Two College Students Took In A Homeless, Delusional Woman & Changed A Million Lives In India

Vandana Gopikumar

(10-15-21) If you ever have wondered if a single person can help change the world meet Dr. Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan, who was recently chosen as a Heroine of Health 2021 for her tireless advocacy on behalf of poor women with mental illnesses in India.

She is one of the most impressive leaders I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. Through her non-profit, she has offered hope and help to more than one million women in India and Sri Lanka.

In 2016, Dr. Gopikumar invited me to speak in Chennai, India, at a three-day Conference on Justice and the Rights of Homeless Persons with Mental Health Issues. I described how American jails and prisons have become our nation’s largest de facto public mental facilities and why that is wrong.

I learned much more from her than what I had to offer at the conference. She and her team arranged for me to visit three of The Banyan’s housing programs and speak to the women residents there. These women had been literally thrown away by society. They were homeless, destitute and delusional before they became part of the The Banyan. Most would have died in the streets. When I met them, they were smiling, well-cared for and busy making different types of clothing for sale to support themselves and The Banyan.

The story behind this amazing program is truly inspirational.

Two College Students Take In A Homeless Women

In 1993, Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar, were both 22 year-old college students leaving a class when they encountered a half naked, beaten woman lying on the street. The woman was delusional and when the two students tried to help her, she ran away. Gopikumar and Jayakumar followed her and eventually calmed her down and got her dressed. They began calling shelters in the city but none of them would accept her because she was mentally ill so they took the woman back to their two bedroom apartment and took care of her.

Although neither of them were from wealthy families, Gopikumar and Jayakumar began bringing other mentally ill women off the streets into their apartment until they had twenty living with them, sleeping on the floor. By that point, they had spent all of their savings on food and clothing. With few options, they decided to contact a newspaper to solicit funds for a women’s shelter specifically for homeless women who were mentally ill. Both students abandoned the careers to launch The Banyan.

Congratulations Vandana for your most recent and well-deserved honor.

When I returned home from India, I posted three blogs about my trip.

Little Miracles Change Lives: I Am Deeply Touched By The Banyan’s Rescue Of Homeless, Ill Women In India

Mental Illness Treatment In India Is Scarce; Abuses And Neglect Too Common

Patient Rights Is A New Concept in India & A Controversial One, I Learned

Here is Dr. Gopikumar’s four minute acceptance speech.

News story from the Indian Express newspaper.

Women in Global Health announces cofounder of The Banyan, Vandana Gopikumar as one of 2021’s Heroines of Health : This makes her the only one in India to get this award that celebrates the contribution to healthcare by women

Recognising the work Vandana Gopikumar, cofounder of The Banyan has been doing during the pandemic, the Women in Global Health (WGH) announced her as one of this year’s Heroine of Health. This makes her the only one in India to get this award that celebrates the contribution to healthcare by women.

One of the nine Heroines of Health, Vandana has been reaching out to women who are homeless, having mental health issues, through The Banyan. They conf ront the stigma around mental health head on, by not only supporting those in need but also simultaneously educating communities.

Through the NGO, Vandana provides safe spaces, employment opportunities, mental health support and basic care. “I am elated to be named Heroine of Health and this is definitely a push for all like-minded people. This is for the work Banyan has done over the years,” said Vandana.

Highlighting the work that they did, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vandana said they ensured that all safety protocols were in place. “We dealt aggressively with socio-economic repercussions due to Covid. Women with mental health issues, who may also get into a state of homelessness as a result of abject pover ty, have been among the hardest hit.In India, and globally, limited options are available for this vulnerable group resulting in neglect, abuse, long-term incarceration and early mortality.”

To address this, The Banyan organised several outreach programmes through which they ensured basic income, food and other amenities to the needy. They also provided access to safe spaces, in case of an emergency.

“We asked the government to scale up services. The National Health Mission and Tamil Nadu government responded positively and stepped up services by integrating emergency care and recovery centres that responded to the needs of the homeless within primary health care centres in many districts.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.