The “Why” Component: Mental Health in South Asian Communities

Edited by Avleen Grewal

 

“They are crazy”; “time will heal them”; “that is so stupid – why would they do that?”; “I never knew/could tell”. You might be wondering why I’m starting off with these statements. Well, these are fragments that I often heard around me – in my community – in relation to mental health. Each individual may have their own testimonials regarding mental health; however, this article is going to discuss my experience(s) regarding mental health in the South Asian community. This is a disclaimer that I can only attest to my experiences, not others within the community.

Growing up in a South Asian family, there are a variety of things that were never discussed. Mental health was (and is) one of them. Through my experiences, I found that older generations in the community do not understand mental health. It is debatable if it stems from ignorance or just not being educated; however, due to the lack thereof, it is difficult for them to comprehend an extremely important component of mental health: the “why.”

I often heard this, and many of you – regardless of being in the South Asian community – can relate to this fact. The “why” is the slippery slope that some members of the South Asian community are unable to understand. “Why did they do that?,” “why did they feel like that?,” etc.

But, why do they not understand/empathize with the “why?” It is important to discuss the underlying reasons regarding mental health in the South Asian community, in order to understand the “why.”

I come from a traditional Tamil Sri Lankan family, where pride and ego are (unfortunately) a fundamental component of the family dynamic, and I also saw this in many other South Asian families. Regardless of whether or not my parents argue against this claim, my siblings and I grew up with our everyday movements being centered on this factor. As we got older we started to escape it, however when we were younger, and we steered away from anything that was not prideful, it was a disgrace or embarrassment to the family. Unlike my siblings and I, some children are unable to escape this factor and indirectly they feel pressured to “not tarnish the family name.” I know many individuals within the South Asian community can relate to this. This gets tied into mental health because many individuals feel like they cannot speak about their state of mind or psychological underpinnings because they do not want to be a dishonour to the family or because they sadly feel like those around them will not understand them.

I have heard many older members of the South Asian community belittle an individual’s mental state. For instance, I had members of the community tell me that because I am pursuing a career in psychology, I can “diagnose these crazy people,” as if they are outliers that need to be examined. This made me furious and angry because 1) they were deprecating mental health and its effects on individuals 2) no one – especially those suffering from a mental health problem – should be addressed in such a manner. Unfortunately, I have found that the older generation(s) that I have grown up around do not understand that everyone suffers – physically or mentally. It is patronizing because physical pain or illness is sought with intense care and attention… but why is it not the same with mental illness?  

A discussion needs to be brought up in the South Asian community regarding mental health. If loved ones will not listen, then who does one turn to? This then silences the individual and brings forth more pain and suffering. No one, I repeat NO ONE should suffer in silence. Individuals in the South Asian community need to care about their loved ones (i.e., children, family members, friends) prior to ego and pride before anything potentially hurts or harms them.

No pride and ego should compare to your loved one’s happiness or their mental state. No one should feel like they do not have someone who will listen or understand them. No one. 

I decided to speak with three female university students, Katie, Riley and Savana, to learn about their experiences with mental health while growing up in a South Asian household.

Katie, University of Toronto 

Her Campus (HC): Have you experienced or heard of an experience where mental health issues were looked down upon by members of the South Asian community?

Katie (K): Yes, definitely. I think that members of the South Asian community are very focused on their image and status within their community, and so issues like mental health are viewed with shame. These issues that are in the mind are invisible to the South Asian community, and thus to some people, they do not exist. Because of this, people will say things such as “stop being sad” and “get over it” as if that would magically help the situation. This can be much more isolating for an individual with mental health issues, and can cause them to try to keep everything bottled up inside, which can have further negative consequences.

HC: What are your thoughts regarding the way mental health is viewed, stigmatized, or talked about in the South Asian community?

K: My thoughts in the way mental health is viewed, stigmatized and talked about in the South Asian community is that there is a huge disconnect and that instead of people talking about it and educating others, they are kept silent. Respect for elders is a huge deal in the South Asian community, so as younger individuals, we are sometimes prevented from stepping into the conversation, as often times disagreeing with elders is seen as being disrespectful. It is hard to explain things to people who are not open to hearing opposing opinions, and even when heard, it is hard to change their viewpoints. When issues occur such as a death or attempted death, people regard it as the person being weak, or blaming it on other issues. I think this is very wrong and that people trying to educate others should continue despite the barriers faced. I think the younger generations understand that respect is and should be mutual for everyone, whereas older generations are stuck in the mindset of only respecting elders.

HC: How do you think more awareness can be brought to the topic of mental health so that individuals are comfortable to speak about their problems and that members in the South Asian community are respectful of it?

