A silent mental health crisis exists among South Asian communities. Many studies have shown that South Asian immigrants in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom experience high rates of mental health disorders, sometimes higher than their peers. Some of the reasons include intergenerational conflict or the stress of adapting into western society.
But mental health is deeply stigmatized in many South Asian communities and symptoms are often trivialized. To counter this, South Asian families need to be more deeply educated on risk factors that can lead to mental health conditions. With this knowledge, they can identify some of the early signs of mental health issues.
As a PhD candidate in clinical neuropsychology at the University of Windsor, some of my current research involves adapting cognitive assessment methods to people who speak Urdu or Hindi. I also started @Braincoach, an Instagram stream to share my science-based knowledge.
Straddling different worlds
Children of South Asian immigrants may face challenges associated with the pressure of straddling two different worlds. While trying to fit into a western society that prides itself on individual expression, they may find themselves navigating a culture at home where personal boundaries are blurred, and self-identity is determined by the validation of their family and community.
The collectivist nature of South Asian culture can feel comforting and supportive with close-knit family ties and a sense of connection to something larger than the self. However, in South Asian families individuals can also feel pressure to sacrifice their personal desires for the expectations of their family.
Pursuing goals that diverge from the expectations of the family and community is perceived to be selfish. This leads to heightened levels of psychological stress and interference with the identity formation process, especially when a person feels a stronger connection to the dominant western culture.
Struggles about career or dating
Two prominent causes of family conflict arise when South Asian adolescents and young adults wish to start dating or pursue a career that is discerned to be unacceptable by the parents. This creates an internal struggle among South Asians who have been socialized to believe that family loyalty is of utmost importance.
Some may still follow through with their desires in secrecy, but live in a constant fear of being found out. Others may comply with the expectations required of them, but at the cost of losing their sense of self, their self-concept. In both scenarios, mental health and resiliency is compromised in the long term.
When young South Asian adults pursue a career that their family approves of instead of one that they find personally fulfilling, they might feel proud for maintaining family expectations. But how long does this pride last?
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a fulfilling career leads to better life satisfaction, and as a result, lower psychological problems. This choice is ripped away from many children of South Asian immigrants who end up feeling stuck in careers they do not find meaningful, ultimately leading to a negative impact on their overall mental wellness and relationships.
When it comes to dating, cultural expectations of South Asian families can conflict with western norms. For many youth, entering into a relationship prior to marriage is discouraged. Consequently, many young South Asians keep their relationships hidden due to internalized shame and a fear of being rejected by their families.
This is another reason for mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, especially in women who may feel like they are putting the family’s honour at risk by dating.
Culturally relevant therapy needed
South Asians seeking psychological services often feel misunderstood by health-care providers and then get discouraged from getting further help. Traditional psychotherapy has been founded on normalized versions of western, middle-class families. These approaches to therapy are difficult to translate across language and cultures without appropriate modification.
This means that many western-trained therapists may find it difficult to comprehend the deeply ingrained cultural nuances of South Asian communities.
There is a strong need for culturally sound therapy.
To encourage culturally sensitive therapy, mental health professionals must actively make an effort in understanding their client’s cultural background and belief system through continued education and consultation with colleagues from a similar cultural background.
It is also important that South Asian youth and families have discussions about their mental health struggles and learn ways to improve them. One way to do this is to ask mental health experts to host community workshops specifically for South Asian communities. This could lead to more awareness of the diversity of mental health conditions and knowledge on how to seek help and resources within their communities.
PhD Candidate – Clinical Neuropsychology, University of Windsor
Nawal Mustafa does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.