Why Don’t South Asians Talk Mental Health?

Surely we can all agree that mental health is a taboo topic everywhere in the world, but research shows that some demographics are more prone to facing problems when dealing with mental health/illnesses than others. One of these groups happens to be South Asian women, especially young women. A study conducted by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum a few years ago revealed that young South Asian women in the United States had higher suicide rates than the general U.S. population.

The predominant causes of mental illnesses remain universal — but each culture’s unique harmful practices and beliefs also contribute to the problem.

South Asian culture, in our case, is patriarchal and misogynistic on a sickening level. Due to absurd historical and (falsely) religious claims, South Asians prefer baby boys over baby girls. Mothers are humiliated far too often for being unable to give birth to baby boys — an act that is totally out of their control. This often leads to divorce or polygamy and these women get involved in an unhealthy game of self-blame, creating potential for mental illnesses such as depression, among others.

Numerous studies have also found stress to be a leading cause of mental health disorders. South Asian parents are infamously popular for expecting their children to become doctors, engineers or lawyers and nothing less. Although this stereotype is obviously an exaggeration, it definitely is not too far from reality. South Asians do expect their children to meet certain academic standards which can be difficult and stressful. Crashing or giving up is not an option — but of course, failure to perform “perfectly” at everything can easily lead to depression or anxiety disorders.

If we are too afraid to even approach this topic, then we will be doing our communities a great disservice by abandoning so many of its members to fight their battles alone.

South Asian girls, in particular, have additional expectations of them as they are typically required to be “good girls with good grades, a good body and good housekeeping skills.” If you can’t make a round roti (flat bread), don’t have fair skin color (colonialism sucks) and you’re not skinny enough, you are not deemed good enough for anyone to want you. South Asian girls and women in the West have it worse because they are expected to live up to the ridiculous standards of “feminine perfection“ created by mainstream Western media, as well as those of their South Asian families and communities — both of which are extremely unhealthy and impossible to achieve. These women’s identities, self-esteems, their emotional growth and mental well-being are inevitably endangered.

Belonging to South Asian descent myself, I can assure you that the reluctance to talk about mental health in our communities is very much a real problem. Most of us pretend that mental illness is an imaginary concept created by attention-seekers for attention-seekers and that by indulging in conversation about it, we’re just giving in to them. The rest of us who do acknowledge the existence of mental illnesses don’t like to hear about its presence and growth in our communities because we have a tendency of thinking we’re “too strong and resilient” for it.

Admit it: South Asian culture is deeply embedded with negative attitudes about mental health that are unfortunately leading to a lot of suffering.

From the moment a South Asian girl can understand what the word “reputation” means, she is told she must protect it all costs. Since being mentally ill is frowned upon in South Asian communities, openly declaring that you are suffering from a mental disease is seen as a way of tarnishing your own and your family’s reputation. In a culture that places a lot of emphasis on “timely marriage,” a bachelorette female ruins her prospects of getting a good rishta (marriage proposal) if the community finds out about her mental illness because nobody wants to wed their son off to a “pagal” (crazy person).

On the other hand, if a married woman acquires a mental illness, the chances of her marriage being destroyed are incredibly high. Even if her husband is supportive, his family is usually not and sees the woman as a burden on the man, urging him to indulge in polygamy or pushing him toward divorce. If divorced, the woman is forced to maneuver in the community as the “divorcee,” forcing her to deal with all the negative connotations attached to this label.

The community also plays a massive role in making it impossible for people to open up about their mental health. The “Aunties” are always on the lookout for juicy gossips about anyone and everyone. They love to carefully judge every move you make and they’re especially good at finding a reason to shame you for it. I think most South Asian youth, especially females, suffering from mental illnesses would agree that one of the reasons why they stay quiet about their sickness is that they don’t want to be the target of harsh criticism, unjustified assumptions and insincere sympathy at the Aunties’ next tea party. (#StopTheAunties2015)

Seriously though, this needs to stop. There is no excuse for us to continue being silent on the issue of mental illness. It’s real, its growing and we are continuously discovering new things about it. If we are too afraid to even approach this topic, then we will be doing our communities a great disservice by abandoning so many of its members to fight their battles alone. It’s okay to be mentally ill. It can be overcome with support and treatment.

Let’s start creating safe zones for those who are dealing with mental illnesses. Let’s stop throwing around the word “pagal” so casually. Let’s stop shaming people for consulting a psychiatrist. Let’s stop pressuring our youth, especially our females, to live up to impossible ideals and let’s start preventing the presence of mental illnesses.

Written by Khalood Kibria

Image: Your Mind Your Body — Mental Health Blog