Colorism and Mental Health in the South Asian Community

Stigma surrounding mental illness has plagued the South Asian community for decades. The taboo on discussing and validating mental health in South Asian families can be attributed to a combination of factors, including pressures to conform to the model minority myth and uphold family values.

On being the ideal “outgroup”

The model minority myth characterizes Asian Americans, including South Asians, as the ideal minority group. South Asians are perceived as intellectually and financially superior to other ethnic groups because of their conformity to cultural stereotypes, which present them as inherently obedient and diligent. 

In attributing the various successes of South Asian individuals to the existence of behavioral stereotypes, this phenomenon serves to discredit the triumphs of South Asian individuals and undermines their obstacles. Not only does this myth generalize South Asians and alienate them from other minority groups, but it also establishes a false roadmap for immigrant success.

When this occurs, fellow South Asians are pitted against one another and in constant competition to achieve quantitative success, encouraging the community to overlook mental health issues, which seem to interfere with perceived successes. Thus, mental illness is frequently disregarded by the older generation, which prevents the younger generation from seeking resources to avoid familial shame. 

On protecting the family’s honor

Due to the influence of Eurocentric standards and the harmful model minority myth, South Asian families often place tremendous value on their reputation. Every traditional action a South Asian youth takes, from investing in higher education to getting a high paying job to marrying a suitable match, brings honor to the family. Likewise, nontraditional behaviors or actions are quickly pinpointed as bringing shame to the family. 

How exactly does this prevent South Asians from seeking mental health resources? Well, some youth feel ashamed in asking for support from family or medical professionals, fearing that their struggles with mental health will be viewed as a weakness that harms the family’s reputation. According to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), South Asian Americans in their late teens and early twenties were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms than their peers. A second report found a higher suicide rate, specifically among young South Asian women than the general U.S. population. However, the report measured that South Asian Americans utilize mental health resources less frequently than their peers, despite being at a higher risk. 

Moving forward

South Asians are less likely to utilize professional resources because of the stigma surrounding mental illness in the community at large. Thus, in our own communities, we need to be willing to destigmatize mental illness by starting conversations in our families. To progress, we, the South Asian youth, must become vocal about our own mental health and lend an ear to anyone who wants to confide in us.

How can I make it easier for myself to share my experience with someone I trust?

  1. Write. 

    1. Jot down your feelings. Even making a list of adjectives describing your emotions can help in verbalizing them. 

  2. Choose. 

    1. Pick someone to speak to about your experience. Ideally, you want to choose someone who you trust and feel comfortable being honest in front of. This might be a friend, family member, mentor, or medical professional.

  3. Text. 

    1. Don’t shy away from speaking to someone face to face, but feel free to give someone a heads up about your conversation digitally. This way, you both will be on the same page when the conversation occurs, and speaking about your struggles will become easier. 

How can I actively listen to someone who trusts and wants to confide in me?

  1. Release. 

    1. Regardless of how concerned you are, don’t try and control the conversation. Remember that they initiated it and that they are sharing their experience at their own pace. You might even be the first person they have ever been able to talk to about this.

  2. Trust. 

    1. Always avoid second-guessing their experiences. Remember, they chose to confide in you because they trust you, and the least you can do is trust that they are being honest.

  3. Sustain. 

    1. Reassure them that they can reach out to you again and provide them with professional resources to utilize (linked below). 

Resources

The tendency to avoid seeking support can be extremely damaging for youth who need professional assistance. Only by recognizing the prevalence of mental health issues faced by South Asians can we hope to try to raise awareness and treat those impacted. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, please utilize these resources. 

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK 

  • Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-800-448-4663

  • National Graduate Student Crisis Line: 1-800-472-3457

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE

  • LGTBTQ+ National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

  • Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention: 1-800-931-2237

  • Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 press 1

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.n

  2. https://newrepublic.com/article/122892/silence-mental-health-south-asian-culture-dangerousih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4730418/

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