August 1 and Swiss Ties

by Dr. S.D. Shanti (Editorial Note: It is late afternoon on August 1st in the time zone where I am writing, though the time stamp says August 2nd).

Today, August 1st, is the Swiss National Day, which marks the beginning of the country in 1291. Thus it feels timely to share with you the Swiss origins of Prescriptions for Hope and its current ties to Switzerland.

When people ask me where I am from, I reply that I am from three countries: India, the United States and Switzerland. I moved to Switzerland in my mid-thirties. Over time, I became a Swiss citizen and the country has become my home.

Swiss Origins and Current Ties

It was in Basel, Switzerland, in the Fall of 1997 that I learned about newly released data on mental health in The Global Burden of Disease, a report issued by the World Health Organization and the Harvard School of Public Health. The report stated that by the year 2020 depression would be one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.

That moment in 1997 was the start of a public health journey that initially began with the goal of advancing depression prevention worldwide, and soon expanded to include violence prevention as well. In the ensuing years, it was also in Basel, where the groundwork for my innovations was laid. There I discovered the power of combining psychology, public health and writing, and how this could help people.

My earliest steps were carried out with support from the Gebert-Rüf Foundation in Basel, and the University of Fribourg. Then, following incubation and development at Stanford University and other places in the United States, it is anchored again in Switzerland as we prepare for global scaling of the prevention work.

Prescriptions for Hope operates under the auspices of the Arco Foundation in Winterthur. The Arco Foundation, founded and led by Mr. Heinz Waech, is a “roof foundation,” or Dachstiftung as it is called in German. This structure offers smaller foundations, such as ours, the ability to operate with lower overhead costs in comparison to a conventional foundation, and still gives us full access to professional oversight and financial management.

Innovation in Public Health

When most people think of Switzerland, they typically envision mountains, cheese and chocolate. Banks, Swiss Army knives, yodelling and alphorns also come to mind.

However, for many of us working in public service, Switzerland is synonymous with humanitarian assistance, international cooperation and neutrality. It is also a country with one of the highest per capita rates of innovations. The country that gave the world the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions has also given us VELCRO®, the World Wide Web and the hang drum, among other things.

Violence and Depression: Parts of a Social Syndrome

Through my early stage research when searching for cost-effective ways of preventing depression and violence on a large scale, I arrived at a cluster of five elements that are inter-connected: poverty, illiteracy, violence, depression, and inequality.

Together they form a social syndrome, whereby one or more of these elements co-occur. As a result, these elements drag people into a vicious circle of despair and hopelessness.

The global data on violence and depression spurred me to develop new approaches to stopping this downward spiral, and replacing it instead, with a virtuous circle by creating healthier conditions in which people can grow and flourish.

The core of my innovations are contained in a document called A Blueprint for Hope. This document offers practical, cost-effective and research-based ways to create a world free of suicide and inter-personal violence (which affects one in every three women and one in every four children globally).

Growth in a Unique Environment

When I was nineteen years old, while living in the United States, somehow I just knew that my life’s work would involve serving people in poverty. By twenty-two, that knowledge had translated itself into a goal: that one day I would work in public health in Switzerland.

I envisioned a scenario that is not uncommon among people from other countries who end up as senior specialists in Geneva. After my time at Stanford, that goal did come true, in connection with the dental public health side of my life.

In Geneva, I had the opportunity to lead the public side of a multi-country public-private partnership and collaborate with colleagues at the World Health Organization. I even had the chance to speak at the UN during a World Health Assembly, in the setting seen on television news shows, where delegates from around the world sit with their country names in front of them.

But the calling I first heard in Basel in 1997, to advance depression and then violence prevention, never left me. I continued refining and improving the Blueprint for Hope and in the process also created Prescriptions for Hope. Like a slow-cooked dish with various spices that requires time to be ready, my body of work in violence prevention and depression prevention is now fully ready for implementation around the world.

The need for violence and depression prevention has always been great, but it has increased in magnitude due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, as a behavioral scientist and public health practitioner, I am grateful for the opportunities Switzerland has given me to develop innovations in public health. I am also grateful for the opportunity to grow my work there, in a unique environment that supports global collaboration, consensus building, and humanitarian assistance.

Happy Birthday Switzerland! And Thank You!

P.S. In case you are interested, below is an excerpt from a Swiss magazine published in 2005, where I was featured among a group they called “Swiss Who Innovate.” It’s in French and deals with one of my innovations. Due to time constraints I am unable to do the English translation now, but will do so as soon as possible if you are interested.

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