Over winter break, eight volunteers from Wesleyan, including founder Raghu Appasani ’12, traveled to India with the MINDS Foundation to complete the first phase of their three-phase program in India. The organization, founded by Appasani in 2010, is committed to eliminating the stigma of mental illness in developing nations. Through a grassroots approach, they provide educational, financial, medical, and moral support for patients suffering from mental illness in developing countries.
Volunteers Shyam Desai ’15, Sam Douglas ’12 (a psychology major and director of research & development), Emma Kingsberg ’12, Rehan Mehta ’14, Lauren Seo ’14 (president of the Wesleyan chapter of the foundation), Rishi Shah ’12 (director of business development), and Zach Valenti ’12 joined Appasani ’12 for their nearly month-long study and service.
Phase I of the process, explains Appasani, is educational: the goal is to give people accurate information about mental illness and begin to take away some of the stigma and blame associated with it, and to begin conversations. Volunteers spent their time leading workshops and discussions, showing a documentary, and working with young children on dramatics arts projects to illustrate the lessons.
Leaders of the Phase I volunteer program found the month-long foray to be invaluable. “We learned about how to use volunteers working together to develop projects and an outline of expectations,” says Douglas. “We also learned that we need people who work well independently and are able to adapt to easily to changes.” Furthermore, he adds, “It’s a high-impact program.”
Appasani concurs. “The efficacy of the program is currently being analyzed through our relationships with Mount Sinai in New York [where two members of their medical advisory board are based], but the initial results are clear: 19 rural villages (approximately 5,400 citizens) have been educated about mental illness.” Some of these people have already begun receiving treatment, he adds.
Phase 2, he says, provides transportation from the villages to the treatment center, based in Vadodara, Gujarat, India, in collaboration with Dhiraj Hospital and Phase 3 is to help patients re-integrate into society through a work-program with a city known for its fabric industry.
“The MINDS protocol is easily replicable,” explains Appasani, who hopes to keep the momentum going and become self-sustaining. Both Appasani, Douglas, and Connor Larkin ‘12 hope to dedicate themselves full time to the foundation following graduation in May.
Those interested in learning more about the foundation, its programs, and its volunteer opportunities can visit www.mindsfoundation.org.
This first group of volunteers offered these comments about their experience and the work:
Sam Douglas ’12: ”The real value of my trip lies in the amazing, intelligent and resourceful people I met, and I’m really looking forward to discussing our future MINDS research projects and making sure to include the invaluable feedback they offer. “
Shyam Desai ’15, who was born in Vadodara, Gujarat, India, where the foundation is works and served as a translator and researcher for the volunteers: “A typical day started off with us making our way to the psychiatric outpatient department, and then we would split up into the different jobs that we were assigned for the day. I was able to help Sam Douglas start his research project, help Zach Valenti capture amazing interviews with patients and workers, and my favorite part was when we went to the villages.”
Rehan Mehta ’14: “As part of the MINDS mission, we also paid close attention to the issue of social stigma connected to mental illness in India. This is something we discussed at length with the local doctors, and researched in depth to gain a better understanding. We even traveled 10 hours to a local temple, where a guru claims to have powers to magically cure the mentally ill by removing the ‘demon’ possessing them.”
Zach Valenti ’12: “In time, the MINDS model in Gujarat can be implemented around the world. Our program is expanding to feature powerful alternative treatments, such as art therapy. And we’re exploring avenues to bring the wellbeing wisdom of India and its yogis back home to impact our lives here in the States.”
Emma Kingsberg ’12: “One girl sat down next to me and a friend and told us her story. She spoke of her mother’s hallucinations, of her severe depression, and inability to express her thoughts and feelings. She spoke about the days that she no longer got out of bed, and screamed at her voices. All of this was coming out of a 14-year-old’s mouth. She spoke about how she barely recognized her own mother anymore, and felt scared everyday. I heard the suffering in her voice, but what was more painful for me was the tone of helplessness behind it.”
For videos that include Appasani discussing his reasons for founding the organization, previews of a documentary taken during the winter trip, and scenery from a rickshaw ride that Emma Kingsberg ’12 took on her recent trip.