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OpinionColumnistsPeter Goldmark

Goldmark: Unlikely warrior against mental illness

A new study has found that about one

A new study has found that about one in five New York City preteens struggle with mental illness or other emotional problems. Photo Credit: iStock

Reshma Velliappan is a 33-year-old Indian woman who looks about 15. She has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, an acute mental illness. In India, she works to give voice to other mentally ill people, and to break down barriers they face that lead to isolation and oppression.

She and I spoke in Bangalore, India, where she is a candidate for an Ashoka Fellowship. Ashoka-Innovators for the Public is a nonprofit that identifies and funds social entrepreneurs in 70 countries around the world -- individuals who have the drive, vision, skills and determination to change a dysfunctional social system.

Reshma is "different" -- a word she uses about herself. "But we are all different," she reminds us. At acute stages of her illness, she hears voices or sees imaginary people pursuing her. She is "several different people." One of them is 6 years old; another one is 400 years old.

Reshma talked about having "come from abroad" to India, where she now lives.

"Where are you from originally?" I asked her.

She replied, "I am from a different galaxy altogether."

Reshma has learned to live with her illness and has now transcended it, becoming a charismatic leader for the rights of the mentally ill.

She conducts events for young people, talking with them about "imaginary friends" -- something almost every young person has had at one point in their lives. (My daughter had four imaginary friends who went with her to school every day and played with her at the playground.)

Reshma leads young people in role-play exercises in which one young person plays an imaginary friend with whom another young person talks. She leads the young people to the point when they can say most of what they need or want to say to a real friend. "That is what we are trying to get to," Reshma says.

She helped lead a campaign in India to free a woman who had been found to be "of unsound mind" and imprisoned against her will in a state mental hospital. Reshma became the focal point of the movement, which included brave mental health professionals and thousands of young people. Through determined advocacy and skillful avoidance of the traps the state mental health bureaucrats had laid, they managed to get her released in two weeks.

In 2011, an Indian filmmaker making a documentary about schizophrenia searched for a sufferer willing to be part of it. He found Reshma and overnight she became a star. The film, "A Drop of Sunshine," led to appearances and speaking engagements around the country.

Reshma told me the story of an older woman who spoke to her after one of her talks. The lady burst into tears and explained that many years earlier she had helped to "put my crazy sister into an asylum. After hearing you, I want to go get her out." Reshma says the woman paused, then said, "Perhaps it is too late for that; perhaps it is best, after all these years, that she stay there. But the guilt for what I did is just beginning."

Reshma is a person born with significant limitations. She has managed not only to overcome them, but to use them as a platform to help others. She is an example of a generation of young people who are dissatisfied with what they find, and who seek ways to change systems that do not work or oppress people.

Peter Goldmark is former budget director of New York State and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. He headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.