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Why The South Asian Perception of Mental Illness Needs to Stop

South Asian
7 min read

by Jill Patel 

The Kübler-Ross model proposes five different stages that people experience as they make their way on the journey to acceptance. This model pertains to those patients who have been diagnosed with a serious illness, thus any case of mental illness should be no exception. Those who suffer from anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression or any other form of mental illness take the time to come to terms with the state of their mind. Eventually, they do accept it and transition into trying to ameliorate the effects rather than trying to hide from them.

Even America, as a whole, has progressed greatly in detaching negative connotations from mental illness and disorder which means the country itself is also moving towards the final stage which is acceptance. However, when we take a look at a South Asian family and their placement within the stages of acceptance, it is hard not to notice that many still remain deep within the first stage — denial.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that living in India with mental illness would mean turning to a temple rather than a doctor as if mental illness was just a case of the evil eye. It would mean that rather than attempting to get help, the issue at its core would be ignored completely.

I am fortunate to have a progressive family amidst an even more progressive community. As grateful as I am to have my family understand the validity of mental health, I am constantly reminded of just how limited their understanding remains. The truth remains that they were brought up in a country where mental illness is stigmatized to no end.

“It doesn’t happen to us. We don’t face those issues here. Those are not our kind of problems.”

Mental illness and disorder within the South Asian community can be considered to tarnish their reputation. The worry about the dishonor they could bring for having someone in their family with “mental problems” instead of seeking the help that person requires. In India itself, the worry has never been about the individual’s health but rather if this news getting out into the public domain, it could ruin the individual’s chances at marriage.

The support within India is little to none from extended family to psychiatrists to the government. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were raised in a country where the reason for having any type of mental illness was degraded to not doing enough yoga or not having the correct diet.

“Maybe if you fast, it will go away.”

The World Health Organization report states that India has the highest suicide rate in the world for the 15-29 age group. Does that still make it okay to brush mental illness under the carpet as if it isn’t the same as any other type of illness and can be treated? Not only does this need to be destigmatized in India, but awareness needs to flow throughout the country and even permeate to South Asian families around the world; hopefully one of those families being mine.

I am scared for my baby cousin. She has no reaction to familiar voices or her name, she runs away from strangers and cries for hours just by looking at someone unfamiliar, she cannot share let alone find enjoyment with others, and her words are simply a combination of sounds and broken up, poorly pronounced, simple words like mom and dad. She is three years old, and these are all warning signs of early autism in children. But it is all being deemed as slow growth. While this may just quite be a slow development, what is the harm in taking precautions to confirm?

According to her parents, this will ruin her future and their daughter can never have such a disorder. They turn down my concerns and continue to coddle her as she cries for hours. Her future is being jeopardized due to the ignorance and pride of my aunt and uncle.

She struggles with basic social interaction as she remains aloof and in her old world, refusing to share or play with other kids and hitting them if they try. Her verbal communication remains extremely limited and her sensitivity to loud noises continues to worsen and she becomes emotionally attached to strange and unconventional items.

[Read Related: Why We Need to Break The ‘South Asian Mentality’ of Success

This can all display early signs of autism and if discovered and treated now, she can grow up receiving the care and aid she requires. She may continue to suffer from autism yet she may still be able to function as those without autism. All this significantly decreases her chances of becoming depressed or having extreme anxiety and panic attacks in the future. Yet, it is all being ignored and my concern is no longer even paid attention to.  

The idea of tarnishing the family name and lowering their respect has gone too far to the point where health is being neglected. If there is such harm in even consulting a doctor, then, in the end, the life of my cousin is being gambled with. If she does have autism, she has the potential to live her life as if this disorder were never a part of her. This opportunity has been taken away from her because the stigma and pride got in the way.

Pride seems to be a very common underlying factor here. I witness friends suffering from depression and anxiety who have intense waves of sadness and panic attacks that they can’t seem to even control. One particular friend pulled through and made the decision to withdraw from college and take a gap year — for herself and her well being. Rather than slowly disintegrating, she wanted to psychologically cleanse herself from the stress and pressure of college that made her feel incredibly hopeless and alone.

The depression was affecting her social, emotional, physical and mental state which inhibited her from leading a normal life.  However, the associated ignominy with the idea seems to haunt her more than her stress. School stressed her out enough but having to tell her parents of how she was doing mentally and the decision to withdraw and take a gap year triggered her anxiety like no other. Is that how seeking help from parents should feel?

If the South Asian community has stigmatized it to such a degree then it makes sense that a teenager trying to tell their family, who believes depression is a taboo, will feel ostracized and neglected. The repercussions of the ideals of these families are felt within the members of the family who are deteriorating internally because they don’t have support or cannot get the help they need. If they decide to find help themselves and take a year off or see a therapist, it seems as if their family has a huge dishonor placed above them; as if getting help for an illness is such a disgrace. Why don’t we stigmatize seeking treatment for a physical illness as much as we do for a mental illness?

Not only do South Asian families feel embarrassed and wonder, “how they will answer everybody’s questions,” but they also find a way to downsize it all to just something as trivial as a phase or an episode that will pass. My friend went through with a gap year only to have her parents constantly reminding her to not tell anyone that she left college and claims to have depression. Her parents refuse to take her to a therapist so she goes without telling them. And to this day, her depression and anxiety have not yet been accepted or understood; they still wonder why she left school.

Apparently, her well being isn’t a good enough reason. Through it all, she lacked the support she so desperately craved. Not only did her decision to help herself get a good response, but no one else helped her in getting better and the idea of her even being ill was thrown away like that. This is her story along with ones of an incredible amount of South Asians who struggle with telling their families just how they really are.

The struggle doesn’t always have to remain so prominent in South Asian culture. If we begin by raising awareness, we are already increasing the chances of creating educated, non-ignorant families that seem to avoid the validity of mental disorders and illness. As soon as we realize that we need to end the distinction between mental health and physical health and realize that they are in fact synonymous, we have taken the next step in proving the importance of getting help.

We need to realize that “keep going,” “everyone is going through the same thing,” or “It’ll be okay just stick with it,” are not valid excuses to avoid mental illness. Instead of only allowing a certain kind of a pain to afflict your sons and daughters, maybe let them speak of the pain internally because it is in fact quite real. The next step is to stop composing the existence of your children by the number of degrees they have, how young they get married, their intelligence level, their salary and their awards.

The South Asian community is known to be one of the most pressuring along with being one of the most ignorant towards mental health. Not only do we feel so uncomfortable by it that we refuse to have conversation surrounding mental health, but to make matters worse, we slap a bandage on it by saying, “just keep going, look at everyone else.”

Going to a therapist, taking a gap year, seeing a doctor to diagnose a disorder is not the “American” way. It is the right way in which we can see just how many lives we can save and heal.

This will not happen overnight, similar to most societal progressions. However, if we want to save this community as a whole, we need to permeate the core of the issue. Inform and educate the families who block off these conversations and downgrade them as being much more minuscule than they really are. This is not some small scratch that will heal by itself. This is a fracture that continues to worsen and cause more pain and damage which isn’t recognized until it is too late.

Jill Patel is a high school student living in New Jersey. Besides writing, she has a love for art, coffee (caffeine in general) and exploring new places, whether they be in NJ or in a completely different country. When she is not wandering in search of coffee or new places to visit, Jill is either binge watching TV shows or updating her blog. She hopes that through Brown Girl Magazine, she will be able to reach out and connect with South Asian women from around the world. You can also follow her via Twitter and  Instagram

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