An illness is defined as a disease or period of sickness that affects a person’s body or mind. It may cause you to hide from family, friends, and activities you once loved. But it’s understandable because that is what an illness does to you. Not one person should blame you for being diagnosed with a disease. Yet those who suffer from depression often live in an environment where people may say, “You are too much for me” or “stop being sad,” as if you are to be blamed for the illness.
The stigmas around mental illnesses are definitely evolving in America as more research shows that mental illnesses are a serious issue that should be treated without stigma.That is not to say there is a long way to go before everyone begins to define depression as an “actual” illness. For some reason or another, first generation South Asian American parents normally have a more difficult time trying to grasp this concept.
On January 11, we lost an angel—Priya Balagopal, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate—who struggled with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety her whole life. Before she died by suicide, in December, she created a GoFundMe campaign called, “The Burden of Mental Illness,” to help her parents raise funds that would go towards her medical bills and college tuition.
In her post, she very bravely wrote,
“To be honest, I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of feeling like a prisoner in my own body. Like a spectator of my own life. That’s what mental illness does to you. I tried to hold out for as long as I could. But every bad day, every disappointment, every heartbreak, every anxiety attack just reminded me that my time here had an expiration date.”
She gave the page’s password to her friend Daleena Abraham, and since then, the campaign has raised more than $33,000 and 11K shares.
Throughout Balagopal’s short life, she worked towards ending the suffering she saw all around her by helping young people with mental illness through AmeriCorps and the ActiveMinds chapter at her university—a nonprofit supporting those dealing with suicide and other mental illnesses.
Her impact resonated with thousands worldwide, and her younger sister, Shalini, later affirmed it by writing on the GoFundPage:
“Grieving for my big sister has been devastating and painful, but seeing the impact she is leaving behind even though she’s no longer alive is inspiring and amazing. Conversation about mental illness and increased awareness is what she devoted herself to.”
Balagopal battled obstacles that are heartbreaking to think about, but through it all, she was an incredibly strong to show her friends and family a bubbly exterior but waged with the war inside of her.
On her page, she said she was blessed to be the daughter of two extremely, supportive immigrant parents and has an understanding younger sister.
“As a daughter of immigrants, I am very lucky to have two brave, selfless, loving parents who sacrificed everything to put a roof over my head and a college education on my resume. I have a younger sister who looked to me for guidance and support while we were growing up, and who provided both when I was struggling. I have friends who showed me their homes and their hearts year after year, and even after everything I put them through, they never left my side.”
Despite being such an incredible being, Balagopal was what some might describe as misunderstood. Those who knew about her struggles often did not know what to say to her and sometimes kept their distance.
Unfortunately, that often happens when people find out their friend or family member is depressed because it is rather difficult to provide a life-changing solution, so it becomes easier to distance yourself from the problem. Not to mention, because the subject of mental illnesses is always brushed under the table and is stigmatized heavily, most people do not know how to react and feel uncomfortable when trying to help those suffering.
As I read Balagopal’s life story, I found myself in tears and missing her. Even though I never met her, I felt as if she was a major part of my life. I could not figure out in that moment why I was missing someone I never met. But as I calmed down, it dawned on me.
Balagopal experienced the tired feeling of living a daily life, being misunderstood and not wanting to be a burden to those around her. These are the exact feelings and thoughts I have dealt with many times in the past. From my personal battle with depression and other painful experiences similar to Balagopal’s, I realized our lives are similar.
[Read Related: What My Bipolar Disorder Taught Me]
What seems like a simple realization has actually changed my life. By missing Balagopal, I can finally understand how much people would miss me if I took my life. Because of her, I made a promise myself to always push on because my life means something, even to people I may never meet. And thanks to her, I have found the inner strength to educate others about mental illnesses and will strive to continue everything Balagopal stood up for.
To the parents of South Asian children, below are two simple points we would like you to understand about depression.
We owe you everything. Not just for giving us a life, but for always us giving everything in your means. All that you’ve done proves that you would do anything for us. We understand this. But when we tell you we are feeling down or think we may be depressed, you don’t need to remind us of everything we are fortunate enough to have and all you have done. It’s not that we are being ungrateful, it’s that depression makes us feel unworthy and not loved even when we should know otherwise.
The best way to respond would be to hear us out. We understand that it is difficult for anyone to understand how to reply or completely understand. It is just as difficult for us to speak out about it. But even if you just sit next to us, put your arm around us and let us know no matter what we go through you will be by our side.
We want to do our best. Not just to have a successful life, but to also be able to give back everything that you’ve selflessly given us. Making you proud has always been a part of our plan. We want to work hard and pursue our dreams, but sometimes, the easiest tasks like getting out of bed and getting dressed for school/work is something the hardest. And on other days, it is hard to focus on anything, especially when studying. It is not because we are feeling lazy. Sometimes we just don’t see the point in anything, including our future. Thoughts like this could become serious and life threatening.
If reassuring and showing us affection does not help, do not be ashamed to get us help. Most importantly do not worry about what other Desis might think. Our lives are much more important than the gossip neighborhood aunties will do regardless. Therapists and psychiatrists are just like any other doctors. They know exactly how to help and could potentially save our lives.
Like Balagopal said on her page:
“You can tell someone you love that you care about them today. You can encourage your friends to talk about their mental health. You can offer to provide a listening ear to someone you know who is struggling, or sign up to volunteer for a crisis hotline.”
So, yes, mental illnesses can be difficult to understand if you have not personally experienced it or are unaware of its dangerous implications. But just because you are unfamiliar with a subject doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
My last note to South Asian parents reading this is to think about people like Balagopal stood so strongly for. Together, we can help change the view of mental health in our society, and when that successfully happens, our angel, Priya will know her mission is complete.