'Of wanting to be open...'

Vandana Gopikumar founded The Banyan, an organisation to help those dealing with homelessness, mental illness and poverty, learns Michael Gallant

'Of wanting to be open...'

Whether they live on the streets of San Francisco or New Delhi, homeless and mentally-ill people can be among the most vulnerable members of society. That’s a problem Vandana Gopikumar works hard to fix. She is the co-founder of The Banyan, a Chennai-based organisation that offers comprehensive aid for poor and homeless people living with mental illness.

Founded in 1993, the organisation has touched the lives of thousands of homeless women dealing with mental health issues, while youth-oriented outreach programmes have helped hundreds of children. Two decades ago, Vandana was selected to participate in an International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) exchange trip, sponsored by the USA’s Department of State, which focused on the development of NGOs like hers. Excerpts from an interaction:

What inspired you start this?
During my college days, my friend, who then went on to become my partner in founding The Banyan, and I had a chance encounter with a woman who was homeless and extremely distressed. She was similar to us in age and we were struck by how different our life trajectories were. While we had the freedom and luxury of dreaming big and endless choices, she seemed trapped, stuck and unable to free herself from a cycle of distress, trauma and pain.

In combination with this, I felt the need to be entrepreneurial, to start something new. The banyan tree has long been associated with being a safe haven and open space accessible to all. It is with this philosophy of wanting to be open and accepting, and wanting to reach out, that the name was chosen.

What have your learnings been?
That suffering, loss and resilience are universal concepts. Only the extent varies. I saw that homelessness in the US was as bad as in India and the extent of mental health issues was also similar. What was different was the nature of responses to these problems and the extent of societal engagement. Structural barriers that are pronounced in India weren’t so in USA. There seemed to be a greater sense of balance and equity, as a result of which human life felt more valued. On the other hand, family structures, particularly in rural India, seemed stronger. The dominant trend was to support people with different abilities, or the elderly, in their homes, or in non-institutional settings.

Did the exchange programme have a significant impact on your work?
I felt the need to adopt a trans-disciplinary approach to our work during the exchange. Mental health isn’t a health issue alone; it’s also a deprivation, inequity, discrimination and structural violence issue. The responses have to be equally robust, particularly in
a country like India.

(Courtesy SPAN magazine)

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