Opening the Conversation about Mental Health: South Asian Communities
Written by Nivrithi Kuttuva
Graphic by Sandra Tsang
Born and raised in California, Prisha has struggled to feel like she truly belonged anywhere. As a South Asian American, she has grown up trying to assimilate into the predominantly white culture at her school and her Indian culture. Her family doesn’t tend to open up about emotions, and she has bottled up her feelings for most of her life. Prisha, now a college student, is struggling with severe depression and has no idea how to talk to her parents about needing help. Like Prisha, many other South Asian Americans struggle with opening up about mental health issues due to stigma that is deeply rooted within South Asian culture.
A common belief that exists in the South Asian community is that if one is grateful for everything that they have, they should have no reason to be discontent. This deeply flawed belief is what prevents so many South Asians from voicing their feelings and seeking help. About one in five South Asian Americans report that they have experienced a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Mental health has been stigmatized among South Asians, especially in the older generations, because of a lack of education. Thus, they often feel the need to shut down the conversation as soon as it is brought up.
Studies show that South Asians are socialized to prioritize the needs of the family above individual needs. This develops a “we-self”, which is a deep sense of connection to other people that surpasses the development of an individual self. In many South Asian families, children are expected to be aware of tensions within families and communities. This could result in hyper-awareness of their surroundings, causing them to mature quickly; they have to cope with being exposed to all the flaws that exist in systems they once viewed as perfect. Traditionally, close and extended family structures have functioned as support systems. However, there has been a shift away from traditional family structures, which could be linked to feelings of isolation. Moreover, South Asian women in particular face immense pressure to maintain traditional and gender-differentiated values, which can cause emotional distress. For South Asian women growing up in America, this could add to the stress of cultural adjustment, resulting in heightened mental strain.
Understanding the potential harm of acculturation and discrimination could substantially reduce stigma around mental health within the South Asian community, and encourage people to seek help. However, getting help may not always be easy for everyone. People may be discouraged if they end up with a culturally insensitive therapist. Traditional psychotherapy has been based on middle-class white families. “Taking something that is built on Western theory and then applying it to a South Asian family without making any modifications can be really problematic,” says Naveen Jonathan, a licensed therapist and an associate professor at Chapman University in California. Thus, it is vital to have access to culturally sensitive therapy, where mental health practitioners understand clients’ ethnicities, backgrounds, and belief systems.
By understanding the potential causes of mental health issues in South Asian communities, we can move closer to destigmatizing the topic itself. There are small steps that we can do to initiate change: the most important being to open the conversation. Talk to your siblings and loved ones about their mental health. Instill the idea that mental health is perfectly normal to discuss in the South Asian community so that one day no one will be afraid to seek help. If you are struggling with your mental health, please reach out to a loved one or a professional for resources. Everyone deserves to feel like life is worth living, so consider taking the first step to reach out for support. Remember that you are never alone in your journey, even if it may feel that way. Provided below are links to online resources specifically for mental health resources in the South Asian community.
Brown Girl Therapy, an online mental health community, helps South Asians and women of color to learn more about therapy and identity exploration. https://www.instagram.com/browngirltherapy/?hl=en
Dil to Dil aims to destigmatize mental health illnesses in South Asian communities through honest conversations. https://www.instagram.com/dil.to.dil/?hl=en
South Asian Therapists is a directory to help people find South Asian mental health professionals including Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Afghani, and Nepali heritage. https://southasiantherapists.org/
South Asian Mental Health Initiative & Network strives to spread mental health awareness in the South Asian community. https://samhin.org/