“What do you do?”
“I’m getting my doctorate in clinical psychology.”
“Oh, you work with crazy people?”
That is what I hear most of the time when I tell others about my career choice.
I used to become very upset when people would call the individuals I work with “crazy.” What does crazy even mean?
Merriam-Webster defines it as (a) full of cracks or flaws; (b) crooked, askew; (c) not mentally sound, marked by thought or action that lacks reason, insane.
So am I considered crazy? Am I full of cracks, flaws, and everything else associated with being crazy? If according to how loosely the term “crazy” is used with those that have mental health issues, then I guess I must be, right? Let me stop you right there!
Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Dimple Patel and I am a 30-year-old Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology, just one year away from obtaining my degree. I concomitantly have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
I experienced my first panic attack when I returned to college after taking 11 weeks off to recover from a car accident that had resulted in a fractured pelvis. A few weeks after returning to school, it hit me out of nowhere – unlike anything I had ever experienced and I could not pin-point what triggered these emotions. I was constantly worried and felt anxious about the most minute things. I could not find an appropriate mechanism to set aside or let go of these worries. I had a difficult time handling uncertainty and kept overthinking everything. Hundreds of questions ran through my mind: did I want to go to medical school, what others were thinking about me, what to eat, and even what to do during the day. I struggled to relax and always felt restless.
Another added stressor was figuring out what I wanted to do in life since I was a junior in college and 1.5 years away from graduating. I realized medical school was not for me, but I was also so afraid of figuring out the next step. Being Indian, I felt like it was predetermined for me; I was supposed to be a doctor. Deep down, I knew it was not what I wanted to do and it became an internal struggle.
I knew something was not right when I started to experience the following symptoms: fatigue, trouble sleeping, nervousness, nausea, and irritability. I noticed I felt anxious even when there was no reason for me to be. As a result, I found myself trying to control everything, but it only made things worse. At the time, my go-to technique to manage my anxiety was avoidance. In reality, the more you avoid and fear anxiety attacks, the more likely they are to occur. This is attributed to the continuous state of worrying. I just could not figure out what was wrong with me. At the time, my mom was like, “you’re fine,” but I was not.
The day my life changed was when I walked into the counseling center at DePaul University. I knew nothing about their therapeutic process, but I knew I needed help. The moment I felt anxious, I ran there. I did anything to avoid being alone because that’s when the anxiety was more prevalent. I left my apartment in the morning and did not return until night time when I knew my roommates would be home. I called my mom every time I had a break in between classes, took naps at my friends’ places, and sat in public areas to avoid being alone.
I remember being asked by the counseling center if I wanted a South Asian therapist, to which I replied, “No thanks.”
“Why would I? She would judge me more,” I thought to myself.
However, I agreed to try it out and learned that it was the best decision I ever made. It was easy for me to connect with her. I did not feel judged and was able, for the first time in my life, to open up and be honest about how I felt. I was asked about my feelings and what I wanted – something I had never been asked before! More so, it was a safe spot for me to express myself and learn about myself at the same time. Until then, it felt like I was the person my parents always told me to be, and I was defined by the typical South Asian cultural norms. With this, I fell in love with psychology and wanted to learn more. I decided to change my major to psychology and applied to a master’s program during my senior year. The rest was history! Ah, not even close.
Fast forward nine years, I am almost graduating with my doctorate! This journey was not easy. I lost a lot of family along the way: my mom and grandmother within a month of each other in 2011, in 2012 an aunt and uncle, in 2013 my grandfather, and 2014 my mom’s cousin to suicide in India. It was a lot to deal with, especially while in grad school.
My counseling sessions at DePaul University ended when I graduated. Looking back, I should have resumed therapy after my mom’s death. If I had consistently attended my weekly therapy sessions, I may not have broken down and burnt out in 2013. But in 2014, I finally decided to return to therapy.
As a clinician, it is recommended and encouraged to go to therapy. Two of my biggest motivators for resuming therapy were my anxiety and my mother’s suicide. For many years, I did not speak of my mother’s suicide. I kept that door closed because I was afraid that, if I accepted it, it would lead to saying goodbye, and I was not ready for that.
