Mental health care, as a concept, was not something that I grew up familiar with. My family believes strongly in the generationally taught idea that any sort of challenge–whether it be about money, relationships, or health–should be handled in secret. As an individual, my identity has been shaped strongly by Indian familial and cultural values. It has also, however, been shaped by how I have chosen to deter from some of these values–especially in terms of what mental health, stigma, and disclosure have come to mean to me.
Much of my life has been framed by periods of ill physical health. I was born with Tethered Cord Syndrome and have had six surgeries to correct the various issues that have arisen as a result. My experiences with these surgeries showed me how ingrained this culture of secrecy was in my family. My parents would spend hours crafting elaborate stories as to why we were in LA, just to hide my doctor appointments. My last surgery was this past October during my Sophomore year of college. My parents were very concerned with what our extended family would think about me needing to take the first semester of the year off. Growing up and seeing my parents, however well meaning I know they are, being so uncomfortable with family members knowing that they have a child with a manageable and treatable physical illness caused me to become very cognizant of the prevalence of health stigma in South Asian culture.
Though my personal experience with cultural stigma has centered around physical health, it is what propelled me to start noticing mental health stigma in Indian culture. I heard about a distant cousin who was considered “beyond help” because she had become “too sad” after her engagement was broken off by her fiancé. Her family thought that the best way to help her would be to seclude her further. They did not want others to see her while she was sad–an emotional state they deemed unfit for the public eye. I was later devastated to hear that she passed away, probably due to suicide.
This was just one of many stories I have heard. One of my close relative also told me about her experience leaving India for the first time, on her own, at 22-years-old. Her time at a U.S. college for her Master’s was punctured by immense homesickness and an eventual diagnosis of depression from the school psychologist. She withdrew from the program and went back to India. She was clearly uncomfortable when telling me this story and though she may have been describing the shame she felt in the past, the feelings seemed evident and felt present. She told me that her mother would not allow her to return to the U.S. unless she got married. Her mother thought that a husband could supposedly “cure” her depression. This relative had an arranged marriage, and her mother would be extremely secretive and clearly ashamed when explaining to prospective grooms and groom’s families why her daughter had not completed her degree in the U.S. My relative said she started applying to jobs in India when she returned home. One of her friends who worked for the company that she interviewed at told her that the company was uncomfortable with the idea of hiring her because she had mentioned the word “depression” during her interview.
Taking time away from school, starting a family, and then returning to complete her Master’s was something that worked for my relative, who was able to get to an emotionally healthy state. However many aren’t as fortunate.
It’s because of their experiences, and the experiences of so many others, that I want to fight mental health stigma. Many are not given the chance to even recognize mental health care as a possibility, let alone have any agency regarding their mental health. I think that a culture of openness and disclosure, rather than one of secrecy and shame needs to be developed. I hope to be a part of creating this culture by working at organizations such as Young Minds, where advocacy and sharing stories are important parts of their mission.
NOTE: The views and opinions shared by individuals on our blog do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Young Minds Advocacy.