South Asians Need Proper Representation for Their Mental Health

Riya Bathina, Staff Writer

Mental health is more important than ever, so everyone must get the proper attention and resources to assist them. However, a minority group that is constantly overlooked is South Asians. The South Asian Public Health Association states, “One in five South Asians report experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime.” The lack of acknowledgment of mental health issues in the South Asian diaspora has caused this significant issue to go overlooked. The big question here is, why do so many South Asians with mental health issues go unnoticed and why do so few of them seek help and resources?

South Asians have notoriously been victims of one of the main issues surrounding mental health and the discussion of it: cultural stigma. A large part of South Asian culture is loyalty and upholding family honor. One of the many burdening expectations that South Asian parents often have of their children is academic success. Expecting straight As along with the perfect extracurricular profile from an early age. This sets children up for low self-esteem and high pressure environments. Sophomore Ananya Suthram says, “Being a firstborn immigrant daughter puts pressure on me to achieve perfect grades…. Being loyal to family members and having that academic pressure on you (especially when many of us have immigrant parents) negatively impacts my mental health.” Having unrealistic expectations of children can affect them even in adulthood. When many South Asians have immigrant parents, their expectations can be even more debilitating.

These expectations exist because of the way South Asian immigrants appear. With the perfect resilient, persevering, hardworking, and seemingly perfect immigrant facade, the notion of mental illness is thrown out the window. After all, how can hardworking people have mental illness? Jyothsna Bhat, PsyD, states, “Ironically, the same qualities that have marked South Asians’ successful immigration experience – an outward projection of emotional resilience, a relentless work ethic, a strong drive to assimilate – further complicate how they deal with mental health issues that arise in their families. After all, how can a cultural group celebrated for high intelligence, adaptability, and resilience be seen as mentally weak?” The pressure to assimilate and conform to American culture can heavily impact South Asian immigrants.

Freshman Pratishta Venkitesh says, “I have lived in Seattle for seven years. My parents and I are both immigrants, and I was born in India. I had a thick Indian accent, and it was hard for other people and me to understand me. I never understood many words and phrases because they were English phrases.” When acclimating to an entirely new environment, certain traits that seemed normal are suddenly deemed “weird” like an Indian accent or not understanding American customs. It is not easy to understand where exactly one fits when being a part of two distinct cultures. That sense of not belonging anywhere can make it difficult for South Asians to connect socially and participate in cultural activities iin an attempt to blend in. While immigrants are seen as hardworking and perfect, that same “hustling” ideology is passed onto kids who feel the pressure to achieve perfection whenever faced with hurdles, creating an endless loop passed on to generations. Being stuck in old mentalities that seem to be beneficial, changing can seem unappealing and unnecessary.

Assimilation, being a part of a new country and facing prejudice and racism are significant obstacles. Although it is rare to experience outward racism, many South Asians have been victims of blatant microaggressions and stereotypes. Senior Bilal Ali states, “I have seen people often make fun of South Asian accents and dialects.” Sophomore Advika Balaji adds, “Many people make fun of South Asian culture, songs, dances, and accents.” When South Asians are ridiculed for a large portion of their life, the feeling of being ostracized can heavily impact mental health. Morning Sign Out at UCI writes, “Moreover, Asian Americans also regularly deal with microaggression, including being praised for their English abilities even if they have lived in the United States all their lives. Such microaggressions act as double-edged swords due to the veiled derogatory assumption of an individual. Microaggressions negatively affect the individual’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Over time, these microaggressions create inner conflict and chronic stress, increasing their risk for the onset of traumatic stress symptoms and depression.” When seemingly small comments are thrown at someone daily, the impact can last a lifetime and lead to worsening mental health.

