The Fatal Stigma & Silence Around Mental Health Among Desis Everywhere – Why?

Posted: November 25, 2018

Why don’t we Indians believe in taking help for depression? “The problem comes from a culture of shame and labelling among the South Asian community,” says author Sweta Srivastava Vikram.

It’s 3:30 am in Bangalore, India. I am here from the United States to do some deep holistic wellness work. Between the jet lag and cold, my sleep has been erratic. But it’s also because of the article I read the evening before in Bengaluru Express about Bangalore continuing to be the suicide capital of India. Over 15% increase in the last decade!

Acknowledging that we have a problem

I talk very little here and listen for stories. I am paying acute attention to the ‘world’ around me. A woman tells me that a young girl in her neighborhood ended her life because her haircut had gone bad. I didn’t know the teenager who had committed suicide, but I do have a hard time believing that a young girl with a healthy sense of self would make such a drastic choice. Another woman polishes off in one sitting what I would eat over four meals and complains that she is still hungry. I wonder if she is feeding her emotions or a sense of emptiness rather than hunger.




I ponder over the behaviour of the few folks I have interacted with — they constantly tell me I don’t talk much and that I eat very little. I am baffled by their incessant need to speak in volumes (mind you, unsubstantial content) and eat copious amounts of food without pausing between breaths and morsels. I am not a licensed psychotherapist, but this desire to constantly be surrounded by people and food and stimulus and not be still for even a moment… it doesn’t seem normal to me. If you can’t spend a few moments in your own company, something seems amiss. Yet, as a society, we don’t admit that there is a problem.

Across the oceans in the US too, research shows that desis are least likely to seek out help for mental health issues. I see aching individuals, broken marriages, complicated families, questionable teenage behaviour, yet a majority won’t talk to any professional.

Dear Zindagi

When the Alia Bhatt and Shahrukh Khan starrer Dear Zindagi hit the screens, I heard a lot of criticism about the movie. “This therapy business is all nonsense,” said a South Asian banker to me. “We have family. Private matter should be resolved within. Why talk to strangers and share your problems with them?” I even had a sales professional say to me, “This is all nonsensical American influence to blame your families for your troubles.” Amongst South Asians, passive aggressive drama is often the weapon of choice when we want to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

In my opinion, Dear Zindagi addressed family, relationship, loneliness, struggles of modern Indian families, and mental illness in a culturally sensitive approach. But acknowledging the disease and asking for help seems to be a continued issue with many South Asians. I lost a few classmates and a very dear friend’s sister to suicide when we were teenagers. There were no notes, no conversations. All the families had one thing to say: “He/she seemed normal. And by committing suicide, they ruined the family’s reputation.” Does that come as a surprise to anyone? We, desis, take pride in enduring pain.

In general, the overall silence about mental health in the South Asian community is dangerous.

We need to recognise depression

A childhood friend of mine, Satbir (changed name to respect privacy) jumped off the terrace of his apartment when we were in our early teens; his parent insisted he “slipped” and fell. This guy came from a complicated family and his mother was abusive (I now know that when I understand the difference between tough parenting and abusing someone younger than you who holds no power).

I knew Satbir from my childhood days in North Africa. I remember, it was one of those evenings when the sandstorm was expected to come roaring in. The kids were advised to not play outdoors. I rang the bell of his house a few times, so we could go play indoors. No one answered, so I walked right in — the times when we grew up, the world was a lot safer and had fewer rules around appropriate and inappropriate social behaviour. Satbir and his siblings were finishing up dinner. There were leftovers in his plate; his mother insisted he finish them. When he refused, she picked up the palak paneer and angrily massaged it on his face. He saw me witness this humiliation. Apparently, this wasn’t the only way in which she ran a tight ship; other aunties had walked in on this lady being “unreasonable” with Satbir. But nobody said a word.

