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Breaking The Mental Health Stigma

May/05/2024 / by Sweta Vikram

The South Asian community needs to address and acknowledge the ignored illnesses

unhappy South Asian woman sitting on couch looking down
Photo via Shutterstock

In desi culture, we automatically shun conversations about anything above the neck (mind health, that is), but people are okay to pop pills and brag about diabetes, blood pressure, autoimmune conditions, lifestyle-induced diseases and more. 

In the politically incorrect world devoid of any sensitivity that my generation grew up in, if anyone mentioned anything related to their mind, people shunned them. They addressed them as “paagal” (mad), accused them of making up stories, or suggested that they were “possessed.”

Sweeping Poor Mental Health Under The Rug

Stigma. Shame. Neglect. Taboo. Fear. There continues to be a serious lack of awareness and understanding among people about mental health issues. From a minor anxiety attack to low phases to life-harming conditions, these conditions often go unheard. The attitude is: Let’s ignore and pray that it goes away.

A classmate from my college days allegedly slipped off her fourteenth-floor window and died. This was soon after college graduation, it was the 1990s. None of us believed that story about her “accidental fall.” She had always been different and mentally fragile. But her parents neglected her mental health challenges as a teenager. They asked her to stay away from parties and only focus on her studies and competitive exams. I don’t know if the pressure exacerbated her condition. Or if something transpired between college and her MBA program. Her family wasn’t interested in the truth, so we will never know. They continued to dishonor her by covering up her suicide and not working on their own healing. 

Lack of Interest in Mental Health

My work as an Ayurvedic doctor, health speaker, and wellness writer is focused on raising awareness around mental and emotional wellbeing using holistic healing.

I have spoken with countless numbers of men and women in their 40s and 50s whose parents suffered some form of brain degeneration. A large majority didn’t know that Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia, but their parents didn’t necessarily have Alzheimer’s. “Something like that,” is what most say uncomfortably. They whisper about a parent with schizophrenia because shame is associated with it. But if you talk about cholesterol or cancer or dialysis, the same people share information unabashedly, from diet to medications. 

Sure, the world has undergone transformation and certain Indian families have become more open to conversations around mental health. Schools are employing counselors. A study by UnivDatos Market Insights shows that the mental health industry is expected to grow at an annual rate of 15% for the years 2022-2028. But the numbers are concerning. To start with, 60-70 million people in India suffer from common mental disorders. And unfortunately, stigmatization and financial barriers prevent timely treatment. India has also reported the highest number of suicides in the world.

The South Asian Diaspora in the U.S.

When I compare the mental health of Indian Americans to Indians in the motherland, the story around hesitation in seeking help or cultural taboos isn’t very different. Asian Americans had the lowest percentage of seeking mental health services at 8.6%, compared to 18% of the total population in the U.S. who seek the same services.[1] Also, the data shows that Asian Americans have a 17.3% rate of suffering from mental illnesses at some point in their lifetime. Despite all the data, many continue to ignore the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Impact Of Culture On Mental Health

If you were raised by immigrant parents in the U.S., mental health is something most families didn’t talk about openly. The stigma around mental health has seeped into the consciousness of Indian Americans. The cultural values rooted in high expectations and performance pressures within the community create distress but remain unaddressed quite often. Then there is the problem of ridicule: individuals who experience mental challenges are often labeled as weak or Americanized. Therapy is viewed as “bakwaas” (nonsense)and something the feeble pursue. 

The Myths And Misconceptions

I have heard people associate “nazar” (evil eye) or past life karma to frail mental health. Meltdowns, mood swings, changes in demeanor, or anxiousness are often ignored. People battling depression are told to get over it and those dealing with anxiety are frowned upon and told to calm down. Since the South Asian community is more about keeping their stories and struggles at home and bragging about the successes, it leaves very little room for a professional (an unbiased outsider) to offer help.

How Mental Health Impacts Your Physical Health

Your mental health plays a huge role in your general wellbeing. Did you know that poor mental health can lead to harmful behaviors and poor physical health? Depression has been linked to several chronic diseases. In Ayurveda, insomnia is also considered a mental health disorder. It is likely that schizophrenia is linked to a higher risk of heart and respiratory diseases.

Young adults who feel down or depressed are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) and have poor heart health, according to a new study led by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers who analyzed data from more than a half million people between the ages of 18 and 49. The findings add to a growing body of evidence connecting CVD with depression among young and middle-aged adults, and suggest the relationship between the two could begin in early adulthood.[2]

Taking Positive Steps

I like to believe that most parents and families like to do right by their children. If you or your loved one is struggling with mental health, don’t shove it under the rug. Reach out to a therapist and be emotionally supportive. One of the clearest places that the link between mental and physical health is illustrated is in longevity.[3]

“No one would ever tell a cancer patient to ‘just get over it.’ Why people think they can tell those with a mental illness as much is baffling.” ~ Sara Ella

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and ayurvedic doctor, contact the author here.


[1] https://asamnews.com/2021/11/20/stigma-about-mental-health-follows-many-immigrants-from-india/

[2] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/2023/01/new-study-finds-depression-poor-mental-health-linked-to-higher-heart-disease-risks-among-young-adults

[3] https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/how-mental-health-affects-physical-health/

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