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  • Rushi Ner

Addressing Mental Health In A South Asian Household

Semira Badesha for Pardesi

Mental health in South Asian households is....awkward.

It’s both weird and familiar to think about South Asian parents’ approach to mental health. For many of us, they just dismiss it entirely, saying “it’s all in your head” or “just drink some warm haldi doodh.” Growing up, we are told not to inconvenience or offend others. We are taught to be “strong” by not showing any “weakness,” so that we don’t inconvenience anyone.

The unspoken rule is to deny or suppress what we may feel because “that’s our culture.”

This can be especially true in the diaspora with the added pressure of trying to fit in while also holding onto our culture. Guilt motivates our emotional suppression and we think, “Our parents went through so much to bring us here. Why can’t we be ‘normal’ like them and just shrug it off?” However, in the last few years, I’ve learned that parents struggle with their mental health as much as their children do. They just don’t address it, but we need to discuss South Asian families’ mental well-being in the diaspora. Parents often disregard their own mental health, inevitably making the children their parents' therapist. This produces a harmful cycle passed down generations.

South Asian parents, especially in the diaspora, often disregard their own mental well-being because they think they need to be “strong” and not worry their children. The problem is that “strong” entails suppressing issues or rejecting feelings that call for healing or that can benefit from support. For example, while my parents encouraged me to be open about my feelings and approach them for support, they do not do the same for themselves. They never seem to acknowledge their own struggles or pursue any form of help or healing. Instead, problems or feelings are thought to be short-term with short-term remedies. This reflects their mentality that to seek help would be to admit something is wrong and thus burden their family. While I am grateful for them to try and validate whatever I may go through, it is discouraging to see them disregard their own burdens. Being “strong” on the surface sacrifices the opportunity to seek help and healing because of the stigma behind mental health.

The unspoken rule is to deny or suppress what we may feel because “that’s our culture.”

Even though our parents avoid the topic of mental health, it doesn’t always work because haldi doodh cannot solve everything (but how great would that be?!). These feelings can bottle up and release anytime - during dinner, watching TV in the evening, after a party -because they are so regularly suppressed and mishandled. Parents may let out the emotions they have suppressed, for the sake of their children, to their children. I can recall times where my dad has spiraled from light dinner conversation to sensitive topics, insecurities, and worries about himself or the world.

For our parents, these moments with family are grey areas. On one hand, they don’t want to worry us. On the other hand, feelings can only be held in for so long, and there is a certain level of comfort with family to share these feelings. These feelings are shared in a way that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge mental health, but as a last-resort call for support.

We shoulder our parents' problems while silencing ours

In these moments, children often must act as a ‘therapist’ for their own parents because no one else is around and their parents need support. So, inadvertently, parents not addressing their mental health for the sake of their children actually may put more stress on the children. The situation is difficult because, at least for me, I have a good relationship with my parents and want to support them if I can. However, being caught off-guard, paired with their refusal to seek help, limits me in what I can do. This creates a difficult balance between wanting to help but also not knowing if anything will actually be effective.

I used to suggest therapy, but since finding affordable and available culturally sensitive therapists is difficult, I’ve suggested alternatives. I am not a licensed therapist or any type of mental health professional, but I’ve brought up journaling, finding a cause, hobbies, structured conversations, even a change of scenery. However, parents' underlying stigma around mental health means suggestions don’t amount to anything because doing so acknowledges that they are not as “strong” as they project themselves to be. So, in these stolen moments, we continue to be our parents' “therapists,” but only in the sense that we can listen and be there for them. We take on both our own and our parent’s emotions and are unable to share any.

These are likely learned behaviors; our parents learned from their own parents, and will likely pass these thoughts and practices to us. Both of my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated to England in the 60s, and both my parents are the eldest child. Being the youngest, growing up in the 2000s and 2010s, I will never completely understand the depth of my parents’ experiences. I imagine they observed the same behavior from their parents and an even bigger avoidance or lack of understanding around mental health. Thus, they didn’t learn how to handle or address their mental well-being in an effective manner despite increasing hardships, and it reflects in their current attitude towards mental health. This process makes mental health conversations awkward and stagnant, but it becomes the ‘norm’ across generations.

We take on both our own and our parent’s emotions and are unable to share any.

This dynamic may make younger generations apprehensive to share their feelings with their parents because they know it won’t be dealt with in a healthy or productive manner. Children are discouraged by their parents’ actions, so they end up seeking help it is without their parents' knowledge. Feelings are mishandled because there is still the fundamental avoidance or denial that mental health matters. It is not a burden for parents to share their feelings. They should feel comfortable doing so because it is better than never saying anything and carrying so much by themselves. However, these parent-child ‘therapy’ conversations don’t bring closure or real help. There are much healthier ways to cope that can only be achieved or even perceived by acknowledging the importance of mental health. Breaking the fundamental stigma around mental health in the South Asian community is important to end this uneven relationship and cycle.

Breaking this cycle takes integration and cooperation between generations. It is a difficult, necessary journey for South Asians. There is no one way to approach therapy and healing, but passing on trauma or skepticism is not healthy for future generations. Our experiences and feelings are valid, as are our parents, so we need to learn how to accept these feelings and deal with them in a forward-looking manner.

To begin an open conversation or outlook on mental health, we can ask our parents how they are when we are ready, instead of diving too deep too quickly. We can try to explain to them why mental health is important or suggest coping mechanisms that still lie within their comfort zones. As their children, we can listen to and help them, but it is important to set boundaries. We must recognize if we are in the right headspace to listen, otherwise, it may affect us more than the amount we can help. Resources like South Asian Mental Health Initiative & Network, South Asian Mental Health Resources, and South Asian Therapists are good starting points in understanding perceptions, breaking down the stigma, and seeking culturally sensitive help.


1. haldi doodh: Hindi for turmeric milk


Rushi Ner is a content creator for Pardesi and a third-generation Punjabi-Indian immigrant living in Canada. Like many others, Rushi struggled to reconcile her Punjabi culture and the dominant society she lives in, finding it difficult to really acknowledge her heritage. She is beginning to learn more and have pride in her culture through more community. Rushi joined Pardesi to explore her interests as a young South Asian woman in the diaspora and learn from the people around her. She enjoys painting, cooking, pink skies, and going for walks. She is an undergrad at Carleton University studying Global and International Studies, specializing in Global Law and Social Justice.


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