Vandana Gopikumar

The Banyan and The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health founder Vandana Gopikumar will be honored with the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women's Health. The Indian American entrepreneur co-founded both organizations with Vaishnavi Jayakumar.  (UPenn.edu photo)

Indian American entrepreneur Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan and the Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health, is set to receive the 2018 Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women's Health.

Gopikumar is receiving the award for her work in helping women with mental health problems in India.

She co-founded both organizations with Vaishnavi Jayakumar. Gopikumar will receive the award – which comes with a $100,000 cash prize – during an event at the University of Pennsylvania on March 21.

“Dr. Gopikumar embodies the very essence of The Renfield Award, which is given to an individual who demonstrates leadership in improving women’s health,” said Penn Nursing dean Antonia Villarruel in a statement.

“Over the past 25 years, she and her team have helped more than 10,000 people with mental health issues in India to reintegrate into society. Her devotion to helping this community is steadfast and tireless. We are happy to recognize her and The Banyan with this much-deserved award,” Villarruel added.

The Banyan began as a spontaneous and heartfelt response to the visible gaps in care and attention for homeless women with mental health problems, who in the eyes of society simply did not exist, the university said in a news release.

There were no services to help them recover their lost lives. In the beginning, The Banyan offered a transit care facility that offered shelter, safe spaces and crisis intervention, it added.

When it started in 1993, Gopikumar originally set up a shelter for homeless mentally ill women in order to provide care and basic treatment. But she was struck by the realization that the problem was much deeper since India’s mental healthcare system had several missing components, the university noted.

She saw that the homeless mentally ill required not just medical attention, but a whole spectrum of healthcare and psychosocial services ranging from their rescue off the streets to rehabilitation and reintegration, it said.

Over the last 25 years the services have expanded to one that tackles a growing public health crisis in India, serving an 800,000 population. It has reached out to more than 10,000 individuals in distress, and offers persons with mental health issues access to a comprehensive range of services that include emergency and recovery focused care, well-being oriented community based care, and inclusive long-term care for persons with high support needs, the university explained.

It is estimated that approximately 150 million Indians are affected with a mental health issue, and that only 5 to 10 percent have access to appropriate care and treatment, according to the university.

The Banyan’s core philosophy is that every individual should have access to opportunities, be aspirational, and live life to their fullest potential.

The focus is on socio-economic and cultural participation, and seeks to shatter myths and misconceptions around mental ill health.

It established psychiatric clinics, social care programs, self-help groups and ultimately a resource center, the Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health. BALM focuses on developing partnerships with the government, civil organizations, universities, and individuals to further the development of mental health services in the region, the university news release said.

“At The Banyan, the social ecology of mental disorders and the intersections between poverty, gender, other structural barriers and mental health is taken into cognizance, as care packages are customized and models developed, for persons poor and homeless,” Gopikumar said in a statement.

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