As a South Asian female brought up in the United States, no one bothered to talk to me about relationships. No one bothered to talk to me about how to be safe and happy in a relationship or how to be safe and happy when having sex. But, I think I know why.
In our cultures, sex is bad. In our cultures, we don’t engage in relationships unless we are much older and our parents (mostly moms) give us the thumbs-up with the line, “Chal beta, ek accha sa ladhka dhoondo” (in Hindi: okay child, now find a nice boy). We are a very “conservative” culture, right? Sex is a very taboo, inside, behind-closed-doors topic, right? Wrong. Why? Because no one even talked to me about it behind closed doors. I will give my mother credit for trying, but the topic was too awkward to the point where all she could say is, “Don’t do it; it’s bad.” Confidently, I can also vouch for the fact that many of my brown sisters had the same experience.
But why is the subject so taboo anyway? Indians wrote the Kamasutra. Bollywood, Tollywood, and Kollywood celebrate item numbers. Film actors Emraan Hashmi and Sunny Leone garner the most whistles and late night attendance. Films directed by Mahesh Bhatt are given lots of praise for pioneering a new brand of cinema. Bollywood makes young girls dream about the perfect relationship and how relationships are always beautiful.
Ladies, mommies, aunties – I am not here to yell at you and make you feel bad because I know that you, yourselves, may not have a proper understanding of the subject either. When you don’t know, how can you properly teach your daughter? That is why your go-to’s are usually: “Don’t do it; it’s bad” or “It is only fine after marriage.” Let me tell you why this rhetoric is dangerous.
First, let’s start off with your logical fallacy: “Sex is only fine after marriage.” When you say this, you inherently imply that sex is bad before marriage. So if sex equals “bad,” how can sex eventually equal or become “good?” Only through marriage? Fair enough, pre-marital sex is “not proper.” The problem with this is that sex is made to seem like a dirty thing for most of your daughter’s life, and when she gets married, she will feel the exact same: dirty.
A piece of paper won’t flip a mental switch. Sex won’t feel good and she will go along with it as a “wifely duty.” There are so many things wrong with that. Without realizing it, she may endure sexual assault because she does not know the difference between keen consent and coercive sex – unknowingly leading to depression and an unhappy marriage.
Ladies, mommies, aunties, is this enough of a reason to educate me?
Ladies, mommies, aunties – I am about to tell you something very shocking. Teenagers will have sex. Indian teenagers will have sex. There is nothing much you can do about that. The more you tell them that it’s bad, the more likely it is to happen. What you can do is change the circumstance surrounding its happening. You can teach your daughter about safe sex. Give her access to birth control. Be open to having conversations with her about sex, so that when she is feeling uncertain, you are the first person she goes to. Help her open up to you, especially when she feels like she might be in a dangerous situation or, God forbid, already has been.
It is not easy to talk about these things, but every daughter wants to be able to talk to her mother about such topics. By being open, you are not encouraging her to have sex, but instead are removing the curiosity and guiding her in a positive way. Scaring her is not going to discourage her. More likely, this rhetoric will lead her into dangerous situations that she won’t be able to talk about. It will lead her to feel shame and resentment towards herself.
No one will care as much as her mom. If it is too uncomfortable of a conversation to have with your daughter, point her into the right direction to seek accurate information. Below are a few helpful websites and YouTube channels:
Consider these statistics when questioning why it’s important to educate our girls: The Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence conducted a study in 2000 with 160 South Asian women and asked them various questions pertaining to relationships and sexual encounters. 40.8% of the participants reported that a male partner had physically and/or sexually abused them in their lifetime. What was even more daunting is that 36.9% reported having been victimized in this fashion within the past year. Out of the women who had been sexually or physically abused, 19.5% reported showing signs of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and/or suicidal thoughts within the last 30 days.The most frightening aspect is that these numbers have not changed very much. If anything, they have gone up. The National Institute of Justice investigated this issues again in 2011, and out of a random sample of 143 Indian and Pakistani women, 64% had reported sexual abuse from their respective other.
Ladies, mommies, aunties, is this enough of a reason to educate me?
