Gayathri Ramprasad is a mental health advocate who has faced her share of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Today, she is the founder and president of a nonprofit aimed at helping others with mental health issues. Read Gayathri’s interview to learn why she’s dedicated her life to helping others, what she wants women to know about mental health, and how you can help fight the stigma around mental health issues.
Why have you dedicated your life to helping people with mental health conditions, including in other parts of the world?
As a young woman debilitated by generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and depression, I found that the stigma surrounding mental health issues was far more debilitating than the diseases themselves. When I was a child living in India, the diagnosis made my family and me feel we had something to be ashamed about and to hide. Despite multiple suicide attempts and years of suffering, we pretended everything was fine. But after being treated in a psychiatric ward in 1989 here in the United States, I promised to become a messenger of hope and healing. I had suffered in shame and silence, and I didn’t want others to do the same.
When I started ASHA International in April 2006, all I wanted was to share my story to give hope to at least one person struggling with a mental health condition. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would have the opportunity to give hope to thousands of people around the world. We are tearing down the stigma, and we are empowering people on their road to recovery and wellness — one day and one person at a time.
As a mental health advocate, what is the most common thing you hear from people living with mental health conditions?
First and foremost, many people express a deep sense of fear, shame, isolation, and/or despair. Second, many people are concerned about access to and the affordability of comprehensive mental health care. Third, people long to share their struggles and ask for help, but some are terrified of how speaking out and getting help might affect their relationships and careers.
I also see sparks of hope, courage, and resilience. I am in awe of the men, women, and children around the world who are transforming adversity into advocacy for themselves and others. Together, we will create communities of hope, empathy, and inclusion where our diagnoses will no longer deter us from living the lives of our dreams.
What do you wish women knew about mental health?
I’d like women to know that mental health is integral to their overall health and well-being. Having a mental health issue is not a sign of personal weakness. I think it is a sign of strength to ask for help and support.
I encourage women to take charge of their mental health. It starts with the basic awareness that women are disproportionately affected by some mental health conditions. For example, according to the World Health Organization, depression is twice as common in women as men.
Why do you think there is a stigma associated with mental health conditions?
Myths and misperceptions about mental health conditions and the people who live with them are what lead to the stigma. In my experience, mental illness is a taboo topic in many cultures. And people living with mental health conditions are often afraid of how speaking up and sharing their stories could affect their lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, the less we talk about it, the less we are able to humanize and normalize mental health issues. If we talk about them more, we have a better chance of breaking the cycle of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.
What role can culture play in this stigma?
Culture shapes the way we perceive mental illness and people living with mental health conditions. Culture also influences whether or where we seek treatment, how we cope, and our social supports. My cultural perceptions became my greatest barrier to health and well-being. It prevented me from sharing my struggles and asking for help. For example, within the Indian culture, mental illness is often perceived as a curse, punishment for past sins, or possession by demonic spirits. It is also perceived as a black mark on the individual and their entire family. So my family and I, like many others, kept my struggles a secret. My treatment included priests and physicians. Even as I was prescribed antidepressants, shock treatment, and psychotherapy, a priest was invited to my home to exorcise the demons in me, and he molested me. Special prayers were offered at temples, and talismans (objects that are thought to bring good luck) were tied around my hand to ward off the evil eye. I was advised to chant specific mantras and write God Rama’s name 101 times each day to beg for God’s mercy and healing. And, when these interventions failed to heal me, I felt hopeless and tried to kill myself many times. Even upon my return to the United States, I couldn’t get rid of my cultural misperceptions. Fortunately, I finally found an incredible therapist who helped me examine my cultural misperceptions and taught me cognitive behavioral skills to overcome them. I also learned skills I needed to stand up for myself and ask for help. I am eternally grateful to her.
Over the years, I have learned that each culture has its own barriers to mental health and we all must learn our own pathways to wellness. For example, medications made me more agitated and suicidal, but the daily practice of pranayama (a type of breathwork), meditation, and yoga — practices from my home country, India — have transformed my life and helped me heal. It is critical for us as individuals to never give up hope. We need to learn how to overcome our cultural barriers and adapt wellness practices from across cultures to create a life of well-being.
Do you have advice for women who are too embarrassed to get help?
I often ask women who are too embarrassed to get help: What would you do if a loved one or a dear friend was struggling with a mental health condition? They immediately say: I’d encourage them to get help and maybe help them get help. Then I ask them to please treat themselves with the same kindness and care. As women, we can be very nurturing, but we often forget to take care of ourselves. We need to learn that caring for ourselves is the first step to nurturing others.
What do you want women with mental health conditions to know?
I want to tell women struggling with mental health conditions: You are not alone. There is hope. Get help. You have the power within to recover and thrive.
How can women support people they love with mental health conditions?
Women can support their loved ones by having empathy and compassion for their struggles. Women can help them access the care they need. They can further encourage their loved ones to practice self-care and connect them to social supports. However, it is just as important for women to take care of themselves so they don’t suffer from caregiver burnout — a common phenomenon.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Like eating well and exercising, getting plenty of sleep can help you achieve your best for your family and career, and it can improve your well-being for years to come. Sleep health is a fundamental requirement of life — it’s not an option.