But it was in medical school that Vasan found her calling as a mental health care innovator. While a medical student, Vasan was diagnosed with depression, and made the deliberate decision to be outspoken about her diagnosis. “Reactions were bifurcated,” says Vasan. Some of her peers applauded her decision and provided emotional support. “However, the more common response, including from my academic advisors, was to keep quiet about having a mental illness and to expunge my record of any evidence of a psychiatric diagnosis,” she says.
These reactions bolstered Vasan’s interest in pursuing psychiatry as a medical specialty. “I was struck how silence, sometimes my own silence, led to shame and how the cultural stigma of mental illness became a barrier to diagnosis, treatment, and recovery,” she says. “I believe a strong community can be an antidote for this silence.”
Today, Vasan’s mission is to use her leadership skills to help build these literal and metaphorical communities and thereby accelerate the delivery of quality psychiatric care. She is an advisor for Lyra Health, a mental healthcare startup, where she is building partnerships, advising on clinical strategy, and helping to develop evidence based treatment tools for clinicians practicing in collaborative care settings. “This is a groundbreaking time for mental health with a massive influx of new ideas, technologies, policies, and systems of care,” says Vasan.
Vasan is also known for her bestselling book, “Do Good Well: Your Guide to Leadership, Action and Social Innovation,” which she co-authored with Jennifer Przybylo. Vasan, who started volunteering with her local American Cancer Society in West Virginia when she was 5 years old, knows that the journey to “do good” sometimes involves trial and error. “In our own experiences trying to ‘do good’, we did a few things right, and more than a few things wrong,” she says. “We were surprised to find out that even the groups we most admired and emulated were also frustrated by the lack of common knowledge or a baseline set of skills and goals.” The book was conceived of to help other social entrepreneurs and activists by creating a common process for “doing good” built on evidence and experience; it is a scientific method for social innovation. “This was the basis for our book Do Good Well, to codify and to share what works so that anyone can turn his or her ideas and idealism into impact,” she said.
Vasan is currently a psychiatric resident at Stanford with plans to start at the Stanford Graduate School of Business this fall. Vasan is the first student at Stanford to undertake a concurrent MBA during psychiatry residency and is working with Stanford to create a Residency/MBA training program to produce leaders in mental health innovation. She is also the founder and Chair of the Psychiatry Innovation Lab at the American Psychiatric Association.
Abigail Ballou, Alexandra David, Shreya Iyer and Casey Nugent contributed to this story.
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