Indian-American people are superheroes. Or more specifically, we have been raised to be superheroes in every aspect of our lives. Within our families and communities, we are expected to excel in all avenues. We are taught to be highly educated and have a greater sense of independence compared to previous generations here, or even, current family members in India. Yet, we are also expected to be perfectly gender conforming, dutiful sons, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers who prioritize the needs of those around us before we prioritize ourselves.
Without a doubt, we are highly resourceful, adaptive and resilient because of the perspectives we gain from leading multicultural lives. Our families migrated to the United States precisely to give us the option to grow ourselves into highly capable, multitasking machines. We are able to call ourselves successful people who juggle household duties, family dynamics, childcare, community involvement, careers, and whatever else life may “bless” us with. We may be expected to do it all with smiles on our faces, without complaint and, without a glance at our mental wellbeing. Complaining would lead to comparisons against those who have it worse than us, and judgments about entitlement, after all. So we stay silent and count our fortunes in gratitude. And if we can’t, we silently kill ourselves so as to not cause shame to our families. But who could we be if we actually took take the time to think about ourselves outside of all our roles of service to other people?
Almost every single facet of our growth is a means to an end as someone’s spouse or parent. How many of us have been told that we should focus on our careers, but that marriage is also more important and completely necessary to be a whole person? How many of us have had to hear thoughts along the lines of, “A career will always be there. You need to find a man/woman and settle down soon.” How many of our parents have expressed concerns of, “Who will take care of you when we are gone? We don’t want you to die alone,” to perfectly capable, successful children? As people, we are never seen as independent entities; our entire existence is dependent on others.
For many Indian-Americans, it can feel as if neither of the cultures we identify with allows us the most important voice we need to have: the voice that enables us to put ourselves first and take care of our mental wellbeing first. Taking care of our own needs is usually the last thing we think about, if we think about it at all. Our culture teaches us that putting our needs ahead of others is selfish and self-serving. We are also taught that our needs get met when we take care of those around us.
Though several organizations and resources have sprung up to help us with our mental health in the last decade, we are still the segment of Asian-Americans least likely to seek help. While there isn’t a fully established line of scientific research about our psychology just yet, there is enough evidence from academic journals that we are a population reluctant to talk about our mental health. These studies point to the cultural stigma and resistance about mental health issues, the concern of community members’ perceptions and judgments and a general lack of understanding of mental health problems as the main barriers that the people in our community face. But even beyond these barriers, Indian Americans also face general well-being challenges, such as situational stress, a lack of contentment and burnout that rarely get addressed.
All of these conflicting pressures, and lack of focus on self-care and mental well-being create an enormous amount of psychological and existential stress on Indian-American people. They create a perpetual cycle of guilt and shame, and a state of conflict about our own self-worth. These pressures make us feel like we may never be good enough. Not focusing on our mental wellbeing deeply impacts who we are as people, no matter how we present to the outside world.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that our lives are abhorrently bad or that our culture should be abandoned. The privileges of our education, status and the strengths of our close-knit networks are undeniable. They turn us into people who can accomplish anything we set our minds to. But we haven’t set our minds to the state of our mental health and mental well-being. We are not being kind to ourselves, and we are definitely not being good role models to our future generations by ignoring this critical part of ourselves. When we can get to a point of realization as a community that taking care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for everyone around us as a whole, that is when the entire Indian American community will be truly empowered. And this future is completely possible. It is totally up to us to manifest.