All I am really trying to say is: please understand that it is your responsibility to teach your child to be autonomous when it comes to sex and relationships. Teach her that her body is her own. Teach her that not you, her father, nor her significant other makes sexual decisions for her. With the common South Asian rhetoric used to educate about sex, your daughter is told that she doesn’t control her own body. If not her own body, what does she control? I beg you, please educate your daughter on how to make her own sexual decisions. If you don’t, someone else will, and that never goes well.
Ladies, mommies, aunties, is this enough of a reason to educate me?
 “OJP Fact Sheet: Domestic Violence.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. Fact Sheet: Domestic Violence in South Asian Communities. July 2012. Web.
 Blazevski, Dabby C., and Yoshihama M. “Logo.” Statistics: Violence against API Women | Research & Statistics | Resources Publications Research Statistics | Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
Harshita Ganesh is a South Indian-Bollywood enthusiast; a princess who is here to fight patriarchy; a dancer; a pianist; and an explorer. Her main love is writing scripts on topics regarding empowerment and hopes to one day have one of her films made. She is currently an undergraduate engineering student in Europe and hopes to get a law degree soon after.
The Covid-19 pandemic and feelings of uncertainty, which have been prevalent across the globe, had lasting effects on all of us. One of the more positive impacts has been on the mental health industry, particularly the normalization of mental health challenges and a more open dialogue about mental health. There have been discussions in the workplace, in schools, and even on Hinge profiles, but what about in South Asian communities? Though some progress has been made, mental health stigma is still widely prevalent among South Asians, impacting individuals’ desire and comfort in seeking help. As a result, the South Asian community reports lower rates of seeking mental health services. And of the individuals who do seek out mental health services, many face challenges in finding therapists who are equipped with a multiculturally competent skill set to understand the South Asian client’s concerns. This is why it’s important to recognize and become aware of the intersections of mental health and South Asian communities.
Although there is an overlap between the mental health concerns of South Asians and other communities of color, there are also unique intersections between culture and mental healththat I want to bring to the forefront of this conversation. As a South Asian psychologist, who is both a researcher and clinician, I have firsthand experience examining how our individual cultural context impacts our emotional experience. If we can understand, or at least consider, how the cultural context impacts us, we can better understand ourselves and feel seen by others too. We, South Asians, are a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, language, food, religion, traditions, and so much more. So, while learning about the “state of mental health in South Asian communities” is much more complex and nuanced than what I can cover in just one editorial, I believe starting the conversation about issues that don’t get talked about nearly enough is an important first step towards destigmatization.
What is the state of mental health in the South Asian community?
Here are some numbers to set the stage, based on research done on South Asian communities. One in 5 South Asians currently reports experiencing mood or anxiety disorders. South Asian youth and young women, in particular, are at greater risk of having suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared to other groups. Only 24 percent of South Asians diagnosed with a substance abuse problem sought treatment. And South Asian Americans express greater stigma toward mental illness than other ethnic groups. How often are facts like these discussed? Not often. Since South Asians are often mixed in with the larger Asian American population, these issues and their nuances are rarely discussed within mental health communities. This underrepresentation can make the reality of our emotional experiences easily misunderstood and make our needs feel invisible. Relatedly, concepts like “model minority” lead outsiders to often assume that South Asians are well-adjusted. And even within the South Asian community, stigma and beliefs about the causes of mental health issues (e.g., mental illness indicates problems within the family, a sign of weakness, etc.) lead all these facts to continue being ignored.
How do mental health concerns intersect with South Asian culture?
While mental health concerns are prevalent among my clients from all backgrounds, these common concerns intersect with culture to create an individualized version of the issue that requires specialized attention and care.
Within the South Asian community, there are cultural differences in alcohol and drug use and the discussion of these topics. Alcohol is prohibited in Muslim and Jain faiths which makes open dialogue about substance abuse and its prevalence even more of a challenge within these communities. Admitting you have a problem can be hard and adding the cultural taboo can make it more difficult.
