Until recently, I think it’s safe to say conversations surrounding mental health and wellness have been few and far between in a vast majority of Indian and Indian-American households. For this reason, the immediate picture many generations of Indians have long held in mind when imagining someone “mentally unwell” might include alarmist and harmful fears of patients in psychiatric wards. As a college student and first-generation Indian American, I can say with confidence there is a disconnect between this interpretation and the one many members of my generation have in mind when we try to discuss mental health and wellness.
A recent phenomenon in popular and academic psychology, the notion of “mental wellness” is simply the notion that mental health is not something to be had in full or lacked completely. “Mental wellness” is something to be kept up daily by all, methodically through habits and practices of “self-care,” and out of priority rather than necessity. In other words, we don’t need a diagnosis of mental illness to have less than optimal mental wellness in need of care.
This term is often used interchangeably with “mental health,” which in the Indian community tends to be deemed a taboo topic. Accordingly, and likely through instinct rather than malintent, parents and other relatives often react to concerns brought up by my generation regarding mental wellness (e.g. desire for a therapist, feeling overworked/overstressed, etc.) with confusion, misinterpretation, or even disbelief. Of course, this is no one’s fault. It takes awareness and exposure to new information to spark understanding. It is not until we are able to interact with and explore mental wellness firsthand that we can really grasp what it is.
I asked a handful of my fellow Indian-American classmates to discuss with me their experiences related to mental health and wellness. Specifically, I wanted to understand the ways members of my generation felt these topics were handled by their family members, and how perceptions have changed or stayed the same over time. I wanted to find out how other young people describe mental health and wellness in their own words, and what they do to keep themselves mentally well.
To protect student confidentiality, names have been replaced by pseudonyms. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Natasha Vasan: Can you talk a bit about how, if at all, your Indian heritage played a role in shaping your upbringing?
Aruna: As one of the only Indian families in Eagan, Minneapolis (my hometown) and one of the only Indian kids in my elementary school class, I always felt like I was treated differently for being Indian. Things like having Indian food for lunch always embarrassed me because I felt like no one really understood a lot of things about me.
Riya: I wasn’t super involved in a lot of Indian cultural things at home and throughout high school, but I did have a solid group of family friends that were Indian that I grew up with. I think having parents that were immigrants from India has shaped me in a way that might be different because they have a lot more of a mentality that you need to work hard to succeed because they had to start from nothing coming to America in the ‘90s. It’s definitely something I am grateful for, because I feel like it’s taught me to be more conscious and grateful for money that I earn or the privileges I have.
Aanya: We moved around a lot, so the one consistent thing was always finding an Indian community and keeping the Indian traditions. We’re Gujarati so we love Navratri and doing Garba every year.
Shawn: Fortunately, there were a lot of Indian people in the suburbs I grew up in. There are a lot of other Indian families there, so there was a lot of community there to help my parents transition from living in India to living in America, and obviously, to help me have people I could relate to and have friends I could talk about things with.
NV: Were topics like mental health, mental wellness, or mental illness ever really talked about in your household and among your Indian family? If/when topics like these ever came up, how was it talked about?
Aanya: It really wasn’t talked about especially when we [me and my sister] were younger. It just wasn’t talked about by my parents — physical health sure was but mental health wasn’t. I guess I learned about it through school and through my education, but it became more of a thing we would have to bring up with them in order for them to listen.For the longest time they were against therapy, and not really believing mental health was a thing. But for some reason, over the years they’ve become better about it, maybe through just being here. They still have some limitations, but at least now they’re on board with the idea that mental health is something to be kept up as well as physical health.
I think part of the reason for not acknowledging mental health as a medical thing is because spirituality is such a large part of our culture. Instead of therapy, they’d always say you should meditate or go take a walk or read a book, that’ll fix it. They felt like, “You don’t need to go to a doctor for it, that’s just an exaggeration.”
Shawn: I would say it was not really a topic that was discussed. It was more that education was a top priority… my dad was the only one of his seven siblings that was able to come to America, and that was because he took education seriously. So education was really prioritized and the standard for me and my brother was basically “do whatever it takes to stay at that level,”so mental health was never really emphasized. In India, they don’t really put any emphasis on it so it’s not really my parents fault, it’s just how they were raised. My parents never really had that in mind. That’s not how they grew up, so that didn’t translate to how they raised us.
Riya: It wasn’t really talked about when I was growing up. I think the first time I had a real conversation with my parents about mental health was when I came home over a college break and told them about how one of my friends from home had been diagnosed with depression, and they were kind of shocked to hear it and weren’t sure how to approach the topic.I think it was just something new for them that they weren’t used to talking about… I think my parents have opened up more to talking about mental health and accepting that its healthy to be more open on the subject rather than keeping it hidden or keeping a stigma around it.
Aruna: Honestly, mental health and all was not really talked about when I was growing up.
Before, especially back when my parents lived in India, they never talked about mental health. When they were growing up, the idea wasn’t really a thing and conversations about mental health were reserved for patients of “psychiatric wards.” Now, I think they know that mental illness is real, and that mental illness is different than mental wellness. They really did a full 180.
NV: Would you feel comfortable sharing with the Indian Scene your journey with mental health and wellness? What obstacles or struggles have you faced and what support systems have helped you through?