Therefore, I knew I needed to address issues surrounding suicide and figure how I wanted to tackle these matters. It has impacted my life in so many ways and is a subject I know I cannot avoid. Throughout all of this, an important lesson I learned was to stick with therapy even when things were going well because continuing it would help me, especially when things got rough. Therapy has helped me learn how to use a variety of positive coping skills that I still practice today.
When clients tell me:
“You don’t understand what I’m going through. Your life must be perfect. What worries do you have? You don’t get it.”
I want to tell them:
“Actually, I do understand. I have been in your shoes many times. Our experiences may not be the same, but I can empathize because I was there at one point in my life.”
As a clinician, it is my responsibility to maintain an appropriate level of self-disclosure, as the session is not about me. That is what my own therapy sessions are for.
I love what I do. I have learned so much about myself and I continue to learn new things. One the biggest things I struggled with was believing in myself. I used to state that my stressors were holding me back. I had to learn how to replace my irrational thoughts with more rational statements. I kept doubting my skills. I always wanted to be the perfect student, practicing clinician, and future psychologist. Many don’t view clinicians as people; they are held to a higher standard that generally dismisses their own issues relating to their mental health. In some way, there appears to be a stigma that if we have our own mental health issues, then we cannot be functioning clinicians. I disagree with that completely. The experiences I have gone through have only made me a better clinician. I am more attentive, present, empathic towards my clients.
So please do not forget: We all are people who, in our own way, are dealing with our own issues each day.
For more information on mental health in the South Asian community, check out MannMukti—ending the mental health stigma, one story at a time.
Dimple Patel is a fourth-year doctoral student, in a clinical psychology program. She is an active committee member and team captain for Team Patel for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk. Dimple is passionate about bringing awareness to South Asian mental issues that are often stigmatized and ignored. She believes providing education, support, recourses, and normalizing mental health issues. Therefore, Dimple has taken the initiative to be proactive by sharing her own experiences with mental health, which has encouraged others to do the same.
I’m at the gym. I’m on my grind. I keep telling myself that if I keep doing ‘X, Y, and Z,’ I’ll get results. Which is true — all the fitness gurus say so. The personal trainer I once had said as much. Yet, I forget to take a breather. I’m hoping for instant gratification, when I know the results I want — better energy, endurance, and metabolism — take time. I have to be patient with myself. So why do I feel pressured?
When I sit down to take a breath, I notice this idea of instant gratification weaves a common thread. I put pressure on myself to complete projects, quicker and faster. As a licensed therapist, my clients also talk about how they feel the pressure to do more work in a shorter amount of time, leading to longer work days and burnout. Some new clients ask, “How long does therapy take? Will I feel better after three sessions?” It’s like those junk tabloids with headlines like, “how to lose 10 lbs in 10 days!” In an ever-changing, fast-paced world, there are expectations to do things faster and better. On top of that, a relationship with our body, our career, our mind, and yes, our therapist, takes time too. To wait for results can create an uneasy feeling. We can’t trust the process if we don’t see results right away. We’re focused on the destination rather than the journey.
I believe the same idea is being applied to dating and relationships too. I cringe and roll my eyes when I hear, “Dating is a numbers game.” While it’s true that you might have to meet many people before finding your person, this has caused some of my clients to ‘gamify’ dating: swiping right on every dating profile and trying too hard on the first date in the hopes of landing “the one.” This prevents them from slowing down, truly seeing the person in front of them for who they are, and being vulnerable. My South Asian American clients feel the cultural pressure to settle down quickly and think they need to “catch up” with their friends who are getting married. They’re working very hard in the South Asian dating market, hitting up all the singles they meet, and finding instant chemistry with “the one.”
