Thava Mahadevan ’92 is the director of operations for the UNC Center of Excellence for Community in Mental Health and the director of the Farm at Penny Lane, which takes on a unique, holistic approach to mental health care. Mahadevan graduated from the then program in rehabilitation counseling at the UNC School of Medicine, housed in the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, but his journey began far from North Carolina.

In 1983, an ethnic conflict erupted in Sri Lanka where Mahadevan belonged to a minority group known as the Tamils. Mahadevan said his family home tragically burned down during the conflict, but he and his family were among the few to escape and move to in India as refugees. Experiencing this at such a young age, he witnessed a great deal suffering and mental health issues, and this is one experience that led him to pursue the field of mental health.

In 1990, Mahadevan applied for the rehabilitation counseling program within the Department of Allied Health Sciences. During his time as a student, an internship program allowed him to work at a state psychiatric hospital in North Carolina.

“This was an amazing place to learn about people and learn about illnesses and just get to know the field of mental health,” Mahadevan said.

Following his internship, Mahadevan worked with dozens of long-term patients and assisted them to transition into their communities.

“It was very eye opening to see the lack of resources in these communities, especially for people with special needs coming out of long-term stays in the hospital,” he said.

This internship sparked Mahadevan’s interest in holistic mental health care; he started researching the roles of employment, housing and other non-medical drivers of health.

However, in 2000, the state passed a mental health reform law that, as Mahadevan explained, privatized some of these services. Mahadevan and his colleagues believed this led to a lack of access to care, specifically for those experiencing serious mental illnesses and other co-occurring disabilities. Nevertheless, Mahadevan brainstormed a solution: XDS, Inc., a nonprofit created to serve people who were falling or at risk of falling through gaps in health care. The nonprofit has since served about 300 clients with significant disabilities.

Mahadevan then established the inaugural Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in North Carolina designed to work with people who experience multiple disabilities. Mahadevan said the training he received from the rehabilitation counseling program was beneficial, and he was lucky enough to be the first ACT team leader.

ACT teams provide an individual with an interdisciplinary team of mental health professionals and paraprofessionals who all work together to devise a treatment plan for that individual. Mahadevan said the training he received during his master’s program positioned him well for the role as team leader. There are now nearly 90 ACT teams in North Carolina.

All of this placed Mahadevan where he is today. He has founded the Farm at Penny Lane through a partnership with XDS in 2012 and runs it to this day. The Farm uses a holistic and sustainable approach to enhance the quality of life of individuals who experience severe and persistent mental illness by offering opportunities to become healthier and more self-sufficient. Programs offered include horticulture therapy and a farm-to-home produce pack, which provides healthy food for various populations. An affordable housing project, dubbed the Tiny Homes Village, allows clients to become a community, all in an effort to foster self-sufficiency. These housing options are tailored for those with mental illness and other health conditions living on a fixed income. The interdisciplinary tiny homes project incorporates resources from the UNC School of Medicine and other stakeholders, including occupational therapy services offered by Antoine Bailliard, PhD, and students in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Other partners include the UNC School of Social Work and the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.

Mahadevan said these projects wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of the people who work at the Farm. He credits his clients and co-worker’s with the Farm’s success. He said the Farm is a welcoming place where people can learn, and it’s a model he hopes to replicate across our state. He also said the Farm is a successful, sustainable model thanks to University and community support.

“Folks around this area have really stepped up to help us,” he said.

-Juli Chalk, communications intern