By Charu Aggarwal
Each July, NAMI honors Bebe Moore Campbell’s legacy by continuing her efforts to reach people who have not had access to the care they need. With a commitment to promote mental health for all, we aim to open dialogues in all communities across the U.S. That effort requires identifying and reaching groups that have often been left out of the mental health conversation. One such group is the South Asian community. Currently, our team is collecting data from South Asian community members on their mental health needs. We hope that this data will help us develop effective outreach efforts and education initiatives.
As a mental health advocate and member of this community, I want to see South Asian communities break the stigma around mental health and support each other in promoting mental well-being.
To best understand and reach any population, we must be able to identify its people. The South Asian diaspora includes individuals with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. It also includes people who first migrated from South Asia to countries like the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world before immigrating to the U.S. They are diverse in religion, culture, language, food, etc. According to the 2020 United States Census, the South Asian population in the US is estimated to be around 5.8 million, and it is growing fast.
Collectivism, the practice of prioritizing the group over the individual, plays a complex role in South Asian communities — particularly as it relates to mental health. The practice acts as both a barrier and support for facing mental health challenges and seeking help. As we strive to promote mental well-being, and to provide and access culturally competent mental health care, it is critical to understand this duality in the South Asian community.
“What will people say or think about our family?”
This is likely a familiar phrase to any South Asian person; families strongly emphasize “honor,” which includes maintaining a respectable public image. Accordingly, the cultural stigma surrounding mental health (and the resulting harsh judgments) often prevents South Asian individuals from disclosing their struggles or seeking mental health support. Unsurprisingly, then, mental health stigma continues to be a significant challenge in South Asian communities. The cycle of silence and shame prevents many from understanding their own health and seeking the help they need.
Another common practice in the South Asian is the comparison of children and their achievements, especially in academics. This comparison among community members, which starts so early in life, can lead to adverse effects on the mental health of our youth. In my work in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed the consequences that this pattern has had on our youth. Recently, I attended the 7th annual South Asian Mental Health conference in Hayward, Ca, where the main topic of discussion among youth was the pressure they feel from their families and the toll it’s taking on their mental well-being. Some young people shared that they feel anxious and depressed because of constant comparison to their high-achieving friends and cousins by the elders in their community.
Emphasis on community and success can also be assets to this vibrant community. With education and awareness, South Asian communities are evolving and thinking critically about their approach to mental health. Although much work still needs to be done in this space, people are, in time, coming forward with their mental health challenges and discussing solutions and treatments.
While certain norms and social pressures may be a barrier to mental wellness, I have witnessed the positive power of community. Growing up in a small town in North India, I had the privilege to be part of a “joint family” (a large family of multigenerational relatives connected via patriarchal relations living together in one household).
“Anxiety” and other terms referring to mental health were not part of our vocabulary at that time, and we didn’t have access to therapists or any kind of mental health treatment from a professional. However, we were part of a close-knit community which helped us cope with our struggles. Women in my home often gathered on the terrace, knitting, talking and counseling each other. This informal support fostered a sense of belonging and helped build resilience that filled the mental health resources gap.
Fast forward 30 years, a group of older women who have migrated from South Asian countries to come and live with their children in their advanced age gather in my neighborhood park daily to provide support and receive counsel in this new country. They talk about their acculturation stresses and the challenges of living in intergenerational households. This kind of informal support can help people heal without judgment or labels.
We can also see the power of community in South Asian immigrant life embedded in religious institutions. South Asians turn to temples, gurudwaras, mosques and churches, depending on their religion, for more than just worship. These places become a second home for many, binding them to their homes and people.
To see real progress in the mental health conversation in South Asian communities, it will be critical to approach destigmatizing mental health issues by bringing religious leaders and community elders to the table. It’s important to consider them as stakeholders, engaging and educating them to bring awareness of mental illness and emotional well-being in their communities across the nation. This will require a careful balance: promoting acceptance and understanding of mental illness while honoring cultural values, religious beliefs acculturation stresses.
NAMI’s latest Community Conversation initiative, Chai & Chat, centers on destigmatizing the conversation around mental health and wellness in South Asian communities. Chai & Chat means informal discussions over tea, a common occurrence in many South Asian cultures. People generally gather over a cup of tea or coffee to talk about their challenges with one another.
This initiative promotes awareness and shares resources that can help the South Asian communities overcome their hesitancy to ask for help with mental health. Chai & Chat aims to unite communities to collectively support each other while leaning on cultural wisdom and understanding, education, awareness and care navigation. The accompanying three-part community conversation series empowers communities to openly share about the stresses of acculturation, family, community pressures, generational trauma, racism and inequities in accessing care. It is an opportunity to hold listening circles for, by and about South Asian Communities and a chance to validate and explore participants’ mental wellness journeys and discover avenues of support.
Mental health outreach in South Asian communities can help reduce stigma. By providing safe and conducive spaces for people to share their experiences, outreach efforts can promote mental well-being and help connect resources to people. It bridges the gaps between communities and encourages people to break barriers and seek help.
At NAMI, we understand that every community has unique challenges and are best suited to collectively figure out solutions to those challenges. We wish to reach out to the South Asian communities and hear their voices and build advocacy plans that are for, by and about them.
If you want to hold Chai & Chat conversations or want to learn more about this initiative, you can reach Charu Aggarwal at firstname.lastname@example.org
Charu Aggarwal (she/ her) is an immigrant from India. She is a passionate community advocate and dedicated social services professional. With over two decades of experience, she has actively supported marginalized communities. Her commitment to social justice and expertise in providing resources and services has enabled her to promote change and improve lives.
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