Through my work within the South Asian community as a practicing psychiatrist for four decades, I’ve observed that, just like any other community, we suffer from mental health and addiction related struggles. However, we have hidden behind a curtain of the model minority myth. Our community conveniently believed that we do not have problems like “them,” all the other minorities residing in America. This was apparent in countless conversations in social situations with people of all backgrounds, including physicians, lawyers, businessmen, and even in my own professional circles.
Often, after such denials, I have been pulled aside to answer “a quick question,” about concerns of mental health in someone they knew or in themselves. I heard more about domestic violence. I learned that help was not being sought at all or in an untimely manner. The number of South Asian publications, both print and online, in English and other languages, grew steadily. I started seeing more headlines of crimes committed by South Asians — about murder-suicides and suicides. Unfortunately, even with increased discussion of prevalent problems, the model minority myth continues to persist and perpetuate mental health stigma and shame in our community.
This stigma and shame are significant barriers to help-seeking. South Asians have been observed to often wait a long time before seeking treatment for mental illness and addiction. However, longer the wait, the longer and harder the treatment is. As a practicing psychiatrist, hearing and seeing the ignorance and suffering of people has been troubling.
To date, there is no other organization devoted solely to the mental health interests of the South Asians in the United States. South Asian Mental Health Initiative and Network – SAMHIN, a non-profit, 501 (c) (3) organization, was launched in April 2014. Since then, the organization has grown, and more programs have been added.
SAMHIN began with a vision of addressing the mental health needs of the South Asians in New Jersey, with a long-term goal of national expansion. We have participated in over one hundred public outreach events since the launch, including mental health screenings, lectures, seminars, and workshops and television and radio programs. SAMHIN’s team of volunteer clinicians strive to improve people’s understanding of mental illness, address stigma, and dispel myths about mental illness and available treatments through our free mental health screenings. After each screening, individuals are also provided guidance and referrals when needed.
Lack of mental health literacy is another significant barrier to help-seeking. To address this, in addition to outreach events, SAMHIN has made available many free educational resources, in various languages, on our website. We hope that with improved mental health literacy, people will be more willing to accept mental illness and seek help in a timely manner.
Often, our community turns to faith, spirituality, and alternative interventions like Ayurveda, homeopathy, massages, yoga, and meditation to resolve mental illness. While the great, positive, impact of these interventions on mental wellbeing cannot be denied, relying solely on such interventions instead of letting them play a complementary role to evidence-based treatments for mental illness only prolongs the suffering of those individuals, their loved ones, and their everyday occupational functioning.
It has been noted that when people overcome the barriers to seeking help and finally do, they struggle to find culturally competent care, especially in a preferred South Asian language. SAMHIN has developed The South Asian Mental Health Provider Directory, a free online database of South Asian providers. Mental health providers can be searched by specialty, language, zip code, and other parameters. This is also a valuable tool for hospitals and other agencies who are looking to make culturally tailored mental health referrals. If you are a mental health provider and don’t see your name in the directory, please take a few minutes to list your practice.
The South Asian population is no exception to falling victim to struggles with alcohol use. Stigma associated with alcohol use disorder denies that it is a chronic relapsing medical condition. Myths that addiction is a choice an individual makes and that it’s something one should learn to control on their own prevent one from seeking treatment. SAMHIN educates our community about the many available treatment strategies and tools. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have proven to be an effective tool in recovery from drinking problems. However, at least half of the struggling South Asians don’t attend AA meetings because they feel culturally out of place. Recognizing this, in 2015, SAMHIN launched weekly South Asian AA meetings.
We read, and more often hear through the grapevine, about suicides in our community. Stigma and shame associated with suicides often leaves the families who have lost someone to suicide to suffer a life of silence. We recognize that talking about this pain can ease the burden, but fear of being judged keeps them silent. In 2019, SAMHIN launched, Janani Suicide Loss Survivor Support Group for anyone who has lost someone to suicide. These weekly meetings provide a safe place for the survivors to express their grief without concerns of being judged. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, both support groups are being offered virtually.
SAMHIN also offers a free help line. People can call, text or email questions, or request information on mental health struggles. So far, we have received close to 200 queries. Often, families reach out after running out of options when a member in the family refuses treatment for their struggles. Our team helps the families navigate the mental health system by connecting them with local resources. Additionally, new resources are steadily added to the list available to the public on the SAMHIN website.
So, how do we survive financially? SAMHIN runs on donations and sponsorships from individuals and corporations. We are grateful for the support we receive to help accomplish our mission. If you like what we do and want to support us for the cause, donate online or send a check to SAMHIN. I am grateful for the valuable services provided by all our volunteers to help keep the administrative costs low.
Launching and overseeing the growth of SAMHIN has been an incredibly fulfilling journey for me. My hope is that, with the help from others on the SAMHIN Team, the organization will continue to grow and help the South Asian community.
by Vasudev N. Makhija, MD, DLFAPA, President of SAMHIN