When mental illness strikes close to home, the stigma that surrounds conditions like bipolar disorder and depression can wreak havoc in a family.
For Neha Kinariwalla, 22, this experience was a catalyst for change. The gifted Long Island native, who graduated with her masters in medical sociology from the University of Cambridge as a Gates-Cambridge Scholar in 2015, was faced with the ravages of mental illness in her immediate circle. “It’s incredible how little you understand until it happens to someone near and dear to you,” she said.
Which is how the Humanology Project got its start. Kinariwalla founded the Project in 2012, working with a Stony Brook University advisory committee, professors, undergraduate students and graduate students to stop the stigma surrounding mental and neurological illness. “We essentially translate academic peer reviewed literature into reader friendly articles,” she explained. “We are also a platform for patients to tell their personal stories, which puts a human face on something many of us are afraid of. The idea was to not only better communicate the science behind these conditions but increase empathy and change people’s mindsets.
Kinariwalla likes to relate her service to the work she’s doing academically. One area of research she conducted in connection with Oxford University related to the social stigma of epilepsy in the lives of 12 Indian women. “We looked at the effect epilepsy played in marriage and family dynamics,” she said. “The thing about academic research is that, unless it’s ground breaking, it winds up only being read by a small number of people. I wanted to do something now that would make a difference on a greater scale.”
“Neha is a strong advocate for those suffering,” said Doreen Aveni, who has worked with Kinariwalla at Stony Brook as her Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Academic Advisor. “She is proof that an idea can spark into an innovative project and help so many on a global scale.”
It’s a perspective that isn’t new to Kinariwalla, who begins working on mental health issues with the World Health Organization in April. When she studied abroad in Madagascar in her freshman year, she saw first hand that many children in the area didn’t have shoes. She partnered with Soul 4 Soles and was able to get hundreds of pairs of shoes donated to the village. “When you understand people, the factors that shape their lives, you can really help on a much broader context,” she said.