“Here in the United States, we have around 300 million people and 47,000 psychiatrists. In India, they have over 1.2 billion people, and 3,500 psychiatrists,’’ said Mental Illness and Neurological Disorders (MINDS) member Emily Trambert ’14.
Raghu Appasani ’12, CEO and President of MINDS, believes that much can be done to expand resources and treatment opportunities for individuals with mental illnesses in India. In just the past year, he has founded, incorporated, and overseen operations of MINDS, an organization with that very goal.
“It’s a foundation and initiative to treat people with mental illnesses in India,” Trambert said. “Less than two percent of the health budget is awarded to treating mental illnesses. The conditions are appalling and unacceptable. There are few institutions to send your family, and the few that exist chain up their patients as often as not.”
According to Appasani, the stigma associated with mental illnesses in India is so great that often, little to no comprehensive care is available for individuals struggling with such conditions.
“It’s also a matter of human rights,” said Lauren Seo ’14, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for MINDS. “In 2001, patients were chained to their beds during a fire, and even though people broke through, they couldn’t escape; they were chained to the spot. Even today a man was found chained to a tree for eight years because his family doesn’t know what to do with him. It’s not just about treatment. It’s about human rights and dignity.”
This event is just one example of Appasani’s motivation for starting the MINDS initiative.
According to their website, MINDS maintains “a persistent commitment to taking a grassroots approach to eliminating stigma and providing educational, financial, medical, and moral support for patients suffering from mental illness in developing countries.”
According to its student leaders, MINDS will accomplish its goals in four stages.
Phase one consists of raising awareness. A social worker, working out of a university in India, along with volunteers from MINDS, will go to 30 towns to survey and educate rural Indians about mental health. The implementation of phase one is already underway. This summer, Lennox Byer ’12 and Alex Small ’13 went to three towns in India to give the first presentations.
“We had a laptop, a projector, and a video,” Small said. “Our social worker, Mehul, would tell people this was happening…This video was about conditions and symptoms, so people could identify what was wrong with their loved ones. We also told them that they had to take them to a hospital; this needs medical treatment. There was evidence this message didn’t exist before. There were two rooms in the psych ward in the hospital, and they were never full.”
According to Appasani, phase two is based on providing one-on-one support and advice.
“We are not trying to overdiagnose or overprescribe,” Appasani said. “It’s going to be individualized. It might take some time, but I’d rather do it one by one.”
Phase three will consist of providing treatment. The organizers plan for patients to be properly diagnosed by a psychiatrist funded by the MINDS foundation. Appasani hopes to target patients in the early stages of their mental illness.
The final phase will aim to assure that those who have been treated are reintegrated into their communities, which is vital in making strides toward their goal of a sustainable system—and toward eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness.
Appasani and his team say they are gaining useful hands-on experience and show no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t know if you guys get tired of theory in classes, but I do,” said Media Director for MINDS Zachary Valenti ’12. “It’s cool—the sort of dynamic that exists in an organization like this; it’s learning by doing.”
At the University, the focus will be on raising money, getting the word about MINDS out to the community and other campuses, and building a network of dedicated and passionate volunteers. Outside of Wesleyan, a board of directors and medical advisory board counsel with mile-long credentials helps Appasani to direct MINDS and focus its initiatives. A spreadsheet and flow chart dictating their structure reads like a business plan, which is how Appasani, sporting a dress shirt and tie, runs MINDS.
“Last year, the emphasis was growing,” Appasani said. “This year the emphasis is going to be the public relations and marketing. Already a lot has changed, even since last year.”
Other directors who have been added include Director of Development Brittany Davis from Vassar College, Director of Business Development Rishi Shah ’12, Director of Programs Lennox Byer ’12, and Director of Community Affairs Jane Nestler ’12.
Not only has the structure of the organization undergone a dramatic reorganization since last year, but Appasani and others are hoping to involve Wesleyan students in even more creative ways. Valenti is making a documentary that he says will transport the viewer into the lives of real patients in rural India, Jad Donato ’12 is organizing a pen pal exchange for individuals in rehab from Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH), and Sam Douglas ’12 is putting together a research plan to find connections between substance abuse and mental illness.
“Literally, in the past week or two, this has changed from an idea in my head to, now I am talking to ethics boards and putting together a proposal,” Douglas said. “There is so much room for creative thinking and growth and expansion.”
Valenti emphasized that there is a variety of ways for students to get involved.
“My thing is filmmaking,” he said. “So we’re going to document what’s going on to show people this is a ridiculous situation—what if you had schizophrenia and no one believed it was a disease? This is yours to build if you want it; don’t be afraid to go leverage the resources and people that we have to go do that. We need creative people to figure out how the hell we are going to get out there and get people interested in us.”
Appasani has high hopes for the future and believes that the energy of those deeply involved in MINDS will carry them far.
“Our goal is to take these patients and have them run their workshops on their own,” Appasani said. “If we do our job right, they should kick us out because they can do it on their own.”