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9 South Asian Misconceptions Standing in the Way of Mental Wellness

Mental Health
6 min read

Mental health is an essential part of our overall wellness. Therapy can be a useful resource in fostering mental well-being. However, a lot of misinformation exists pertaining to the process. Stigma in the form of stereotypes, misconceptions and lies can act as monstrous obstacles that may inhibit you from seeking the help you need.

As a mental health therapist, educator and advocate, I have addressed many misconceptions with family, friends, students and strangers. The stigma surrounding mental health is unfortunately seen across cultures, but being a brown girl and mental health clinician, the misinformation that appears to pervade the South Asian diaspora affects me personally and professionally.

This list is an attempt to debunk common misconceptions that may be hindering you or your loved one from seeking the help you need to thrive. Though I can’t speak for all mental health professionals, I hope that sharing my perspective will help combat the stigma surrounding mental health and empower you to develop a healthier view of mental wellness.

1. “Therapy is for crazy people!”

Needing mental health care does not mean someone is crazy, it means that they are brave enough to ask for help when they need it. We wouldn’t judge someone seeking medical help for a physical condition, so why have we done so for mental health? This view causes real symptoms to go unchecked. Paired with the model minority myth, many South Asians are deemed as thriving and signs of mental health concerns tend to be overlooked. Similarly, individuals minimize their symptoms in order to fit the image of the model minority. There is no status, degree or salary that can prevent mental illness. Rather, proactive care can be a crucial factor in fostering mental wellness, and stereotypes and stigma may impede on early intervention.

2. “I already have a support system; therapy won’t add any value.”

Collectivism is a potential mental health resource embedded in South Asian culture. The extended family and overarching community are deemed important, and within this system, one may have the capacity to establish multiple supportive connections. Social support is certainly an influential aspect of mental health but it doesn’t necessarily solve mental health problems.

Therapy is not intended to replace your connections; instead, it can serve as an additional resource to a preexisting system of support. Moreover, there is a difference between confiding in your loved one versus someone who is specifically trained in the art of listening, problem-solving and providing nonjudgmental insight. Even if your loved one is a therapist, they cannot ethically utilize their training with you. On the other hand, these handy professionals can be an excellent resource if you’re seeking a referral.

3. “It’s all in my head.”

While many aspects of South Asian culture emphasize the mind-body connection, individuals with South Asian heritage tend to disproportionately recognize physical and mental concerns. When seeking help, physical symptoms are more likely to be reported while mental symptoms are seen as a sign of weakness. This mindset simplifies the complexity of mental wellness, creates the mentality that mental health concerns are not serious and inhibits early intervention.

It can be difficult to dispel this notion when it is not only a commonly held belief within the community but is also seen in practitioners as well. In a 2016 study of medical practitioners based in Pakistan, about 67 percent believed that depression is due to a lack of stamina and will-power and about 37 percent believed that it is caused by supernatural forces. While you may be understandably drawn to a clinician who understands your culture, finding a practitioner who will affirm the validity of your concerns may be more essential to effective care.

4. “A therapist won’t understand me if they don’t look like me.”

As an aspect of collectivism, individuals are deemed as insiders or outsiders. Being a part of the family or wider community is a trustworthy status. However, from this notion, othering emerges. Individuals who are not a part of the group may be automatically marginalized, avoided and/or excluded. Intergenerational traumas pertaining to colonialism may exacerbate these concerns with trusting individuals who do not have a South Asian ancestry.

Since therapy is often seen as a Western method of healing, a client may seek a provider of the same culture in the hopes that cultural beliefs will be incorporated. An individual in need may diminish qualified professionals by strongly adhering to the mindset that a therapist must be of the same background to empathize and assist. However, all therapists are trained and examined on their multicultural competence prior to earning their license. An ethical practitioner allows the client to share about culture and subsequently utilizes this information to strengthen the treatment strategies.

Having a similar background may assist a clinician in understanding cultural influences; however, this connection may also make it more difficult to acquire the unbiased stance that is critical for therapy. A skilled practitioner who openly discusses cultural influences may have more potential to understand a client as opposed to a practitioner who presumes to understand the client’s experiences.

[Read Related: Dismantling Stigma: A Call for Culturally Conscious Mental Health Resources]

5. “All therapy is the same.”

Therapy varies from one session to another, from one clinician to another and even from one client to another. Even if two psychotherapists were trained at the same institution, there are still several variables that can cause them to approach therapy differently such as cultural background, lived experiences and areas of expertise. Many times, this false belief arises when someone courageously attempted therapy yet did not have a positive experience. However, it may simply mean that a therapeutic match and/or alliance was absent. Avoid disregarding therapy based on one experience. Similarly, you can change over time. When factors such as your age, level of severity, self-awareness and personal commitment change, your therapeutic experience may change as well.

6. “It’s just talking…”

Psychotherapy isn’t just talking. If you’re in therapy and it seems like you’re just talking, you may not be able to see the carefully crafted conversation allowing you to discuss key elements of your problem, brainstorm solutions and create a plan. If the conversation feels effortless, this may be due to an excellent therapeutic alliance. This rapport is critical in fostering your mental wellness. Nevertheless, if therapy feels like you are chatting with a friend and growth isn’t seen over the course of time, it’s possible that your selected helper may not be the right fit to help you foster your therapeutic goals.

7. “Therapists only tell people what to do.”

An aspect of South Asian culture is seeking assistance from someone with a status of authority and who is often older and well-respected. This insight is often one-directional and suggestive. In an effort to foster your autonomy, a good therapist will often avoid giving advice. Therapy is a collaborative process but the level may vary per expertise and method. Rather than enabling a pattern of dependence, a therapist will ultimately emphasize your power in your mental health journey.

8. “I’ll be forced to take medication.”

There are different types of mental health professionals. If you’re thinking about medication, odds are you are thinking about the role of a psychiatrist. Talk therapy can be provided by psychologists, counselors and social workers. For many diagnoses, the power of talk therapy may serve as the primary treatment method. Depending on the problem, medication might indeed become a helpful part of your journey. If you have concerns about taking medication you are encouraged to share and explore them within your therapeutic setting.

[Read Related: Opening Up to Mental Health Help Through the Practice of Yoga]

9. “If I go to therapy, my family will be disappointed.”

According to the American Psychological Association, as a consequence of assimilation, Americans of South Asian descent are at risk for developing mental illness. Westernized beliefs about mental wellness may oppose traditional values. An individual may feel ashamed for seeking help, or fear being ridiculed and may be worried about rejection.

Confidentiality is an important aspect of therapy. With a few exceptions to promote safety, what is said in counseling stays within counseling. Divulging information to confirm you are enrolled in therapy should not be done without your consent. You may choose to keep your mental health journey between yourself and your clinician.

While many individuals of South Asian descent hold stereotypes that serve as obstacles in seeking mental health care, some see through these false beliefs and recognize the importance of fostering overall wellness. Hence, it is also possible that your family may be proud of you for courageously seeking help to improve your well-being.

I hope that you were able to approach this list with an open mind and a humble heart. If any of these misconceptions ring true for you or someone you know, you may benefit from learning more about mental wellness. Fact-checking the stereotypes that guide our health is a responsibility that we have to ourselves as well as our community.

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