school. As a result, people often hide themselves away from society, leading to feelings of severe isolation and low self-esteem.

Sonia Khatun lives with her parents and daughter in a small village outside of Sirajgonj in Bangladesh. Those in the neighbourhood have got used to seeing many women come and go from her small household, whether they come to be fitted for a dress, to buy cloth or to train with Sonia. She’s become a respected member of the community, empowering other women like her to learn a skill and support themselves.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Sonia had a long struggle to get to where she is today.

At just eight years old, Sonia, and the rest of her family, were all diagnosed with leprosy. Luckily, they were in the early stages of the disease and they were able to complete treatment without there being any lasting physical effects.

Sonia went onto marry, however, over the next three years she was abused by her in-laws, abandoned by her husband and left to raise their daughter alone with very little money. These events caused Sonia to suffer from severe depression and eventually returned to her parents’ home.

This is when she decided to join a Lepra self-help group. These groups work to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation in addition to providing financial and livelihood training. Sonia found it helpful to talk to others who had been affected by leprosy and could relate to what she was going through.

Sonia received management training through this self-group and eventually became the group’s cashier. She also received lessons on tailoring and once fully trained, she borrowed a loan from the self-help group’s fund and bought a sewing machine, which marked the start of ‘Sonia’s Tailoring and Clothing Store’ which runs from inside her home.

Sonia’s skills became famous from across the community and she became well-respected as she worked to sustain herself and her daughter.

However, for Sonia this wasn’t enough.

After her experience of being abandoned and abused with very few options, she wanted to help other women who found themselves trapped and vulnerable, and who may be experiencing depression. That’s when she began taking in women who struggled to find work and training them in tailoring too.

While her business is still in the early stages, she hopes that she’ll eventually be able to move her shop to the town of Sirajganj itself and establish a fashion house that could employ some of her trainees.

Sonia’s story shows the unity that self-help groups bring. This is exceptionally important in our efforts to diminish stigma, loneliness and isolation which can lead to depression and anxiety.

Find out more about the work of Lepra and learn more about the link between stigma, leprosy and mental health here.


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