By Gayathri Ramprasad
Growing up in Bangalore, India, Gayathri Ramprasad’s life is highlighted by doting relatives and the traditions of Hinduism. Her father’s goal is for her to move to the United States in the hope of a better future. This classic immigration tale takes on a twist when Ramprasad experiences her first bout of depression in her late teens. Despite repeated trips to physicians, no one recognizes the signs of panic and anxiety disorder and depression. Her father repeatedly tells her to “snap out of it.” Her mother resorts to prayer. In a culture where family reputation is all, and expression of emotional pain is taboo, mental illness is seen as a personal failing, a curse by the evil eye or possession.
Mental health treatment was and continues to be a rarity in India: a 2012 study done by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London indicates that there is only one psychiatrist for every 200,000 people.
Still, Ramprasad does what she can to live day-to-day, managing to graduate from college and enter a successful arranged marriage. She follows her husband to Portland, Ore., and does her best to play the role of a devoted, traditional wife and eventual mother. She is happier than she’s been in years, and believes she has achieved the family dream. But after the birth of her first child, her depression comes crashing back in the form of post-partum. During a visit to India, Ramprasad experiences a suicidal breakdown, and is finally diagnosed. Unfortunately, this does little good in relieving her fears and disappointment that she has failed her family.
Upon returning to America, she is hospitalized after attempting to bury herself alive in her backyard. She begins to educate herself about depression and anxiety, and eventually begins to learn how to heal. Her illness proves to be drug-resistant, with minor doses intensifying her despair and suicidal thoughts. After decades of trying various antidepressants, her doctor suggests she try a regime of cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise and holistic methods. Ramprasad is not without a sense of irony: “Although I was born and raised in India where pranayama, transcendental meditation and yoga originated, it is ironic that I needed to travel across the world, and nearly lose my sanity and life, before American teachers taught me these skills, the practice of which has transformed my life.”
Having finally found a course of treatment that worked, Ramprasad turned her sights to becoming an advocate. In 2002, she discovered NAMI, and helped organize the first NAMIWalks pilot event. She then began collaborating with NAMI on a regular basis, and telling her own story at talks around the country. In 2006, she founded ASHA International, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about mental illness on an international level. To this day, Ramprasad continues her work as an advocate, emphasizing the need for cultural sensitivity to better reach communities around the world.
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