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Mental Health Advocate Pooja Mehta Speaks on Suicide Awareness and Prevention in South Asian Communities

Pooja Mehta
9 min read

Trigger Warning: mental health and suicide 

Pooja Mehta is an outspoken South Asian mental health advocate and has been telling her story to audiences across the United States for the last seven years. Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Pooja holds a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia and is building a career working in Health Policy in Washington, DC. As a professional with lived experience and a suicide loss survivor, she is eager to further the conversation around the role public health and patient perspective play in mental health system reform and looks forward to changing the way we think and talk about mental health and suicide as a society. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, trying new restaurants, and spending time with her loved ones.

Can you start by introducing yourself? 

My name is Pooja, and I work in healthcare policy. I was diagnosed with anxiety with auditory hallucinations and depression when I was 15. My parents were incredibly supportive, an anomaly for the South Asian community in 2010. They immediately tried to get me the best therapists, psychiatrists, and access to all the care I needed. However, because my parents and I are part of a tight-knit South Asian community in North Carolina, they told me not to tell anyone about this to protect me. Growing up in a community where mental illness was already so heavily stigmatized and hearing my parents reinforcing that this was not something I was supposed to talk about made me self-stigmatize. In therapy and rehab programs for mental health or substance abuse treatment programs, they only work if the patient wants to engage with their care.

For the first three years of my diagnosis, I did not want to be there and did not want to engage with my care because I believed I didn’t need help and thought it was something to be ashamed of. Fast forward to college, I had an experience with a dorm mate who at the time I considered my best friend. I had to tell my story to a lot of people I didn’t know, and I was basically defending my right to stay on campus because of my diagnosis.

It was a pivotal moment in my life, because it made me realize that if I’m not going to tell people about my mental health on my own terms, they’re going to fill in the blanks.

That’s when my journey as a mental health advocate began. Once I started sharing my story openly, people started to reach out to me from my community, especially the South Asian folks. As I was sharing my story on social media, I started to work with a couple of people to help them and their families get past the social and cultural barriers of wanting to seek help related to mental health. However, 30% of the time these individuals were faced with some kind of institutional barrier, like not having insurance, being unable to afford their deductible, or they couldn’t find a provider or get access to transportation to see a provider.

I realized that if I wanted to make an impact in the way that I was hoping at the scale that I wanted to, I had to start thinking about working on a more institutional level. I got my masters in public health with a focus on health policy and am now building my career working in behavioral and mental health policy. Specifically, I’m working to address some of those social determinants and the institutional drivers of what is causing those seeking mental health care in the first place and preventing them from getting the care they need.


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A post shared by Pooja S Mehta, MPH (@poojasmehta_)

Can you please tell us about your relationship with suicide prevention month and your loss story?

I myself have attempted suicide three times, but these attempts were never driven by a desire or ideation. My diagnosis with anxiety involves auditory hallucinations and these would become so bad that I would do anything to make them stop. When I would wake up in the hospital or realize it hadn’t worked, I was so grateful because I didn’t want to die. I lost my brother to suicide on March 27, 2020, eight days into lockdown. That dramatically shifted my relationship with suicide prevention because I have been in the mental health advocacy space. I know the signs and symptoms, understand how to spread awareness, I check in on my friends. My brother and I were very close and would talk at least once a week on the phone.

We would exchange what was going on in our lives and I would point blank ask him about his mental health and how he was feeling. Raj would answer honestly and sometimes he was fine and sometimes he wasn’t. We had developed a relationship with transparency and trust, a relationship I maintain. Yet he’s gone. There were no signs or anything leading up to his death.

My relationship with suicide prevention shifted because prior to Raj’s suicide, I thought suicide prevention was cut and dry: We know the signs, symptoms, we know what causes people to do this, and if we educate people and give them the suicide hotline they’ll be fine. The last text that Raj sent, 20 minutes before I found him, was asking his lab partner about how to divide up the homework. My parents and I have no idea what happened.

So, I think when I talk about suicide prevention there are major components like mental health, checking in with friends, having an open dialogue—but I think we need to be mindful of how we are talking about people who have experienced suicide loss. September is a very difficult month for me because I see so many graphics and narratives about how suicide is preventable. What I hear in that, is the unspoken second part: ‘Why didn’t you prevent it?’ For me, a lot of therapy and talking to other survivors has made me realize that in my brother’s case, there was never an opportunity for me to prevent it. It’s very important to be mindful that not all suicides can be prevented because we still have so many unanswered questions around mental health and suicide, and that becomes more a part of the conversation. 

I want to fully lean into the fact that a lot of suicides are preventable, but not all of them can be prevented given what we know. Yes you should be armed with resources and check on your friends, but God forbid they hurt themselves or kill themselves. It’s not your fault. That needs to be amplified because right now I feel like it’s not.


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A post shared by Pooja S Mehta, MPH (@poojasmehta_)

What do you wish you would’ve known about suicide prevention and awareness prior to your loss? What do you wish the South Asian community knew about suicide prevention and awareness?