Another major obstacle in addressing mental health is stereotypes, due to the qualities most South Asian immigrants seem to have. Balaji explains, “There is also a strange stereotype that we are all brilliant, and it makes me feel ashamed that I am not amazing at math or science. Senior Shriyan Dey also adds, “Some stereotypes of South Asians are the foods they eat (curries, naans, etc.); being forced to become engineers, programmers or doctors; not showing any emotions and often being shy as well as being smarter than their counterparts.” With these stereotypes setting the unreasonable bar for many South Asians, being questioned when not reaching this unattainable bar can make one go as far as questioning their identity and their sense of belonging in their own culture. Junior Pranav Neti adds, “Because people believe we are smart and need to get all A’s, I feel more pressure to achieve that stereotype.” With internal pressure from family and extended relatives, the additional external pressure to achieve these exacerbated stereotypes can be even more damaging. However, some South Asians may feel the need not to achieve what is expected of them and go out of their way to defy these conventions. Senior Shriyan Dey conveys, “When I first heard of these stereotypes in India and especially America, I was immediately fazed – probably because I was many of these stereotypes in myself. I wanted to be different from others, unlike the millions of stereotypical South Asians worldwide.” These common stereotypes encourage daily microaggressions and continue the narrative of South Asians and their bulletproof mental health. This stigma and prejudice can further amplify the feeling of isolation and not belonging in any community.

Furthermore, Dey says, “As with the stereotypes, when I first got to the U.S, I was apprehensive and self-conscious about my culture. I did not know if my non-south Asian peers knew of my culture’s traditions and practices and if my South Asian friends celebrated these traditions in the U.S. However, I knew that I did not want to let them know. I always tried to make excuses for leaving school early or missing band concerts whenever I had a puja (a religious practice in Hindu culture) or had to go to the temple. This was also shown through the food I ate at lunch. The days my mom packed an Indian lunch, I would always hide my lunchbox from my friends so that I could avoid the raised eyebrows and the comments about the smell.” When hearing and seeing people mocking you and your culture for so long, a common reaction is to conceal that part of yourself in fear that others around you will not accept you. The struggles and obstacles make it even harder for South Asians to receive help. With the many cultural implications of mental health, many South Asians do not consider therapy helpful. This is valid as therapy is generally based on western cultures and fails to acknowledge cultural differences in familial relationships. The fear of receiving therapy can be tied to assimilation. Bhat adds, “Unfortunately, to be “accepted” in America, immigrants must assimilate with their neighbors…. The toxic Eurocentric standards placed on immigrants put pressure on them to lose their culture. So, South Asians choosing to get help for their mental illness (or even believing they have a mental illness) feels too much like assimilation. “When therapy is connected to losing a major part of your culture, it can feel daunting and like a betrayal to your culture to seek help. A solution to this is culturally sound therapy. Culturally sound therapy is an approach to therapy in which therapists show more understanding of their clients culture, race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Nawal Mustafa, Ph.D., states, “South Asians seeking psychological services often feel misunderstood by health-care providers and discouraged from getting further help. Traditional psychotherapy has been founded on normalized versions of western, middle-class families. These approaches to therapy are difficult to translate across languages and cultures without appropriate modification.

This means that many western-trained therapists may find it difficult to comprehend the deeply ingrained cultural nuances of South Asian communities.” Without understanding South Asian culture and familial expectations, assisting a South Asian person with mental health can be nearly impossible. That is why the need for culturally sound therapy is significant. Mustafa continues, “To encourage culturally sensitive therapy, mental health professionals must actively make an effort in understanding their client’s cultural background and belief system through continued education and consultation with colleagues from a similar cultural background.” With more culturally aware therapy, South Asians can be encouraged to seek help, and it will be more effective. Another common way to seek out help is by reaching out to friends. All the students interviewed stated that speaking to other South Asian friends is their primary support system. Although your friends may not have the same experiences as you, they can be guaranteed to understand where you come from and can help support you. South Asian mental health is highly stigmatized and needs to be eradicated to make any real change. Mental health is just as serious as physical health; not addressing a particular minority’s mental health will only worsen it. In order to make sure others understand the implications of mental health for different minorities, education is essential. Teach people about mental illness, so misinformation will not build and lead to negative stereotypes and more stigma.