Trigger warning: This article contains material related to suicide and mental illness. Discretion is advised. If these topics cause emotional, mental, or physical distress, please call your National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
A body found in the St. Lawrence river of Montreal the night of October 4th, 2018 mentioned in a few news articles, was my husband, Anand Almeida. I can talk forever about suicide statistics, that every 40 seconds someone in the world dies by suicide. But it doesn’t hit home until it happens to you or someone you know.
From September 28, 2018, when I last saw Anand and filed a missing person’s report, I was in daily contact with the police till the morning of October 5, 2018, when the police came to tell me his body was found. That week and day were the worst in my entire life.
At the risk of being blamed for Anand’s death and possibly facing repercussions for speaking the truth about the cause of his death, I was candid about what happened. The backlash, coming in particular from relatives/community members, especially those from India, primarily because there is very little understanding about mental illness and where “keeping appearances” is of utmost importance.
I will not waiver from a vow I made a few days before Anand’s funeral, which was held a week after he was found. That I would not be silent. I would not let Anand’s death be in vain. That his struggle with depression, which had been going on since his teenage years, would be acknowledged, not hidden. That I would break this bullshit notion of saving face and giving more importance to “what will people say/think” rather than helping a loved one in need.
This need to “keep appearances” carries on amongst Indian diaspora even in North America and elsewhere. I and many other foreign-born Indians can attest to how this has made life miserable for many of us, even though we were not born or raised in the motherland.
What is far more crucial than what small minds will think and say, is that Anand’s and my story will be a catalyst for change. To wake people up, so that someone else does not have to face internal struggles alone; so that others don’t have to experience the sort of painful and tragic loss our families and friends have. To those who are in a dark space and feel like you have nowhere to turn to, you are not alone. To those who have lost someone to suicide and are struggling with the grief, you are not alone. Reach out to a local helpline or grief support group, you will be met with someone who understands to talk to or be directed to resources to help you and cater better to your needs. Apart from supportive family and friends, counseling and grief support groups have been a saving grace for my grief and healing journey which I am still on and will most likely be on for a while.
If our story will save at least one life, ease the pain of at least one person; taking on all the awful things people might say in response to my advocacy is fine. For it pales in comparison to having lost the love of my life, and I wish that on no one. The only way to prevent these tragedies is by speaking the truth. I have a responsibility to do that. My conscience overrides my vanity, ego and fears.
Anand and I had our good times. We were each other’s rock and anchor; however, he was not easy to be around all the time. He made decisions that were self-destructive and hurtful to both of us, right till the very end. While I don’t encourage anyone to abandon someone during their darkest hour. Just because I stayed with him, does not mean I would encourage anyone to stay or look down on someone who left similar circumstances to save their sanity. As a caregiver, the whole situation took a toll on my mental health. Anand did things that gave me justifiable reasons to leave him. The caregiver as much as the individual suffering from a mental illness, both need a support system.
Mental health and suicide are not just taboos or stigmas in South Asian communities but in ALL communities around the globe. I was selective about who I reached out to talk to or ask for help. When Anand’s own family, who are supportive, fair, understanding and very good people who embody integrity were in denial about his mental health, I had to face the reality that others too might have similar views. I did not want to jeopardize any future employment prospects for Anand, with friends who might be able to refer him for a job, by revealing that he was struggling with mental illness. What triggered Anand’s anxiety and depression in the first place was looking for work upon arriving in Canada. I was stuck between a rock and hard place.
I racked my brains to get Anand help. Begging and pleading with him to seek professional help, taking him to two different marriage counsellors. Found a coach for him who helps new immigrant professionals integrate into the Quebec workforce. Reaching out to anyone who might help him find work. Researching programs for new immigrants. Calling suicide helplines, calling the police & paramedics, reaching out to family members, including having my cousin, a medical doctor, come over to talk to him.
As my bereavement counsellor at Suicide Action Montreal said:
“You went above and beyond to help Anand but in the end, it is the individual’s responsibility to reach out and take the hands stretching out to help them.”
Easier said than done.
I know I did my best with the knowledge I had at that time. Unlike most suicide loss survivors who deal with guilt, I don’t feel guilt. I feel a lot of anger. Rage at people’s complacency and willful ignorance. I honestly feel that if more people were given safe spaces to talk about their losses and struggles openly without judgement, it would create awareness, empathy and understanding, that just as we can fall physically ill, we can fall mentally ill. It would not eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness but it definitely would aid in diminishing it; furthermore, alleviating the shame individuals feel associated with mental illness. Thus making it easier for those in need, to speak up, to seek out help, be it from family, friends or mental health professionals. There would be less resistance to get help by those suffering from depression, anxiety or any other mental illness.
The families who have lost someone to suicide should not be feeling shame or silenced out of fear of being shamed. Shame on those small-minded people, the village idiots, who gossip, judge and criticize without knowing the individual and families, their circumstances and struggles. The ignorance & myopic views and behavior of these people and groups add to the grief of others. Not only that, it perpetuates the stigma and suffering.
