HomeNews & EventsPublicationsMind Matters - Spring 2022Mental Health Stigma in South Asian Communities

Mental Health Stigma in South Asian Communities

Electronic Spring 2022  |  Issue 50

Mental Health Stigma in South Asian Communities
By: Jasleen Singh

Society has witnessed major advancements in science and technology, yet stigma against mental health persists. The recent public focus on mental health has resulted from increased advocacy efforts. Nowadays, we often hear celebrities discuss personal struggles with mental health on various social media platforms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising incidence of suicide and psychiatric diagnoses has hastened the need to address societal stigma against mental health. However, this stigma does not present itself equally, with disparities among generations and across different cultures, including among South Asians.

In comparison to Western cultures, the difference in perspectives in South Asian cultures likely stems from overall differences in cultural practices and belief systems. For example, a paternalistic societal structure and the emphasis on elders as decision-makers in South Asian cultures lead to those experiencing mental illness to feel unheard. Furthermore, stigma is worsened by ingrained inequalities in social status and gender, but the burden of stigma is often less in younger generations.

Despite a decrease in stigma in each subsequent generation, there is still significant progress to be made within the South Asian community. Members of younger generations often discuss mental health issues and seek resources differently than those from older generations, many of whom often refuse to acknowledge possible symptoms of an underlying mental health condition. Differing viewpoints on mental health between generations can be traced to traditional belief systems. For older generations, mental health issues represent weaknesses of character or excuses to complain. A hallmark step in addressing this stigma is education.

Even with increased awareness and access to education for younger generations, a significant level of stigma remains. For those who have been living in the U.S. for several generations, exposure to America’s progression with mental health advocacy may have allowed for more acceptance of addressing mental health, but the ingrained traditional belief systems are often still present in some form. Negative attitudes toward mental health counteract help-seeking behavior for many who are afraid of being judged for their perceived “weaknesses”. The fear of accessing mental health services lies beyond the walls of their own home or even their own family, as parents of children struggling with mental illness or experiencing it themselves worry about gossip spreading in the community.

Unfortunately, kids and teens from South Asian backgrounds seeking access to mental health resources often meet resistance from their parents. The fact that South Asian parents are willing to consider bringing their children into therapy is progress, as this would not have even been a consideration for previous generations. Nevertheless, the concern that South Asian parents voice of “what other people will think” if others were to discover their child was “in therapy” makes this a difficult process that is still not accepted by most. For many, mental health resources are not sought until the school expresses concern or until there is talk of self-harm or suicidality. Entertaining the idea of therapy can be at times difficult for South Asian parents to accept, let alone starting psychiatric medications. Within South Asian cultures, misconceptions continue to persevere - if someone experiences depression, it is their family’s fault that they are not “happy” or that there is the ability to have control over one’s emotional wellbeing.

As many know from experience, the stigma against mental health not only pertains to those receiving mental health treatment but those working in the field of mental health. This is especially true in South Asian cultures. For example, undergraduate South Asian students majoring in psychology, instead of what is considered a “true science”, often are assumed to have picked an “easy” major as a stand-in until they determine their actual career path and interests. The South Asian community stereotypically holds physicians, lawyers, and engineers in high regard. However, if one chooses to become a psychiatrist or psychologist, the masses in the South Asian community fall silent. Even amongst the educated, the idea that “you will go crazy if you deal with crazy people all day”, as if mental illness is communicable and controllable, makes its way into social commentary.

Therefore, the stigma against mental health and negative biases against access to therapy and treatment continue to pervade South Asian culture, with many strides still to be made for advocacy and education. This is not a novel concept, but one that is echoed in many cultures and regions around the world. However, if these important topics are not discussed, then society will remain at a standstill and mental illness will go unresolved. For our current generation, the conversation should finally start to incorporate the need for earlier access to care and normalizing mental health as part of one’s overall wellbeing. It is of upmost importance that current and future clinicians become aware of these factors to better serve their patients.  
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