Here’s how South Asian American singles should stop shaming themselves for being single, this Valentine’s Day season, and try dating with intention. At the same time, this therapist has some thoughts on how we South Asian singles could be dating better. If you’re single this Valentine’s season and wondering, “when am I going to find my person?” you’re going to have to challenge some long-held, societal beliefs about dating, marriage, and relationships, both within and outside of our culture. It means:
Being okay with not going on a ton of dates
Dating is not a game to win! Forget about the “numbers” game. You are also not trying to “trick” anyone into being with you. That shit is not cute. Show up authentically and don’t be afraid to be “caught off guard.” After changing their perspective, some of my clients tell me, “I haven’t found a decent quality person!” Yeah, that’s kind of the whole point. You could go on a ton of mindless dates and have your time wasted, or you can have one or two quality dates and feel fulfilled. Pick one.
Because some South Asian cultures have a much faster timeline with marriage, you might find yourself trying way too hard to impress your first date in the hopes that it will rush the chemistry high. Dating scenarios that start this way burn out once things get serious. Looking for chemistry too soon is like chasing a temporary high. Be patient and take your time getting to know someone because chemistry takes a long time to build.
Paying attention to what your date says and how they say it
We’re all putting our best foot forward on a first date. What do they talk about? How do they talk about other people? Does the conversation feel superficial? Does it feel like a performance? Do they take an interest in you? Are they sharing anything about themselves?
Remembering what you want from a long-term partner
Superficial qualities aren’t an indicator of how good of a partner they’ll be in the future. Having a high income doesn’t mean they’ll contribute to your relationship or the family you both build. However, their financial decision-making can indicate what they prioritize and what they value. And while physical attraction is important, there is no fountain of youth. Will you still want to share your life with this person when they are 60? Or will they annoy the shit out of you?
Taking your parents’ opinion with a grain of salt
Marriage is not just a blending of two families; it’s a ‘business contract’ between you and your spouse. Would you go into business with this person? Would you want to share physical space with them? Share a bed with them? Your parents are not the ones who are going to bump uglies with them, and at some point, your parents will no longer be around. Whose decision do you want to be stuck with?
Remembering no one is perfect
There is no such thing as “Mr/Mrs. Right.” Let go of the idea that there is someone better out there. Dealbreakers are important because they indicate what you have tolerance and patience for, and this can affect intimacy, but don’t write someone off for something workable. Think about the things that give you the “ick” versus things that don’t give you the “ick.” If someone’s qualities are only mildly imperfect but overall don’t give you the “ick,” then it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. If it’s something that can be changed, then maybe it’s worth being flexible. If it’s something that can’t be changed and you can’t get over it, then you’re wasting your time and their time too.
As a South Asian American who is also single, I am pressured by my family to get married quickly too. I know that many people in my situation would either give in to their demands or take matters into their own hands. They might date to appease their parents that they’re “working on it.” But I refuse to give in to the pressure. When I date, I date to enjoy the person in front of me. I see the person for who they are, not some idea I cooked up in my head for the outcome I’m trying to achieve. I put my most authentic self forward. If this doesn’t result in a relationship quickly, I’m okay with that.
If this therapist can be patient with her process, then why can’t you? Like exercise, relationships take time, and you could be doing everything right and still not getting exactly what you want. You won’t be a good fit for everyone, and likewise, not everyone will be a good fit for you. But don’t close yourself off from the world. This Valentine’s season, learn to trust the process. Tune out the noise; the idea of “instant gratification,” Be patient, be honest, and be yourself. And don’t forget to take that breather.
Mental health is quite the subject these days, its troubles affect everyone; it knows no gender, orientation, race — it strikes upon one’s inner journey. But specifically, what have not been put in the same sentence are men, mental health and vulnerability. Too often it is seen that men are not allowed to show their emotions. But the aftermath shows that this repression of emotions bleeds into relationships, substance abuse, domestic violence, and more. It is seen time and time again in films, books, art — it’s all too familiar.
And it is beyond the point of “let’s talk about it.”
Time for action.
Mental health hits close to home for me. As a filmmaker, I will always share my journey with others. – Jacquile Singh Kambo
Men, mental health and vulnerability often aren’t talked about enough. “Embrace” is a short film that seeks to change that. It is a short animated film about Arty, a well-dressed man who has no face, gets ready for his date until he meets a younger version of himself. Arty and this younger version of himself delve into a surreal world where he learns to embrace himself. It’s him versus himself.