I can’t help but think today what would have happened if my deceased friend’s father had actually considered that his wife had issues. That maybe she needed to get help for her unresolved anger? What if they had considered Satbir was miserable? If only they could have admitted he needed help… maybe Satbir would still be alive today.

What if I had understood back then to speak out against what I had unwantedly seen? Frankly, the times when I grew up, in South Asian communities, we talked about diseases neck and below. A large part of the stigma comes from the fact that we just talked about physical education in schools. And we didn’t consider mental wellness an integral part of physical wellness. Mental wellness was not part of discussions at home or social gatherings. If only we were taught beyond “mental,” “retard,” and “crazy”… maybe Satbir would still be alive.

So, why don’t so many desis seek help for their mental health? Yes, denial and lack of awareness are reasons. But does the core problem come from a culture of shame and labelling among the South Asian community? Not to forget; we reward stoicism.

We hide our pain and continue to ‘perform’

One of my best friend’s classmate in college ended up killing herself. We saw this girl Maya (changed name to respect privacy) live with pain in trying to fulfill the dreams her parents had planned for her. She would wake up at 5 am and start to study. No movies, no parties, barely any friends all throughout college years. Even when we invited her to be a typical college kid on a Saturday night, she would stay in her room all alone with her books. Her parents reinforced, “Once you are done with your MBA, you can have fun.” Not parties or fun with friends, but a big, fat salary and MBA from IIM Ahmedabad were the only milestones for gauging success.

Despite all her efforts and dedication, Maya didn’t get accepted at IIM Ahmedabad. On one of their visits, Maya’s father said, “Our neighbour’s daughter heard from Citibank. They have offered her a job after she completed her MBA from IIM Ahmedabad.” They went on to share the girl’s starting salary, perks, company housing, and everything else that would make Maya feel inadequate. “Try again for IIM next year,” her mother quipped before stepping outside the hostel premises and adjusting her hair in a bun. “You need to tough it out.”

Along with a few of my friends, we became a witness to family drama we never consented to see. We sensed Maya was in pain, but none of us were trained to handle or support a person showing signs of battling mental health issues. Honestly, none of us had the guts or sense to tell Maya’s parents that there was more to their daughter than what they were seeing, or she was portraying. Maya had started to look at us funny and talk weird. Every time that we asked Maya if she was alright, she brushed it off. She reiterated that the metrics of comparison to her neighbor’s daughter done by her parents only boosted her morale.

Mental health issues are so stigmatized in desi families that Maya continued to “perform” in front of her family until one day when she couldn’t any longer and jumped off the 14th floor.

We need to go beyond ‘crazy’, ‘mental’ or ‘retard’

What is the South Asian conceptualization of mental illness? A study conducted by The Live Love Laugh Foundation says that “the majority of the people surveyed continue to ostracize those needing support and label them as ‘crazy,’ ‘mental,’ or ‘retard.’” Amongst South Asians, talking about problems or being vulnerable is looked down upon. Also, in the desi culture, we are trained to feign perfect lives for the sake of appearances. “What will people say?” 

Here is my ask: Until when will we treat mental illness as a taboo and keep struggling? How many more families and lives need to be destroyed before we concede that if one had diabetes or heart troubles, we would treat them because they affect our life. Similarly, if a mental health issue is affecting our livelihood and ability to connect with our friends and family, it is just as important to get help! I wish the South Asian community would understand that if we can visit a doctor when we have fever, we can take medication for our mental health related issues.

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Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com), featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a best-selling author of 12 books, five-times Pushcart Prize nominee, coach, holistic wellness entrepreneur, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She writes hopeful stories about multiculturalism and women's issues with a healthy dose of suspense, reflection, wellness, and food. Sweta, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents, is an award-winning writer and graduate of Columbia University. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press 2018) is her debut U.S. novel and won the "Voices of the Year" award, past recipients of which have been Hillary Clinton and Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement. Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of violence and trauma. You can find her in these online spaces: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta

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