Mental health advocate helps rekindle hope, rebuild lives
"India gave me my roots, and the U.S. has given me wings to fly. I am truly blessed for the gifts of both cultures," says Gayathri Ramprasad, MBA, founder of the mental health consultancy MindBeautiful. Dealing with undiagnosed and untreated General Anxiety Disorder for majority of her life, Ramparasad lived through years of wrenching personal sorrow, pain and trauma.
|Gayathri Ramprasad received a “Consumer Leadership Award” from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for her efforts to raise awareness of mental health.
Her struggle through mental illness was made more complicated by the lack of awareness about mental health issues in Indian society. Ramprasad says her symptoms started when she was a teenager, and continued for many years. Being confined in a seclusion room in the psychiatric ward of a mental hospital gave Ramprasad a unique perspective and new lease on life.
“It is estimated that 450 million around the world struggle with mental illness. I promised that for every moment that I am alive, I will be this candle in the dark to dispel ignorance about mental health issues and illness. I will be the candle to give people hope on their road to recovery, to help incinerate chains of stigma and discrimination,” she said.
Ramprasad has served as a member of the Board of Directors at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Oregon, and campaigned for the passage of mental health parity bill in Oregon. She was instrumental in spearheading a nationwide walkathon and fund-raising event to raise awareness about the country’s need for a world-class treatment and recovery system for people with mental illness. She also is a trained presenter of NAMI’s recovery education program, In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness.
She serves as a consultant to hospitals and mental health providers in fostering humane, “person-centered” systems of care. She facilitates local screenings of award-winning documentaries and films to de-stigmatize mental illness and promote cultural competency in mental health. In recognition of her many significant contributions to the cause of mental health advocacy, Ramprasad received the prestigious 2006 Eli Lilly Welcome Back Award for Lifetime Achievement and the 2006 Voice Award for Consumer Leadership.
In her own words, she shares her triumphant journey through the depths of mental illness to become one of the most powerful agents of hope and transformational change.
I have lived for years as a prisoner of my own body and my mind, being unable to give voice, for what we now know as generalized anxiety disorder. Now, I have dedicated my life to raising awareness about mental illness.
I was living in this constant sense of dread, that something horrendous is about happen, over which I have no control. My heart would race. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I couldn’t function. My family and I had absolutely no understanding of the symptoms.
Culturally, we had no concept of mental illness. In certain cultures, there are many misperceptions of mental illness. In many cases, there are many opportunities for mental illness to be pre-empted, addressed and treated. But symptoms go unnoticed until the individual reaches a point of crisis.
My symptoms were rationalized as the feelings of a young woman who is hypersensitive, too self-absorbed, and weak. At best, my symptoms were somatized. I was in this vicious cycle of being nauseous all the time and not being able to eat. Many physicians cannot diagnose anything other than the physical manifestation of the symptoms. When they couldn’t understand the persistence of these symptoms, they said I was merely going through a phase, that I was being a difficult teenager.
Secrets and shame
When I was 21, my mother decided to find a suitable boy for me to marry. She finds this incredible guy who bore the name of her favorite god, Ram. His name, Ramprasad, meant the “gift of Ram.” He was a gold medalist in his engineering program, had an MS in computer science, and came to the U.S. as a professional – can you believe our luck?
| With Mrs. Rosalynn Carter at the Silver Ribbon Campain for the Brain dinner, organized byNARSAD The Mental Health Research Association.
Everybody was going nuts in preparation for our wedding. I was terrified – absolutely terrorized – that they will discover my secret. I would steal my way away to the bathroom, between ceremonies, puking my guts out. Then powder my nose, meet the guests, and pretend to be the bashful bride. Nobody could tell what I was going through, but I was always afraid that they would find out my secret. My husband didn’t know, nor did his family.
It took me 11 months to get my visa so I could join my husband in the U.S. Before I left India, I was hospitalized. That was the first time my mother had heard the word “anxiety.” They thought I was anxious because I’m leaving the country to join my husband in a foreign country. It made sense to everyone else. But for me, I knew that I was harboring a deep dark secret. A lot of lies were being told in silence.
I had never been on an airplane before. I had never left my city on my own.
Imagine the sheer excitement of leaving the dark past behind me, the excitement of a naïve girl wanting to believe in these romantic notions of what life in America could be like. I’m married to a highly successful man. My entire community was envious of my luck.
The entire flight to America, I must have thrown up every few minutes and cried nonstop.
When I got to Portland, my husband wondered why I had grown thinner from how he remembered me 11 months ago. My collar and hip bones were sticking out – I was skeletal. But I always, always had this smile that could fool anybody.
