Our Founders

Vandana Gopikumar

Vandana Gopikumar, PhD

Co-Founder, Managing Trustee

Since she co-founded The Banyan in 1993, Vandana Gopikumar has been pivotal in creating approaches to care & protocols, that previously were non-existent, for homeless individuals with mental health issues.

Vandana was herself a member of the first Mental Health Policy Group constituted by the Government of India in 2012, and was an advisor to the Supreme Court Appointed Special Commissioner on Homelessness.

Vandana is also involved in practice-based research, aiming to make research accessible, such that information shared is engaging and easy to act on, from individual, collective, policy or programme perspectives.

In particular, she conducted an inquiry into the homelessness-mental ill health- poverty nexus in India as well as an exploration into strategies and approaches to care that can tackle the same.  

Vandana now mentors a second line that leads both The Banyan and BALM, and operates  on the board level across both organisations, mostly offering strategic direction and clinical inputs. She is deeply interested in mentoring peer advocacy movements, particularly from a strata of society (lower income groups and socially deprived) that is seldom represented in global policy discourses.

Her primary and most fulfilling role is that of a clinician or social work practitioner. This engagement helps her reflect on good practice, methods and skills that contribute to the process of personal recovery, and enhanced quality of life.

Vandana is of the firm belief that every individual by virtue of existing, is a thinking, feeling person and thus should be treated as one, even if it implies that the current social order and conservative understanding, be challenged.

She strongly believes that the global dialogue on mental health, wellbeing and human rights has to actively seek out the wisdom of experiential experts across varied settings and contexts, and personally, has learnt almost all her useful lessons from the individuals that she serves.

When she isn't out in the field 'doing', which she thinks is most important in the larger scheme of things, she spends her time with her dogs, watching movies, reflecting, writing opinion pieces and her book which explores the relationship between structural violence, gender, distress and mental health.

Vaishnavi Jayakumar

Vaishnavi Jayakumar

Co-Founder, Disability Rights Activist

Vaishnavi Jayakumar dropped out of her MBA course to join her close friend Vandana Gopikumar in co-founding The Banyan in 1993. In their early twenties at the time, the pair were propelled into action when trying to help a mentally ill woman in distress outside their alma mater, Women's Christian College. They were unable to find suitable help for her, and so decided it was time to take on the responsibility themselves.  

Vaishnavi who had a knack for numbers shouldered the responsibilities of Administration and Finance while constantly engaging and challenging the team with her innovative ideas, activities and training as part of The Banyan’s human resource management approach. Vaishnavi stepped down from her role as managing trustee in 2008, as part of a long term plan to entrust the future of the organisation with its second-line. Though frequently terming herself “retired”, she has since gone on to work in the disability sector, highlighting the often-overlooked issues and needs of persons living with mental illness and facilitating and participating in a cross-disability discourse.

She has been an integral part of the campaign that worked towards ensuring an accessible Chennai Metro Rail, an engagement that she continues to be active in. She has monitored accessibility of elections in Tamil Nadu and in 2016, with other activists from the Disability Rights Alliance, ensured voting rights for persons living in institutions, particularly oft-forgotten citizens with intellectual, psychosocial and spectrum disabilities.

She has been part of Roads4All, a pedestrian accessibility movement, provided training material on mental illness for census officials on the first full-fledged component of disability in the 2011 census and tackled banking rights for persons with disabilities. She has also worked towards creating stronger disability rights legislation.

In her capacity as a disability rights activist, she has lectured at the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, ILS College in Pune and the BALM-TISS programme near Chennai. She frequently speaks at conferences on mental health and disability. Her perspective is informed by her experiences as a user-survivor, having lived with clinical depression with suicidal ideation, a caregiver, a mental health professional and a rights advocate.

As a concerned citizen, she has been involved in relief activities during Chennai’s crises - from the 2004 tsunami to the 2015 floods with ad hoc interventions to safeguard Pulicat Lake, an environmentally sensitive zone from an ill-advised port project, coordinating relief for slum inhabitants after a fire, and in investigating the safety gaps in the recent 2017 oil spill response.

A talented designer, she frequently creates posters and multimedia campaign materials related to disability rights, mental health and environmental issues. In her spare time, Vaishnavi indulges in a wide range of interests which include western classical music, history, anthropology, literature, criminal justice ethics. Though she would most prefer to hide in bed with her two dogs!

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