I have to credit my parents for how proud I am of them for their transparency and honesty. The night Raj died, I asked them what they would tell family in India and what we would say. While my parents had told me in that same room, 10 years ago, not to tell anybody about my mental health issues, without hesitation they told me they would say suicide. My parents and I have never declined the narrative that Raj died by suicide, and I wish the South Asian community knew that’s not a failure. I have gotten very close multiple times to confronting aunties or uncles when overhearing them talk about how my mom has failed as a mother because one of her kids has a mental illness and the other one is dead. 

The South Asian community needs to understand that suicide is never a failure of the parents, the household, or the individual. It’s important to treat this type of loss with compassion and not as a topic of gossip. I can feel it when someone points me out or when they ask in a specific way how Raj died. I wish people knew inside and outside of the South Asian community to be more sensitive and how to process grief and loss.

Next Tuesday, it will be almost 2 and a half years since Raj died, and I cannot tell you how many iterations I’ve heard people ask, “Oh, you’re not over it yet?” That speaks to a greater unawareness about processing grief and loss in general and specifically around suicide. 

‘No, I’m not fucking over it. He was in my life for 20 years, I have at least 20 years of not being over it. And yes, it will be a full lifetime of grieving his absence. But at the very least I get 20 years before you even have the audacity to bring it ‘being over it.’ I know you’re tired of hearing about it. Think about how tired I am, carrying that pain.’

People are so uncomfortable with feelings in general, that people won’t ask me about Raj. They don’t bring his name up around me, they pretend he never existed even when it’s appropriate to bring up the fact that he did. I will never forget that he’s gone, and there’s nothing anyone can’t say that can ‘remind’ me that Raj isn’t here. I’m very well aware of this, but I wish people had more compassion and could hold space while being sensitive to the nature of suicide.

 What are some of the biggest challenges of being a South Asian mental health advocate and what have been some of your biggest wins?

I think some of the biggest challenges are what I’m against culturally. Culturally in the South Asian diaspora, we tend to compare our problems to others. I call it the ‘Grief Olympics,’ where it’s like ‘well my situation is worse for XYZ reason,’ while someone else might say ‘my situation is even worse for ABC reason.’ You feel like if your situation isn’t ‘bad enough,’ you don’t have a place to say anything and that needs to stop.

In South Asian culture there’s this idea that something negative isn’t so bad, you can just get over it by yourself and you’ll be fine. While in all likelihood you will be fine, you don’t need to not talk about it and get over it by yourself. You can still talk about it and you should be able to acknowledge your experiences and talk about what’s going on with the people and parts of the community in your life that are important to you. I would say these roadblocks around dialogue are my biggest barrier. 

But, you know, what are some of my biggest wins? My parents addressed my brother’s suicide and that it wasn’t even a point of hesitation for them. I used to go to the temple I went to growing up and hide in the bathroom and cry when I would feel a panic attack coming on, and then just lie saying it was period cramps. I shared my family’s loss story at that same temple and with that community.

Eight years later, I’m seeing more men’s mental health advocates who are Indian or South Asian, who are being very vocal in an authentic way is amazing. The fact that I’m seeing parents who are older and younger trying to change the way they raise their children and interact with their children in a more supportive manner while addressing their children’s mental health is a huge change. I take pride in being part of that change in a small way, but I’m just grateful to see it happening—and I know that we have a long way to go but isn’t it nice to take a step back and see how far we have come?


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A post shared by Pooja S Mehta, MPH (@poojasmehta_)

What are some of your next steps related to your professional career and advocacy in the next few years? 

I’m in this great place where my professional career is a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure.’ In terms of my professional career, I’m very focused on policy work at the state and federal levels, trying to figure out how the two interact and where behavioral and public health come into play. On a personal level, my entire journey began with me sharing my story and building grassroots support from that. I want to continue this. I’m on the national board of the National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI). I’m the co-chair of the youth and young adult workgroup. We’re specifically focused on ensuring as an organization that we provide space and programming for youth and young adults but also include them in those planning conversations.

I will continue doing outreach and engaging communities that have been left out of the conversation. NAMI actually has a book that came out last week. My story is in that book and hopefully, that story will be able to reach other people and inspire them to tell their story, building the conversation about what’s happening in their own communities. 

‘The book release made me take stock of what’s happening since I started sharing my story from the very beginning—we’ve come such a long way but there’s still so much further to go and I’m excited to be a part of that.’

What are some actionable steps everyone can take to decrease the stigma around suicide and improve suicide awareness/prevention?

  • Make sure you’re talking about suicide awareness and prevention openly: increase dialogues around the fact that people in South Asian communities do die by suicide, have attempted suicide or know someone who’s connected to either of these. 
  • If it’s something safe for you to do, share your story 
  • When having conversations about mental health and suicide, do it in a sensitive and tactful way, not in a gossipy way. 
  • Remember that all suicides are not preventable but a lot of them are: so make sure you know signs and symptoms, that you have the right numbers to call and that you’re being upfront when you’re worried about someone harming themselves or dying by suicide. 
  • Know that you can also connect the person to other resources or you can warmly hand them off to another person who can better handle the situation because it’s not only your responsibility to take care of the person you’re worried about.

Remind people how valuable people are

If you can’t live for yourself, live for the people who you love and who love you. Every circumstance can change, except for death.


Photo courtesy of Pooja Mehta.