Bollywood star Deepika Padukone gave a series of interviews earlier this year in which she articulately spoke about her struggle with depression and how she dealt with it. It’s incredibly rare to see a woman of such high-profile speaking so openly about a notoriously stigmatized issue, let alone a brown woman.
The World Health Organization states that 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression and estimate that on average 800,000 people die every year by suicide. A recent study from HealthNet TPO also found a higher than average rate of suicide among South Asians, as well as a notable reluctance to seek medical treatment.
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Depression and other mental illnesses have long been recognized as taboo topics among South Asian communities with generations of people unwilling to seek suitable treatment options or even discuss mental health issues with family members.
I think it’s important to mention that the reality of living with a mental illness is not a unique phenomenon for South Asians living in the Diaspora and neither is the perceived stigma that comes with it. Unfortunately, this attitude is also common amongst people of other cultures, with mental illness usually making the news only when violence or misfortune is involved.
Given the higher than average rates of suicide and depression amongst South Asians, it is important to maintain a dialogue on the very specific experience of being South Asian and depressed, or having another mental illness. Elements specific to life as a South Asian, (diasporic or otherwise) including culture, family tradition and community values, directly affects the way in which an individual experiences a mental illness. Needless to say, more in-depth discussions about mental illness need to take place within South Asian communities and society as a whole.
I currently have depression and have tried a range of different approaches to managing my day-to-day life. When I first saw a therapist I was extremely nervous about facing someone who wasn’t South Asian and trying to explain my problems. Inside the therapist’s office, I was terrified of being judged based on cultural stereotypes, and outside the therapist’s office I am terrified of people’s reactions if I told them I had depression.
One half of this was based on the fact that I had spent many years struggling to name the problems that I was having, only to be diagnosed later and left feeling that I had to hide that very diagnosis. The other half of my apprehension was rooted in explaining how I deal with my depression as a South Asian living in the Diaspora.
Obviously, this wasn’t a healthy or safe position for me to tackle or even accept my depression. I think it does, however, demonstrate how important it is to have a professional support system that is sensitive to cultural differences and a personal support system that is familiar with the impact depression or other mental illnesses have on everyday lives.
I’ve found depression to be such an energy-sapping and debilitating illness that it’s extremely difficult to seek help and find treatment options that are appropriate. One coping method that I’ve found to be the most effective is to slowly tell people around me about my experiences. I’ve only told a few family and friends and while the reaction isn’t always what I’m hoping for, the act of telling someone is strangely freeing. It’s a little easier to deal with depression if people can check up on you and you can occasionally say, “I feel depressed” without worrying about receiving judgment or shame in return.
Having celebrities like Padukone speak out and indirectly validate the experiences of others makes a massive difference. It’s important for people to have a frame of reference when talking about illnesses, which are more often than not personal and complex feelings to have to explain repeatedly.
The power of expressing your frame of mind goes a long way to bridging the gap because if more people openly spoke about depression and mental illnesses, they would receive validation, support, and self-affirmation. It’s hard enough to come to terms with mental illness on a personal level, and it seems like a bizarre kind of torture to have to explain deeply rooted parts of yourself to people who are ignorant or skeptical of the realities of mental illness, but having a platform like Brown Girl to express such experiences gives an open, judgement-free zone to ask questions and share thoughts.
We need to work to continue pushing the dialogue of South Asian people engaging with various mental illnesses and recognize the importance of different kinds of support systems, whether it be a nonprofit listed below, your family or friends.
Help is available from organizations that specialize in mental health issues within South Asian communities:
- Chaicounselors.org provides culturally competent information and referrals on mental health and wellness to the South Asian population to end stigma and increase access to mental health services.
- samhaa.org (South Asian Mental Health Alliance) is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating awareness and advocating for action around mental health in the South Asian community.
- MySahana.org is dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health, emotional health and well-being in the South Asian community.
Maryam Jameela lives in Lancashire, England. She graduated with a B.A. in English literature and an M.A. in gender studies. She is passionate about writing all things desi and will begin her Ph.D research into desi film and literature at the University of Sheffield, U.K. in the fall. You can read more things that she has written here.