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A doctor's personal experience informs her work in mental health


Pallavi Gowda was born in rural India in January 1979; her mother died 48 hours later of complications from childbirth. Considered a cursed child, Gowda wouldn’t be reunited with her father and stepmother, who had immigrated to the United States, for another six years. The meeting was a disappointment. “There were no warm embraces or affectionate expressions,” recalls Gowda, who was forced to adapt to a new language and culture and a daunting family dynamic.

Image credit: John Boal

As would happen often, Gowda surmounted the challenges confronting her. “Although it was very difficult, it’s given me perspective,” she says. “I can empathize [with others] and say, ‘Your situation today doesn’t determine who you’re going to be in the future.’”

Her life’s achievements are proof. A mother of two, a doctor, and the charter president of the Rotary Club of Potomac Passport, Gowda is on the board of the Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives. There, she created a toolkit for Rotary clubs that want to talk about mental health at their meetings that is based on her experiences as a U.S. Army-trained physician involved in suicide prevention and as a person who has battled severe depression herself.

Now she’s intent on using the broad reach of Rotary to address three “actionable concepts” identified by the mental health action group: raise awareness, break stigmas, and increase access to care. “I love the global impact of what Rotary can do,” Gowda says. “And given my experience of growing up in a poor setting, I know what Rotary can do for people who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

The Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives created toolkits that every Rotary member can introduce locally.