Young Indian-Americans in Northwestern University launch national group to battle mental illness

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Logo of a new national organization, I-AM-SHAKTI, formed by students of Northwestern University, launched formally Nov. 20. (Photo: Facebook)

Barely four months ago, seven young Indian-Americans in the greater Chicago area felt the need to get together and form an organization that addressed what they consider a least-discussed but increasingly important issue within the community – mental health. The idea for ‘I-AM-SHAKTI’ was born. And it was formally launched this Nov. 20, and expects to work toward removing the stigma from mental illness.

“Our vision is to sensitize Indian-Americans(+) to mental health challenges while providing hope and support to those affected, and ultimately, to shed light on Indian-American and South Asian minds,” say organizers – minds which “have often been denied love, agency, empathy, and expression.”

Asked how they plan to go national, Archit Bhaskaran, one of the core founders, told this correspondent via Facebook and email, “By nature, we are a social justice movement, and we will grow through a variety of channels — social media, organizations, and groups demonstrating solidarity with our vision and cause, local chapters rising up in different regions, etc.” He said the organization has already had responses from different states and countries; students from different universities, including a school in the U.K, professionals from different states like Florida and Illinois outside Chicagoland area, and more.

Starting in Chicago where the physical organization’s operations are based, such as a story-telling collaborative, a session at the gurudwara on Devon Street, and more, “We will spread with the added members who join us over time,” Bhaskaran noted. And as people continue to reach out to I-AM-SHAKTI through its website i-amshakti.org and Facebook, wanting to to get involved, “we will integrate them into our growing network.”

Some students from Wisconsin have reached out to get involved. “We will loop them into our “Join Us” network and they will become I-AM SHAKTI organizers for the state of Wisconsin,” Bhaskaran said. Additionally, “many folks have reached out to get involved via our online and web-based organizing initiatives,” he added.

Organizers believe those within the community who suffer from mental health issues have been unable to express themselves. “Where we have been silenced, we have arisen — or as the poet, Rumi, so wrote, “You’ve seen my descent, now watch my rising,” they say on Facebook.

Nikita Saladi, one of the co-founders of I-AM-SHAKTI, a national outreach organization for mental illness. (Photo: Facebook)

The organization announced two initiatives it has taken up at the launch — the first is named “I-AM SHAKTI: Ascension”  – a secret Facebook group for those who are/have faced mental health challenges to connect, share stories, ask questions, etc. To respect the confidentiality of members, general users cannot search this Facebook without an invite. To be added to this group, one has to message the I-AM SHAKTI Facebook page with one’s e-mail address.

The website www.i-amshakti.org, is the second initiative. It aims to provide a place for people to share their stories, whether in writing, dance, art, whatever medium one wants to choose.

“Let us no longer be afraid to share our stories, and learn and affirm each others,” organizers say. To submit a story, e-mail it to coreorganizers@i-amshakti.org.

“We welcome your hopes, your challenges, your fears, and your stories. Please join us as we begin our journey,” they say.

Nikita Saladi, a first-year medical student at Northwestern University, Chicago, is one of the core co-founders of the organization. Introducing herself on Facebook, Saladi relates how growing up, she heard so many South Asians describe friends and family going through mental health challenges as “crazy,” “mad” or “insane.” “Their hushed words planted a toxic seed in my own head – the thought that feeling sad or anxious and seeking help for such emotions would deem me less than. Later, when I began to notice bouts of sadness, feelings of worthlessness, or an inability to control my emotional responses to little things, those whispered descriptors quickly returned to me.” Saladi believes no one should “ever feel that seeking help to improve their emotional well-being or disclosing mental hardship would make them seem weaker or less able.”

Shyam Mani, an undergraduate student at Northwestern, says, “A movement ultimately derives power from those whose passions rage like wildfire and are devoted to a beautiful vision.”

“…. I’m super excited to be one of the board members of I-AM SHAKTI! Thanks for joining our quest to make a difference in the lives of Indian-Americans across the country,” Mani says.

Aishwarya Chenji, co-founder of I-AM-SHAKTI, a national outreach organization formed by Indian-American youth to help those in the community experiencing mental health issues. (Photos: Facebook)

A student of Industrial Engineering and Economics, Mani is from Brookfield, WI and has lived in the Midwest all his life. “There are a lot of reasons I decided to become a part of I-AM SHAKTI, but first and foremost, I empathize with the idea that stories are meant to be shared, and we should support rather than shun those with mental health issues.”

Shyam Mani, a co-founder of I-AM-SHAKTI, an national organization launched by Northwestern University students to reach out to Indian-Americans around the country, who may have issues of mental illness. (Photo: Facebook)

Mani recalls he experienced “severe anxiety issues” from around 3rd to 6tg grade, and skipped school because he could not deal with the academics or the social life. He tried psychiatrists multiple times but his parents did not see it making much of a difference and discontinued it. By 7th grade he was able to deal with these anxieties thanks mostly to loving and supportive parents, he says, but it was a difficult time, and he blocked out some of these memories, feeling too embarrassed to tell anyone.

Other organizers also tell their stories on Facebook hoping to encourage new members to join the group with the understanding that their accounts would remain confidential. “Like so many of you, I believe mental health is something that we so often do not talk about, and I hope that our generation and the next grows to embrace it better than we do now,” Mani says, and I-AM-SHAKTI could well be the seed for a healthier next generation.

Dhivya Sridar, entering her 3rd year at Northwestern, says in the past several years, “the battle against mental illness has become an extremely personal one.” Just after completing high school, she developed anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder, struggled with it for two years, finally seeking help from a therapist, and continuing her recovery to this day.

Dhivya Sridar, one of the co-founders of I-AM-SHAKTI, a national organization to reach out to those who may need help with mental health issues. (Photo: Facebook)
Ragashree Komandur, co-founder of I-AM-SHAKTI, a newly formed organization to reach out to those with mental health issues. (Photo: Facebook)

“I derive meaning from I-AM SHAKTI through the silent tears I know my mother shed in private as she witnessed my decline, her compassion as she struggled to understand my disorder, her undying strength as she did so alone,” Sridar recalls on Facebook.

“For those battling mental health challenges and their concerned loved ones, I dream I-AM SHAKTI to be the safest of harbors amidst the tempest we face – a space for parents to rekindle hope and be reassured that their children can and will recover, a space for friends and family to ask questions and truly understand what their loved ones endure, a space for those fighting this good fight to stand in solidarity with one another and find everlasting peace in knowing that they are not alone,” Sridar says.