Participants at a 2017 ASHA International event

In 1989, Gayathri Ramaprasad found herself in an isolation cell in OHSU’s psychiatric ward after years of struggling with depression, anxiety, and later, postpartum depression and miscarriage. Seventeen years after surviving what she calls her “darkest hour,” the India-born businesswoman, author, and counselor founded a Portland-based nonprofit with a mission to help others overcome the cultural barriers that made it so hard for her to seek help earlier.

ASHA International (the acronym stands for "A Source of Hope for All," and means "hope" in both Sanskrit and Hindi) aims to empower people through mental health education and campaigns for families, schools, and workspaces alike, from the United States to Singapore, Australia, and India. Why the global reach? Ramprasad says it’s because mental health is a truly global issue. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders during their lifetime. It’s also an issue that’s chronically undertreated, due to enduring social stigma. The WHO also reports that nearly two thirds of people with a known disorder will never seek treatment. In the United States alone, mental illness affects tens of millions of people each year, but only half of those receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Through peer-led wellness circles, workshops, cultural competency trainings, and wellness campaigns, ASHA International’s programs aim to destigmatize mental illness and promote wellbeing on a global scale—all while operating from Portland headquarters and led by a largely local board of directors including Nike and Tektronix execs, OHSU psychiatrists, and others.

On September 28, the 12-year-old nonprofit hosts its first annual multicultural women’s mental health conference, Grit and Grace, in the Lloyd District. This year’s program includes such presenters as Suzy Favor Hamilton, a three-time Olympian and former Las Vegas escort-turned New York Times best-selling memoirist, who will speak about her experience with bipolar disorder and misdiagnoses. Also featured: comedian Kristina Wong of the long-running comedy tour “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and six-time WNBA All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw, both of whom will share their personal struggles with mental illness.

Ramprasad says that to date, ASHA International has reached more than 50,000 people worldwide through initiatives like the online testimonial project “You Can Recover,” SAATHI (a South-Asian mental health outreach program), and a school-and-workplace-based outreach campaign called “Let’s Talk About Mental Health.”

Why a conference that focues specifically on women’s mental health? Says Ramprasad: “I believe as a woman, if I empower [a] woman, she will empower her family and then go on to empower her community. There are so many of us that are struggling in shame and silence; I want to give us a voice and power.” 

Grit and Grace: Multicultural Women’s Mental Health Conference

8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Fri, Sept 28, Double Tree Lloyd Center

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