K: More awareness can be brought to the South Asian community by people being open about their mental health issues despite what the response may be. Often times, people are unable to understand what other people are going through, and so explaining your own mental health issues to those close to you may help them to understand how others may also be feeling. People think that mental health is not a widespread issue and impacts very few people, but that is only because no one feels comfortable enough to have these discussions. I think people need to tell their stories even if people will talk badly about them, because even if that happens, other people will gain confidence to share their own stories. Once the community realizes how significant mental health is, the stigma can be erased. It is a hard process and granted there will be people who will never change their mindset, but there will still be many people who will, and that alone is a good enough reason to discuss these issues.

Riley, Ryerson University

Her Campus (HC): Have you experienced or heard of an experience where mental health issues were looked down upon by members of the South Asian community?

Riley (R): Yes, I have experienced a situation where my mental health issues were looked down upon by members of the South Asian community. I am South Asian and was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. In the past, the hardest part was doing it alone. Despite trying to hide it, the behaviour of individuals – such as myself – was difficult to conceal. So, I have heard my parents and others tell me that “I am lazy” or “dramatic”. I have also heard other older South Asian women call me ‘crazy’ when they saw my cuts that were still healing. Having mental health issues being looked down upon by the South Asian community made me feel unworthy of life, more alone than ever, and misunderstood. Battling it is hard, but doing it alone is unbearable.

HC: What are your thoughts regarding the way mental health is viewed, stigmatized, or talked about in the South Asian community?

R: Mental health in the South Asian community is very stigmatized. The stigma and shame affecting family honour is so vast, which left other people I know unable to seek support. I remember when one of my teacher’s questioned me about my depression, I of course immediately denied it. However, when I did, she saw my cuts and she could see it in my eyes. I begged her not to tell anyone because I didn’t want my parents to find out; I didn’t want them to know their daughter was ‘crazy’ or ‘possessed.’ I used to go after the school day or lunch breaks to talk to my teacher about my thoughts and troubles and she would listen. I’m forever grateful to her.

HC: How do you think more awareness can be brought to the topic of mental health so that individuals are comfortable to speak about their problems and that members in the South Asian community are respectful of it?

R: The way that you can bring awareness to mental heath and to members of the South Asian culture is understanding the severity of it. More infomercials or articles need to come from people who went through this. I think some South Asian people don’t understand where it even stems from. When I finally told my parents, I had to tell them the entirety of what happened. That it was the bullying from such a young age, the words they (i.e., my parents) would use to address me (e.g., fat, ugly, dumb), or the way they would treat me. I had to tell them how it felt like being a black sheep in the family, and never being what they wanted me to be and how that effected my mental state and how much I did not want to live anymore. I had to tell my own parents that I thought about ending my own life more than I could imagine. I had to tell them I cut myself daily in the past for them to understand. That it wasn’t me being ‘lazy’ when I didn’t leave my room for months … but because I didn’t have the strength to. I think when individuals are comfortable to share their story, others would also feel more comfortable seeking help, especially in the South Asian community. Sometimes, parents in the South Asian culture need to understand the severity of it (i.e., mental health) to comprehend where it stems from.

Savana, University of Toronto

HC: Have you experienced or heard of an experience where mental health issues were looked down upon by members of the South Asian community?

Savana (S): Yes, today it happened. My dad was talking about a South Asian boy who committed suicide because he had depression. My dad said that it was foolish, and he did not know the value of life. My brother and I had to explain that the boy had a mental illness, and it is not just “dumb actions.” However, he couldn’t comprehend it. I think older generations (e.g., my dad) do not understand it because they have never experienced it, nor were they exposed to mental health as being an illness that individuals experience. Throughout history, those with mental illness(es) were called “crazy people” because individuals could not comprehend something they did not know. I guess trying to explain it now – at this stage in their life – is sort of a disbelief.

HC: What are your thoughts regarding the way mental health is viewed, stigmatized, or talked about in the South Asian community?

S: I think the stigma is present because of the lack of understanding or taking the time to understand mental health. I cannot generalize this for all South Asian individuals; however, from what I’ve experienced it’s harder for older South Asian adults to comprehend because it was not seen as an illness for them growing up.

HC: How do you think more awareness can be brought to the topic of mental health so that individuals are comfortable to speak about their problems and that members in the South Asian community are respectful of it?

S: I think through education and more social movements. For instance, when the South Asian boy passed away, there was a lot of discussion about it, especially in the South Asian community. It is bad to say; however, precedence – and situations like this – helped bring more light on the topic of mental health in the South Asian community. Education – or being educated – is important! Even taking the time to understand mental health is huge. It is not just about recognizing it as an illness, but also knowing that your loved ones can be suffering should also be a thought and realization. It’s a sensitive topic and I really believe it’s hard to find the perfect solution, when you know someone’s suffering. All you can offer is your time and really listen.

The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals. To understand the “why” of mental health it is important for individuals to take themselves out of their culture or community and understand the “why” as a human being.