Aanya: Growing up, I struggled with mental health through high school. Of course, high school in general is just tough, and I think the high school I went to was more of a posh private school, like 80% white and super rich; there were never a lot of people that looked like me or had similar experiences to me. I didn’t have that many friends and didn’t feel confident or beautiful or really worth anything. Also, there were things going on in my family that were extremely tough on my mental health. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anything, but comparing myself now to then, I was definitely in a really, really dark space… I was feeling all these things and felt in the dark because I didn’t have anyone to turn to because no one believed what I was going through wasn’t something I could just pick myself out of.
Initially, my parents just didn’t think about how all those things were having an effect on me. But as the years went by and I vocalized what I was feeling and my behavior changed, they slowly came to realize that something was “off.” They didn’t know it was mental health at first, but I think they could tell something was off.
By the end of high school, my mom finally reached out to me and asked, “What’s going on?” and I ended up sharing what I was struggling with. It was my mom who actually went to therapy first as a trial run, I guess, before she really allowed me and my sister to start working on our mental health. As soon as she started getting therapy, she realized this was something that could help my sister and I… Now, my parents are more and more realizing that just saying, “Be more spiritual and do meditation or read a book,” doesn’t give you the motivation to do those things.
Shawn: When I got to college, the transition from high school to college was kind of a big one. The biggest issue was that I had a lot of friends in high school but it was really hard for me to make friends in college. Moving out of state, I went from having a lot of friends to almost no friends. It was kind of a big issue at the beginning of my freshman year.
What helped me a lot was exercising and going on walks where I didn’t feel obligated to do schoolwork or worry about anything else. With time, I realized that it was just the beginning of the year and it got better as I got into more of a routine. I told my parents about how I was struggling and they were really understanding and helpful. Overall, my parents are really helpful, but there are some things they don’t understand. Of course, as I said, it’s no fault of their own… For most things they’re fine, but there are still a lot of things I can’t talk to them about]\] But, as time has gone on and now with my younger brother they’re definitely a lot more understanding..
Riya: I haven’t had any significant mental health concerns that I needed to talk to someone about, but if I did I think my family would respect and help me through that process.
Aruna: Actually, I used to have a lot of mental health issues and my parents said, “It’s just a phase,” until I completely isolated myself and went to pretty real extremes. A combination of crazy academic pressure in a pretty toxic school environment, body image issues, a high achieving friend group led to a really low point for me. Yet, no one ever talked about or showed mental illness at all. They finally realized my mental illness wasn’t just “a phase” when I ended up attempting suicide, and after that, they ended up doing a lot of research on mental health. After the fact, they tried to help a lot, but they also kind of walked on eggshells around me and seemed kind of afraid or hesitant to call me out on things. Nowadays I feel like they’re a lot more careful and aware of mental health with my little sister.
NV: How would you define mental health/mental wellness?
Aanya: I think you are mentally healthy when you are able to experience emotion in a way that isn’t debilitating. I think that’s one facet of it…being mentally healthy doesn’t mean you’re not going to be sad, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be upset, doesn’t mean you’re not going to feel unmotivated sometimes. But in the same way that you can catch a cold and be able to nurse yourself back to health, being mentally healthy — having that understanding of mental health — allows you to nurse your mind and your soul back to health.
Riya: I would define mental wellness in college as making sure that you are taking time for yourself to check in and see how the activities, classes, people you are spending time on are positive influences in your life and don’t bring you a great amount of stress that negatively impacts your health or mindset.
Shawn: Before coming to college, I always thought of mental health as being either depressed or not depressed. I used to think if you’re depressed you just have bad mental health and if you’re not depressed, you’re like fine. Now after coming to college, I know there is a range where you don’t have to have “bad mental health” but you can still have real issues. I understand now that you don’t have to be one thing or the other; there’s more than just depressed or not depressed.
NV: What more do you think your family and the Indian community at large could stand to learn about mental health?
Shawn: A lot of Indian families still have that mindset of, like my Dad always says, we’re immigrants here so now you’re always going to have to work harder than someone who is not Indian, so you have to just suck it up. I would say I definitely agree with that in some cases, but it’s also important for parents to understand that people can go through things that they will never fully understand. So I think they and Indian parents are making a good transition, but there is still a gap in their understanding, and all we can really do is wait.
Aanya: I think a lot of Indian people could improve their understanding by realizing that mental health isn’t something you can just fix by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you just don’t want to do your work” or “You’re just being lazy, it’s not real.” No, mental health is a real thing and it’s not an excuse people use to get out of work… I think the Indian community doesn’t really realize or accept that mental health is real and treatable because they’ve been through so much as immigrants to the US. They’ve been through so much to just survive in a foreign country with a foreign culture while retaining their own culture and way of life. Just because they went through that, they think it invalidates the experiences and hardships that we’re going through, but that’s just not fair or true.
Riya: I think, overall, people need to learn more about mental health and get educated on ways they can be accepting and encouraging to people in their community who are looking for resources or help. A lot of immigrant families are just so not used to talking about it that they look down on mental health or think it’s not real, but they just need to learn more about mental health itself so they can change their attitudes.
Aruna: I think that my family could have made my mental health journey a lot easier if they had realized and accepted way earlier that what I was going through wasn’t just a phase and had been there for me from the start. Even today, my mom says not realizing sooner is her greatest regret. I also feel like my parents could learn that there isn’t just one cookie cutter way to have or treat or experience mental illness.