The façade self; the feeling of wanting to be somebody — are all things people are dealing with especially in adult life. From the dating world to the social media world — it feels like different masks are worn only to make us feel faceless, feel numb or a nobody. Too many masks could make people feel like a lost identity amidst everything that is going on in this crazy world. Out of touch, and out of life — with others and with themselves. The masks are metaphorical, the story is internally about men and mental health. Arty learns to ’embrace’ himself and to overcome his internal struggles.
Not often is it discussed that men should have a safe environment to be vulnerable, amongst others or even other men. Perhaps this is because men are wired to put on a façade when things go wrong, when things get difficult, or when true emotions are not expressed. If these are not dealt with, it can lead to other relationships, including romantic relationships. Further it becomes a cycle: suppression could lead to aggression, substance abuse or self-sabotaging behaviors and could create a toxic environment. Many of these arise from childhood trauma. Quite often childhood is repressed or ignored, and one may take their troubles along with them into adulthood. Perhaps revisiting the roots of the past can help one become successful in a better tomorrow. “Embrace” is an example of how important it is for men to embrace their past.
“Embrace” was meant to be a live-action film — until animation was considered. Seven years of re-writing, re-working, and digging down deep with the characters for the story to better fit the message at its core. Animation is an underrated avenue for a universal story that became the key pillar for “Embrace”. What many do not know about animation is that you can create a serious subject matter in a light-hearted way that is universally acceptable. Men and mental health are heavy subjects for some, but animation allows the exploration to become innovative, creative and fun. Animation allows the experimentation of entering surreal worlds.
For example, in “Embrace” Arty enters a surreal world where he has to go up against a younger version of himself — to unmask the root cause of his internal struggles and give himself the “big hug” he needs. This heart-throbbing metaphor is captured in animation that a live-action film couldn’t have captured. The freedom of animation helps tackle tough subject matters about self-love, and how we must embrace the soul, the child, the person within.
The Story Behind The Story
There are many inspirations behind “Embrace”. Film noir, the silent film era, surrealism and the works of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch — the film is able to articulate something far more special. This is more than just a mental health piece for educational purposes. This is a classical narrative from beginning to end; a story of important themes and beloved characters that needed to be shared with the world.
It is not often the words mental health and men and vulnerability are discussed under the same umbrella — especially with growing hypermasculinity, and the likes of social media where facades are put up and the vulnerable parts of ourselves aren’t as expressed. It is here where the film encourages men to look within themselves, and allows them to be vulnerable to themselves. Perhaps this is an important step to better themselves on the journey to have successes (whatever success means to them), and to enlighten and lift those around them. The first step should always begin with “you.”
It’s tough to find places where men have access in ways of improving their mental health without feeling like a patient or a victim in the institutionalized realm. It’s tough to find places where men can talk to other men about their struggles among peer groups, educational groups, and more.
The “Let’s Talk” phase and awareness is long overdue; it is indeed time for action. Perhaps creating seminars or group-related events and activities to help create vulnerable environments. Art or art therapy can be a great way of producing something stemming from the inner journey. Or maybe it is time to look at “sick days” as “mental health days” as well. Perhaps more can be done to simply just talk about it. It’s time to give ‘doing’ a chance to start in our close-knit communities.
Maybe if one learns to ’embrace’ themselves, only then, perhaps one can fully understand others and their pain — and have the vision of empathy for others. “Embrace” took seven years to write and a year of animation for a four-and-a-half-minute short film. The film is about self-love, embracing one’s self before one can see empathy for others. It is produced by Raman K Fenty and Jayesh Kodwani and his team, directed and written by Jacquile Singh Kambo, co- written by Sidartha Murjani and stars Jenna Berman. “Embrace” has received numerous international accolades including Best Audience choice at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as acceptances in hometown Vancouver, Canada; Goa, India and Chicago, United States.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please call your regional crisis hotline. These are a few non-crisis mental health resources for men’s mental health.
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.