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South Asians: Our Silence About Mental Health is Killing Us
by Sanjana Lakshmi
Content warning: Discussions of rape, suicide
My Facebook newsfeed was filled recently with status messages about the heartbreaking story of Samiha Khan, a young South Asian Muslim woman from Queens, New York, who committed suicide due to depression, anxiety and the pain of a burden she could no longer handle. Samiha was a victim of sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her own father and, according to a friend, this was not her first suicide attempt.
This is not an isolated incident. I could give you more names of South Asian youth and young adults who have committed suicides in the past few months and years; I could tell you more stories about their personal mental health issues. I could tell you more stories about sexual abuse and violence against South Asian women.
There is something to be said about the fact that the rate of suicide among young South Asian American women is higher than that of the general U.S. population. There is something to be said about the fact that South Asian Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms than the rest of the U.S. population.
There is something to be said about the fact that South Asian Americans are the least likely to use mental health services.
I have a lot of South Asian friends, and there are only a few who do not deal with some mental health issue. This could be a because of the competitive university that we attend; it could be a result of personal struggles; it could be a combination of the two and more. I do not know the exact reason that my friends deal with mental health issues, and in some ways, I am unable to fully pinpoint why I deal with mental health issues, but our experiences are not coincidences.
Most of my white friends are open about the fact that they go to therapy or take psychiatric medication. These things aren’t so openly discussed in the South Asian community. What IS openly discussed, at least among the South Asians I grew up around, is whose daughter is a doctor, and whose son is a lawyer and whose child got this award to do that. My experience cannot be universalized to all South Asians, but from talking to my brown friends, I have sensed similar frustrations with the way our community views success.
To admit that we are dealing with mental health issues — to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression or anxiety is viewed as embarrassing. Going to therapy is not a sign of success. Taking medication for mental health is not an accomplishment. There is so much shame and stigma when it comes to mental health in the South Asian community, so young people do not tell their parents about their struggles. They rarely even tell their friends.
A 2015 study by two doctors at the University of Missouri found that South Asian Americans are more reluctant than others to report pain and seek medication. Dr. Nidhi Khosla says that “in South Asian culture, it is common for patients not to report their pain to avoid burdening others or being seen as weak.” Being unsuccessful, being unaccomplished, admitting to struggling — these tend to be viewed as weakness by many in South Asian communities.
For Samiha, she was not only isolated because of her mental health, but because of the sexual abuse she suffered. To some extent, there is silence and stigma around abuse in all communities, and this remains true for South Asians. Samiha was ashamed for being a victim of this abuse. She was neglected for it.
South Asians need to speak up about these issues. We can no longer stay silent about the abuse that so many South Asians face. We can no longer stay silent about the mental health issues that so many South Asians are struggling with. We can no longer shame people for feeling things. And we can no longer make people feel bad for not being “as successful as” or “as accomplished as” somebody else.
As Samiha said in an Instagram post a month before she died, it’s okay to be sad, okay to cry and okay to feel things intensely. South Asians need to do better about supporting their own community members. South Asians need to do better in supporting their own families and friends.
Pretending that nothing is wrong does not make the problem go away. It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to love and support our communities.