Author: Tarannum Rehal
Log kya kahenge? (What will people say?)
It’s all in your head!
You are overreacting!
I work more hours than you! How are YOU tired?
Let’s take you to a priest instead!
You’re a boy! Real men don’t cry! Don’t be a little girl!
Don’t be weak!
October 10 is recognized as World Mental Health Day. Although mental health is equally important on any other given day, October 10th has been given this honor by the World Health Organization to help raise global awareness of the importance of mental health issues and promote efforts in support of mental health.
Over the years as we have progressed as a society, the taboo around mental health has greatly diminished. Unfortunately, in many cultures, and even families, if we want to address a smaller scale, this taboo is still greatly prevalent. In such societies, it tends to be a matter of shame if a loved one or even someone you know is experiencing mental health issues. People would rather dissociate from the individual experiencing mental health issues instead of offering them help or support in the superstitious belief that mental illnesses are contagious. One such society tends to be the South Asian community, in which many families and cultures still hesitate to have uncomfortable, yet much-needed conversations with their loved ones about their mental health.
As a South Asian myself, I have experienced and witnessed how suffering from depression, schizophrenia, certain phobias, anxieties, etc., are synonymous with shame and are not a matter to be openly talked about in many South Asian households, especially in the mindset of the elders.
Before I begin, I want to emphasize that regardless of your racial, ethnic, cultural, or economic background, your mental health is just as important and valid as anyone else’s. This article is more centric around the mental health stigma in the South Asian community purely because of the direct contact that I have with it.
In many South Asian communities, one of the first things that is taught from a young age is to value family honor at all costs. Maintaining excellent grades, attending a prestigious post-secondary institute, being profound in extracurriculars, having a "perfect body," remaining chaste (a virgin) until marriage, not rebelling against elders, etc., all fall under the broad umbrella of "family honor."
My friends and I, who are mostly first-generation South Asian immigrants to Canada often talk about how our families have adjusted to Canadian culture; some within a few months, some within a few years, and for some it is still a work in progress. Being away from your homeland is not easy, and for this reason, many families strive to keep their culture alive through their children. These values are also heavily portrayed in Bollywood movies that further perpetuate and enforce certain stereotypes.
From a young age, children are told to adhere to cultural and societal norms without questioning authority. This evidently becomes a challenge when first-generation immigrants, in particular, first start interacting with Western society through school and their social circle, which especially peaks during the teenage years. The pressure to uphold the respectable reputation of their families eventually ends up taking a toll on one’s mental health in one way or another; the most common forms being depression and forms of anxiety. Since mental health conversations are rarely addressed, it becomes difficult for a child to be able to share how they actually feel. As a result, many children tend to withdraw from their families.
You might be wondering, “why?”Why do these stereotypes exist? Why is this the norm in South Asian communities? What can be done to educate these communities on the importance of mental health?
A lot of these stereotypes and the stigma around mental health actually stem from the patriarchal values that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Similar to many societies across the world, it is an unfortunate mindset that men are not allowed to express “feminine” emotions such as sadness through crying, and women are not allowed to express “masculine” emotions such as expressing their own thoughts and opinions as doing so would result in taunts and insults including being labelled as "insane." Going against these norms is a slap to the family’s honor. So, to avoid these insults and retain a respectable reputation, men and women have just stuck to their “assigned” roles since birth and have since projected these values onto their children.
In the majority of the cases if a loved one, especially a child, talks about their mental health to their family, even if they are heard, they are told to simply ignore the feeling and brush it off without talking about it with anyone else out of the fear of shame. Why is it a matter of shame? Well, obviously everyone wants to have the perfect child, perfect family, and perfect society.
People also have the tendency to compete with others in terms of mental health. I slept fewer hours than you, how are you sleepy? I worked more hours than you, how are you tired?. I ate less than you, how are you hungry? I have fewer friends than you, how are you lonely? Mental health is not some sort of goal that needs to be achieved and it definitely is not some sort of competition where you need to compare who has had it worse. There is always going to be someone who is happier than you and there is always going to be someone who is sadder than you. Does that mean that you’re never going to allow yourself to feel happy or process sadness? No.
When I was in the 12th grade, I suffered from a form of depression, which had adversely impacted several aspects of my life including my academics and social circle. I consider myself lucky in the sense that despite the stigma around mental health is so prevalent in many South Asian families, mental health was always considered a priority in my family. With the support of my loved ones and some therapy, I was able to overcome the troublesome times I faced. Unfortunately, this is not the scenario for every household and mental health is still brushed under the rug because people think it’s just an “overreaction” or “hypersensitivity” to sadness or pain. It is believed that it is something that will heal on its own. This also results in many therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists not being taken seriously in their profession because how can you treat something that you cannot see? But the brain is arguably the most important organ in the body. It controls literally every movement, every sense, every mood we feel. Just because we cannot physically see something wrong with the brain like we can with an arm that’s broken, doesn’t mean that it cannot cause an adverse effect on our health. When we feel sad temporarily because we didn’t do too great on a test at school, we feel bummed out for maybe the remainder of the day until our friends or family cheer us up by making us our favorite dinner or taking us out to the movies. Imagine if someone felt sad and bummed out for a prolonged period of time for no explicable reason, and no amount of delicious foods or trips to the movies could cheer them up, what then?
As we progress in our understanding of the brain and its associated illnesses, we have also come to understand the pain and suffering of the affected individual. In recent years, more light on the topic of mental health has been shed through social media and movies. This has been a particularly helpful way of raising awareness within the South Asian community since celebrities and actors easily play one of the most influential roles in the culture. Going forward, as our generation becomes increasingly socially aware and values the importance of mental health, it is likely that such a stigma will not exist in a few years. It is also important that whether you are South Asian or not, you educate your loved ones on the importance of being understood and the importance of having these much-needed conversations by offering and providing help to those who need it but struggle to ask for it.
Check up on your loved ones and let them know that you are here for them when and if needed, and actually mean it.
Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with mental health and the stigma of mental health in the South Asian community. As an outsider, I found this very informative and will definitely strive to reduce mental health stigma in my community as well.