There is a tendency in the South Asian community to highlight that only linear careers in financially stable or ‘reputable’ fields — such as medicine, engineering or finance — will lead to success. This expectation not only impacts career decisions but also mental health, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Even if we think we are not influenced by outside factors in our career choices, how do we know that subconscious messaging is not impacting our decisions? I personally was pre-med for as long as I can remember and was apprehensive if my parents were going to accept my desire to go into psychology and mental health instead of medicine.
Caring for loved ones, who are aging or ill, is emotionally challenging for most people. What makes this stress unique for the South Asian community? South Asian communities are collectivistic and therefore rely strongly on interdependence well into adulthood. Therefore, caretaking and providing for elders is an integrated part of our lifestyles. Pursuing personal goals can sometimes be seen as selfish and therefore South Asians feel the need to sacrifice personal desires. This can make setting boundaries in relationships or making decisions focused on one’s own needs especially difficult and not as straightforward as may be suggested by Western psychotherapy interventions.
Romantic relationships can be especially stressful for South Asians because of the need to navigate between one’s own desires and family expectations. Older generations pass down messages that people should focus on their careers instead of dating, which can lead to not dating or secret dating and youth navigating romantic relationships on their own. Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts to the need to get married by a certain age, which seems especially difficult when you have not been allowed to date or when it is not something you want in your 20s. South Asians may also experience family expectations about their partner being from the same ethnic/religious background, working in a specific industry, or having a specific family background. These family or cultural expectations and issues also impact the LGBTQI+ South Asian community and South Asians often feel the need to sacrifice personal desires for the expectations that their families or deep-rooted social norms have set for them.
Being able to communicate the complexity of our emotional experience is especially challenging when being emotional is considered a weakness. This cultural sentiment further perpetuates emotional suppression and increases the barrier to seeking support. Also, South Asian languages have limited vocabulary to describe mental health and the emotions involved. It is not only challenging to identify our emotions, but it is difficult to communicate the complexity due to the lack of words in South Asian languages to describe those emotions. Let’s take the word, “gussa,” which means “angry” in Hindi. The only way to explain the level of anger you are feeling is to describe the full situation. While in English, you can use variations of the word “anger,” such as “annoyed” or “furious” to describe the emotions with more nuance.
Culture is integrated in small and big ways into how South Asians experience their body. It can be common for family members, especially older women or “aunties,” to comment on one’s body weight in direct ways like telling someone they have gotten fat or thin. There are also unspoken rules about food that impact one’s relationship with food and potentially overeating, including “it is rude to not finish all the food on your plate,” or if you don’t go up for seconds that means you didn’t like the food. Research has also found South Asian women in particular often struggle with the pressure to conform to Western beauty norms (e.g. removing dark hair, and lightening skin color).
We all are constantly evolving and understanding who we are and what we value. What makes this unique for South Asians? Culture intersects with other parts of our identity, including generational status (1st, 2nd, or 3+ generation), religious beliefs, gender identity, and age which impact the way we make sense of who we are. Being born in the US makes one American, but are you still American if you primarily connect with your South Asian ethnic identity or maybe your religious identity? Or what messages does culture pass down about what it means to be female? Are you supposed to do all the cooking and cleaning? Do you have to have children? Culture intersects with identity development in complex ways.
How can you get support with what you may be feeling and experiencing?
I believe the first step in breaking the barriers, is shifting your mindset about seeking mental health support from something that means you have a “character flaw” to something that you do for your overall well-being. Taking care of your emotions and processing your emotional experiences is as important as your weekly workouts, annual physicals, or that apple a day. One way to start this process on your own is to spend 10 minutes a day engaging in mental hygiene practices (meditation, gratitude journal, positive experience journaling, writing a thought log, prayer, or deliberate time in nature).
If any of the concerns I discussed earlier resonated with you, consider signing up for Anise Health by filling out this short intake form; you’ll get matched to a culturally-responsive clinician within two business days. I’ve also listed a few additional resources below that aim to address mental health needs in South Asian communities.
I hope we can continue to bring the ways our South Asian culture impacts our well-being into the forefront of the conversation around mental health. By highlighting the South Asian community’s experiences,we can feel more seen and create a more accepting environment that allows us to get the help that we all deserve.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
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.
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.