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South Asians and Mental Health

South Asians and Mental Health

This Diwali, guest author Mrinal Gokhale sheds some much-needed light onto a topic that has long been in the shadows: South Asians and Mental Health.

True wellness goes much deeper than bubble baths, candles, and pretty robes. Sometimes it means delving into topics that have long been taboo, especially in the South Asian context.


What my own recent brush with cancer has taught me is that physical wellness is directly tied to your mental wellness, and vice versa. It is impossible to separate the two...so then why do we embrace one and stigmatize the other?

As a part of our wellness series, mental health advocate and author Mrinal Gokhale shares the key takeaways from her book, Saaya Unveiled: South Asian Mental Health Spotlighted 

This page-turner is a collection of eleven true stories navigating mental health in the South Asian Diaspora. Her debut book brings much needed light to the saaya (shadows) of a historically taboo topic. 


 -Sarena 

 

 

mental health quote

It’s no secret that mental health is taboo in South Asian cultures. Collectivism teaches people that what happens in the house stays in the house. That public image is everything. That therapy is not for people who look like us. But it’s also no secret that today’s Millennial and Gen-Z folks are here to change that. So what is the cause to our stigma and how can we move past it in order to heal? 

As a daughter of two Indian immigrants, a lot of value was placed on my achievements. I, along with many other Desi children I knew growing up were taught that average is never enough. That we must follow a linear path in order to achieve what others deem to be “success” in society. While I’m proud of the work ethic I’ve gained from this mindset, I realized that an emphasis on wellness was lacking in my life growing up. It is only recently that I realize how this has impacted my self-esteem and decision making skills as an adult. 

My Background 

I live and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the most segregated city in the United States. There was little Indian community near me growing up.  Furthermore, I picked up on notions of the model minority myth at a very young age, and by instinct, felt that it was toxic at a young age. 

Both of my parents have advanced degrees, and this was the case with several other Indian families I met growing up. In the media as well as real life, many of us see the South Asian doctors, lawyers, and gas station owners. The children who win spelling bees and become valedictorians. I was nurtured to believe that my role was to fill these molds, rather than question them.  

Instead of becoming a STEM professional, I studied marketing communication, and worked as a freelance journalist for several years. I wrote for two minority owned newspapers- in Milwaukee’s Black and Hispanic community. About five years ago, I covered events related to Mental Health Awareness Month. At these events, speakers would bring up stigma in the Black and Brown communities. All that made me wonder: Where are these talks in Asian communities? And then a pandemic miracle happened: I took a free memoir writing course in 2020.

The Twisting Point 

When I completed the memoir writing course, I was taught about the book publishing process. At this point, I sat down and brainstormed topics I’m passionate about. The human mind has always been one. Growing up, I was indirectly nurtured to believe that mental health and being South Asian cannot go hand in hand. But since my teen years when I took a psychology course, I had an instinct that I could learn a lot about myself through therapy. And then I received Cognitive Behavior Therapy at 20 years old and have not looked back since. 

I decided to put my journalist hat on and investigate what South Asian mental health looks like in Western society. I never met any South Asian friends or family members who openly admitted to struggling with mental health until that point, unless they struggled with something such as psychosis. 

But when I Googled “South Asian mental health”, I was shocked at the numerous organizations I found. I reached out to them immediately, asking if they can put out submission calls for anyone willing to talk to me and tell me their story. The responses were plentiful! In less than four months, I completed my book: a compilation of 11 true stories told in third person- long form journalism style. 

These are some of the most valuable lessons I learned from writing the book, from which I feel that other people in our community could also learn from to reduce the stigma and continue to heal.  

 

The model minority myth hurts

In the media as well as real life, many of us see the South Asian doctors, lawyers, and gas station owners, spelling bee winners, and otherwise effortlessly successful individuals. These stereotypes can leave no room for struggle, and create absolutely toxic pressure. It can lead to lack of proper diagnosis in childhood, and cause struggles that carry on into adulthood. For example, many children with mental health conditions or neurodivergence are tested due to “acting out”- things like doing alcohol and drugs, sexual promiscuity, having low grades etc. But what about the brown child that’s burning out from studying all night and day for the high grade, while falling apart internally?

Intersectionality matters

One’s mental health challenges cannot be addressed without their upbringing. Race/ethnicity may not be “everything”, but things like culture and religion play a role in the values they learn and why they think the way they do, as well as their families. This essentially indicates that no person’s healing journey is one-size-fits all. The concept of psychotherapy is Western founded, and tools like the DSM-5 do not always consider one’s culture. Symptoms of a mental health condition may be outlined in a diagnostic manual, however, when someone’s cultural factors are in play, the conditions take on somewhat of a different form. This brings me to my next point.

Brown therapists are needed

When I wrote my anthology, there were patterns I noticed common to all eleven stories. For example, many people I interviewed really valued having a therapist of the same religion or ethnic background. For them, it meant not having to give a crash course to their provider on why their families think how they think, and how that has molded them. Having more South Asian therapists in the field means that perhaps even the elder generation of immigrants will feel comfortable seeking help. It is another step towards de-colonizing mental health as a whole, and making for more inclusive, culturally sensitive help seeking environments.

 

RESOURCES: SAMHIN South Asian Therapists Directory

 Mrinal Gokhale

About Mrinal Gokhale

Mrinal Gokhale is an author and mental health advocate based in the Midwest. Her first book, Saaya Unveiled, shares 11 true stories of South Asian individuals and how they navigate mental health stigma while living in the West. Since the publication of her book, Mrinal has facilitated writing workshops with organizations like Daya Houston, South Asian Mental Health Symposium, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book is available on Amazon.

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