I was initially told by both our families to say Anand’s death was an accident, which is what was announced in India. I was adamant to use Anand’s funeral in Montreal as a platform to address mental health and suicide and how our Indian community puts so much pressure on individuals making them feel that their self-worth is dependent on their education, occupation, salary, wealth, status, title, etc.
Because I made that decision to be true to myself, honest, vulnerable, straight forward and authentic at Anand’s funeral, it has since created a safe space for people to come forward to us about their own or loved ones’ struggles with mental illness, depression and anxiety. Many even have said how it was a wake-up call to seek help for themselves or take a loved one to a mental health professional. Anand’s death has shaken many, even friends of mine near and far who never met him were affected by his suicide.
Being open about Anand’s death has created a ripple effect of compassion and empathy within others towards others. More than anything it has created open and honest dialogue which is just the start of creating awareness and bringing change.
Let us move forward with purpose and not shame or fear.
PLEASE SHARE to keep the dialogue going and help me in my mission to diminish the stigma and to help others.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.
“A weight’s been lifted off my shoulder,” said Shania Bhopa, a graduate student at McMaster University, who took control of the narrative and timeline of her life by freezing her eggs at the age of 25. As a P.h.D candidate in the Global Health Program, her goal is to destigmatize egg freezing among as many young women as possible. Although she was nervous to post the first Tiktok about freezing her eggs, Bhopa knew that her goal was to raise awareness about female fertility using her background in health research at McMaster, and her own experiences. That video went viral with 1.6 million views.
“Knowing the likelihood, especially with my career goals, [that] I can have a happy, healthy baby potentially closer to 35, is very refreshing.”
In the South Asian community, reproductive health and family planning can be sensitive topics. Bhopa wanted to utilize her platform to challenge these traditional opinions about reproductive health. And it’s why Bhopa continues to shine a light on the importance of starting these conversations and destigmatizing egg freezing, primarily within the South Asian community.
So what is the purpose of egg freezing? According to Statistics Canada, in 2021, close to one-quarter of Canadians, aged 15 to 49, changed their fertility plans because of the pandemic.
Egg freezing — which helps to preserve fertility for a later stage in life — continues to serve as a way to give individuals leeway to live life intentionally, without conforming to societal pressures. This is an important consideration, as research shows that by age 35 the chances of conception decline to 66% and continue to decrease as individuals age. What egg freezing provides is a feeling of freedom and liberation for people with a uterus, so that their decisions are not influenced by when they should have children.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into understanding the stigmas that exist, the importance of having these conversations, and the insight gained as individuals like Bhopa take fertility into their own hands:
The journey through fertility
“My purpose of going through fertility treatments at 25 is to buy myself time, to get closer to my purpose in my professional life, so that hopefully one day I can be super intentional with my time as a mom when I’m ready.”
According to Dr. Togas Tulandi, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at McGill University in Montreal, medication is given to stimulate the ovaries so they produce eggs. The eggs are then removed for freezing and storage. Needless to say, the treatment can be costly. The initial egg freezing procedures typically range from $5,000 to $10,000, while the ongoing storage expenses amount to approximately $300 to $500 per year. Despite the financial commitment, freezing eggs is a valuable investment.
Bhopa documented her 11-day egg freezing journey through a TikTok series on social media. She shared the ups and downs throughout the two-week duration, addressing public queries and comments including those on how this was accepted, given her South Asian background.
Societal expectations, cultural norms, and traditional beliefs often contribute to the apprehension and lack of open dialogue regarding fertility. Breaking through these barriers is essential to empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health care and reproductive journeys.
“My biggest reasons for doing this are both reproductive health and family planning. These are sensitive topics, especially in the South Asian community,” said Bhopa.
They are particularly “sensitive” because in South Asian households, conversations around women’s health, periods, fertility, and related topics, seldom occur openly. Bhopa’s story serves as an example of the power of embracing one’s fertility journey and the liberation it can bring.
Given that Bhopa is a woman in her mid-20s, she sees egg freezing as a way to help her future self. She is calling it a birthday gift for her 25th year. Most of all, she expresses,
“It’s like, you graduate…and then you’re supposed to get married and have kids. But I think it’s important to take control of our own narrative; we don’t need to feel this pressure to have kids when we’re not ready.”
“Why at the young age of 25? What was your parent’s reaction? How was this accepted?” These were just some of the questions that circulated Bhopa’s social media page as she brought awareness to fertility planning.
In order to understand the beneficial impacts that freezing eggs can have on the course of one’s life, we need to first create spaces for people within the South Asian community, and beyond, to feel as though they can prompt these conversations without the resulting stigmas.
All South Asian women should be able to make informed decisions surrounding their fertility journey; whether that is through understanding the options that exist, the associated costs, the procedure, the support that’s available or anything else. To achieve this, we must break down the discomfort within our households surrounding fertility conversations by challenging ourselves to make historically uncomfortable conversations comfortable.