Musty, like any room with lots of incense and very few windows. It was hard to breathe. That was the atmosphere in my Boston temple on a Sunday evening this past spring. I was attending a mental health seminar delivered by two doctors. By that time, I had been leader of a mental health organization, MannMukti, for nearly two years. It had been my mission all this time to fight against mental health stigma in the South Asian community. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to be caught in our bubbles, and by then I was too used to being around people who thought like me. I wasn’t prepared for what I heard that day.
As the two doctors presented a scenario of an Indian student clearly struggling with depression and failing in school, the crowd broke into groups and deliberated what the student’s issue was. From one corner and the next, from the middle and the side, the voices seemed to echo:
“He is not studying hard enough.”
“He just needs to focus.”
“He only has to pray.”
It became harder and harder for me to remain silent – I wanted to scream that this was depression, this needed clinical attention, you can’t focus this away or pray it away. How would they feel if they had cancer and I told them to just focus on being healthy?
Mental health issues have too often been perceived as nonexistent in our South Asian communities. We “sweep them under the rug”, like the dust we so diligently hide so that our houses, or lives, seem pristine to visitors. But facts don’t lie. Recent reports have stated that South Asian Americans, especially between the ages of 15 to 24, were more likely than average to have symptoms of depression. In addition, young South Asian American women have a higher rate of suicide than the general U.S. population. Despite all this, Asian Americans are the least likely to seek help due to stigma and other factors.
We are a population and a community with an immense capacity for caring and kindness. I have seen boundless love in South Asian communities, just as I have seen boundless neglect of mental health realities. We can do better. We can realize that mental health is a spectrum we all share. We can talk openly about mental health as we do with physical health. We can suggest therapy, care, and education instead of insisting that mental health issues like depression can be solved with focus and prayer.
As the seminar closed in the temple that day, the doctors asked a final question: should we keep talking about mental health in the temple? The answer was a unanimous yes from the crowd – I smiled wide. If we are ready to talk, it’s only a matter of time before we improve our community attitudes. I breathed easy as I left the temple.
For an overview of mental health issues facing our community, please check out our video.
Abhijith Ravinutala is the Founder/ CEO of MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma of mental health in South Asian communities. He was raised in Dallas, TX after immigrating from India, and is currently a Master’s degree candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Abhijith plans to pursue writing as a career after graduation.