No place to run
For the first year or so, my secret was safe. I was away from all all the conflicts, all the madness – my dark past. My symptoms mysteriously disappeared. My husband and I traveled the country, got to know each other, and went through all the adjustments to life in America.
I was desperately lonely and sad. We had all the creature comforts, but none of the connections to community. Initially, most immigrants don’t realize the loneliness because we are so mesmerized by all the excitement of everything new.
Simple things, like, I never saw anybody outside. Where do the people go? They’re like birds: they fly out of their nest first thing in the morning and go back to their nests sometime after dusk. For me, it was a total break of that sense of belonging and community.
Within a year, I got pregnant. I started becoming terrified. What if I get sick? What if I can’t sustain this baby? How evil I am as a mother that I can’t even nurture a child in my womb, and give birth to a child.
When I gave birth to Shobha, she was everything I dreamt of. Bus as she grew radiant by the day, I grew despondent. I didn’t understand why I would cry for no reason, endlessly for hours. I started losing interest in life. I couldn’t eat. I was listless and restless. I felt guilty for feeling this way, when I should be a happy mother. Somewhere in the realms of my mind, I had this need to rationalize wanting death.
My symptoms were rationalized as being the feelings of a young mother in a foreign country who is homesick, tired and worn out.
My husband and I planned trip to India. There, the most terrifying symptom intensified - this constant obsession of wanting to kill myself. My parents rushed me to doctor, who rushed me to psychiatrist, who rushed me to shock treatments. My husband and in-laws had no clue. My husband was told that I had an upset stomach.
I didn’t know that my father had been treated for depression. I had no idea of my genetic predisposition for mental illness.
I had a lot of guilt and shame. I obsessed about the questions I had no answers for:
What does a woman like you have to be depressed about? Look at you, you’re the luckiest girl in the whole world. You have a loving husband, a beautiful little girl, a fabulous future in America. What the heck do you have to be depressed about?
I was convinced that I was crazy. Where do you go when you’re terrified of yourself? There’s no place to run.
The shock treatments – they do what they do. They at least keep you alive long enough for other treatments to kick in.
"Life is your choice."
Coming back to Portland, I became stable, but my symptoms never really went away.
We tried a few routine things. I tried working as a software administrator. It was the hardest time of my life, because I had to perform at a job I didn’t have the skill set for. I remember going into the restroom, stuffing my entire fist into my mouth and screaming. Tears streaming down my face, I would rock myself back and forth in the bathroom, just to calm myself down, to get over the panic.
Soon after, I got pregnant by accident. I became even more suicidally depressed about what a rotten, evil mother I am. Instead of celebrating the fact that God had blessed me with another child, all I wanted to do was to kill myself.
The therapist I had been working with told me, “Life is your choice. I understand that you have a disease that compels you to kill yourself. I understand you live in a culture that does not understand mental illness. I understand that you live in a world, even here in the United States – filled with such pervasive stigma and misperceptions about mental illness. But I believe that you have the strength within you to choose life.
Agreeing to be hospitalized was the most terrifying decision I’ve had to make in my life. But ultimately, it was the most liberating.
My husband’s first question was, “What are we going to tell our friends?” That is the question of millions of anguished families around the world. It’s not that they don’t love you. They are terrified and lost about not being unable to protect you from a world that is so ignorant about mental health issues.
Noone prepared me for hospitalization. They asked me if I was suicidal. They locked me up in seclusion room, twice within 10 days. I lost my pregnancy in-between.
In these moments of anguish, I began to ask questions I never asked before – Am I crazy or is world around me crazy? Where are the men of the world? Where is my family? Too often, when dealing with mental illness, one’s family becomes a prison.
The second time I was in the seclusion room, I began begging and praying for my mother to light a lamp in my darkness. But I soon realized that not even she can do it. She was locked in the same darkness of ignorance. At that moment, I realized that I needed to be that candle in the dark.
There’s an old Chinese saying that goes, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” What I have seen in the hospital changed my life forever. I met people shunned by the world. But what I found in their midst we had a shared experience, beyond words and language. MindBeautiful was born in those moments.
It has been 10 years or so since I started to become more stable. I am now 45 and going through menopause. My depression is interrelated with period cycles, and I’ve learned how to ride the cycles. I know that for three weeks of sanity, I have to trade one week of insanity.
About 25% of people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder don’t respond to psychotropic drugs. I’m one of those people. I rely on St. John’s Wort, and cognitive and behavioral therapy.
The Indo-American approach to wellness comes into play as well. I practice pranayama – a form of deep breathing. I practice transcendental meditation. I journal everyday; this has given me insight into cyclical nature of my depression.
My children and family are the rewards for living, but my work single-handedly gives meaning and purpose to life. My goal is to put a human face to a dehumanizing disease, and hope to invoke social consciousness and invite a common humanity.