The South Asian community in the United States may be super successful, but mental health issues are our Kryptonite. The stressors of leaving our support systems behind, adapting to a different culture, and redefining success and prosperity are very real, but our approach and response to mental health issues remains one of avoidance.
This fact was brought home to clinical psychologist Parijat Deshpande when she attempted to set up a study on South Asian mental health. Puzzled by the lack of participation, she probed further by conducting informal surveys, and came to the conclusion that there was profound misinformation and ignorance about these issues in the community. “The most common responses were, ‘I don’t think I need help to deal with my problem,’ and ‘What I am feeling is completely normal.’”
“Behind closed doors, we face just about the same problems as any other community; depression, disorders, marital problems,” adds Deshpande, citing recent cases of murder/suicides in middle class Indian American families.
Deshpande has taken it upon herself to educate and bring awareness of mental health issues and has set up MySahana.org (sahana means “patience” in Sanskrit), a website that offers readers insight into the problems they may be facing in a culturally relevant and culturally sensitive manner. Asked to provide an example, Deshpande offers the following – “In our culture, public displays of affection are not considered acceptable, so how can partners show affection to each other?” The website deals with this question, among others.
The website busts several myths, the first being that mental health is not as important as physical health. A section on food is unusual, but sets a warm and welcoming tone to make readers comfortable with the site.Typical mental health queries are answered in the blog section. The content is entirely written by Deshpande, who credits her cultural background and clinical training with helping to establish a good connection with readers.
While the content primarily deals with relationship issues at present, this is only the beginning as far as MySahana is concerned. The non-profit has found several willing volunteers around the SF Bay Area to help with marketing, research, and administration, and the idea is to grow this fledgling site to a destination for South Asian mental health discussions and help. In progress is collaboration with doctors and service providers to tackle a wide variety of subjects.
The response from the community to MySahana has been extraordinary, reflecting, perhaps, the underserved needs of the community. “It has been my experience that the community really responds when we show an understanding of the culture,” says Deshpande. “I was contacted by a couple who went through a very stressful period at the beginning of their marriage. Divorce wasn’t an option, and both partners felt trapped. Couples therapy helped for a while, but before long they had slid back to the old patterns of behavior. A friend suggested they read some of the articles on the website. They did, and recognized some of the hurtful patterns of their relationship. The couple decided to try couples counseling again, and I heard from them that they are in a much better place today.”
“There is a special set of needs that separates the immigrant population. These needs are unique and need to be addressed accordingly,” she adds.
Check out MySahana for help or to volunteer. It’s time to begin talking about mental health issues openly and honestly. We are the model minority when it comes to professional success, let’s be the model minority for mental health as well.