The Stigma of Mental Illness in the South Asian Community

It’s no secret there is a lot of stigma associated with mental illness and mental health in the Indian (and South Asian overall) community. I am usually all sunshine and rainbows, but it takes a lot of work for me to get there. Today’s post gives you an insight into some of that struggle.

Two years ago I woke up feeling different. I knew what it was, I had felt it sneaking up on me for months. As a healthcare professional, I had a hunch as to why I was having difficulty getting out of bed, lost all interests in my hobbies and woke up daily with raging thoughts and anxiety. I knew I needed help and fast. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Two years ago, I wanted my life to end, had no motivation, no ambitions and lost the love of my life to this illness.

I immediately went to see a doctor and came home with a bottle of antidepressants. I was alone and had a job and bills to take care of. I couldn’t afford to halt my life entirely, so I took the medication as a crutch to get me back on my feet. A friend came over to ask me about my appointment. As I sulked into a chair I said, “They gave me antidepressants.” “Don’t get depressed about being on antidepressants,” she joked.

And she asked: “Would you feel bad for taking medication if you had diabetes?” “No,” I said. “Then why do you feel bad for taking medication for anxiety and depression?” she replied. This analogy has stuck with me ever since. If some one had asked me a few years ago if I would ever consider taking antidepressants, I would have said “hell no.” I used to judge the individuals in my classes who performed poorly due to mental health issues. “Why can’t they just suck it up, I’ve been through some hard shit and I am fine,” I used to say to myself.

Me and Dr. Andrew Solomon, author of The Noon Day Demon

That was until it happened to me. Two years ago, my body gave up on me and it brought me to my knees. It wasn’t something a vitamin, deep breathing, Yoga, exercise or a pill of St. John’s Wart could fix. Two years ago, I had two friends who literally saved my life, a bottle of antidepressants, and a ton of faith to get me through.

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality and your life.

As I was going through hell, all I needed and wanted was my mother. I was more terrified of telling my mother I was on antidepressants than I was of overcoming challenges of the illness. The shame and stigma associated with mental illness in the South Asian community is worse than the shame the disease makes you feel. I’ve heard my family and other members of the Indian community criticize Western medicine when it comes to mental health for years. It’s interesting to see that treatments for diabetes, heart disease and cancer don’t hold the same stigma. You can see it, right? But what does depression look like? I wish I could post a few pictures of myself from this time in my life; no one would ever know. I have deleted most of my pictures from that incredibly dark and trying time in my life, but below is a picture of myself and mental health activist and best-selling author, Andrew Solomon. I may look tired, but not depressed. But then again, what does depression look like?

I have yet to tell my mother, or anyone in my family about what I go through. My mother knew I was sad, but that was it. And I prefer it that way. Because sometimes, in the Indian community, it is so hard to get others to understand that attempting to get them to understand may hurt you more than it would help. I, along with many others, desperately wish this wasn’t the case.

Common phrases people throw at me include: “Just snap out of it.” “It’s all in your head, just think happy thoughts.” “You’re so young and successful, what could you possibly have to be depressed about?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that someone struggling from depression or any mental health issue cannot “Just snap out of.” And yes, “it is all in our head.” And the fact that we are young and successful only makes us feel WORSE that this disease is convincing us not be happy.

Depression is physical; it is chemical. It is “all in your head.” Because the chemical imbalance in your brain causes your body to ache, your sleep cycle to be ruined, and allows your thoughts to run wild and terrify you. You know it’s going to be okay, you know it’s anxiety trying to ruin your day, but it still affects you. It’s tiring, exhausting and so hard to remain hopeful. Oh, how a person suffering from depression wishes they could “just snap out of it.” That is why it is called an illness, condition, or disease.

You can’t just tell your pancreas to produce more insulin and you cannot just tell yourself to not feel depression. There is a huge difference between clinical depression and feeling sad.

And unfortunately, this gap is something the South Asian community is still ignorant about. This ignorance causes so many South Asians to suffer in silence. This ignorance makes it extremely difficult to get help. This ignorance is costing our community lives.

So I say proudly to my South Asian brothers and sisters: You are not weak because you are on medication. You have not failed your family, yourself or your community by reaching out for help. You are not alone in your struggle. You can and will overcome this. Today, two years after my initial breakdown from depression, anxiety and a heart-wrenching breakup, I live and work in an amazing city, have started this blog and am a Yoga teacher. To say I am living my dreams would be an understatement. I am rebuilding my dreams, one step at a time. I survived depression, a break up and successfully battle anxiety every day to live a life I am proud of.

And yes, I am still on a small dose of antidepressants daily. And no, I am not ashamed of it. And no, it doesn’t discredit my strength in any way.

Please reach out for help. And don’t feel bad about it. Your future self will thank you. I promise.

A few resources:

Andrew Solomon is a leading mental health activist and best-selling author, his book, The Noonday Demon, really helped me understand and fight through depression.

Famous Bollywood actress, Deepika Padukone is a depression survivor and mental health activist for the Indian community. Check out her interview here.

The following Ted Talks are very informative and provided me with a lot of hope during some dark times.

Therese Borchard, is a leading mental health activist in the U.S. Her blog is an amazing resource for all things mental health.

Here is an article by Dr. Jyothsana S. Bhat on the taboo of mental illnesses in the South Asian American Community.

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