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Mental Illness: Still a Stigma

By: Anokhi Patel Email By: Anokhi Patel
October 2010
Mental Illness: Still a Stigma As an Indian-American professional working in the mental health field, I am often struck by how deep-rooted our reluctance is to seek mental health assistance when needed. Indian-American parents do not hesitate to get the best tutor for their kids, and do not think twice when they need to get second jobs to fund a child’s college education. And yet, we balk at seeking therapy or counseling when someone in the family is clearly crying for help.

One incident in my experience particular stands out: I had been working with an Indian adolescent who had severe depression. He said he was depressed because his parents were getting a divorce, and it was completely against what an Indian couple should do. The community did not approve of his parents’ choices, and apparently, he did not approve of the community’s disapproval. The boy’s problem had worsened to a point where he wanted to hurt his mother and sister and then himself. The mother had no idea about her son’s feelings. She probably didn’t notice because she did not want to believe her son was severely depressed. Clearly, she was uncomfortable with acknowledging that her son might need therapy or counseling.

Just for a moment, ask yourself how many of your fellow desis have gone through some sort of mental or emotional stress, whether it be a tragic death in the family, or a failing business. That stress can have a huge impact on the way someone behaves. If someone you cared about had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a broken arm, would you say they were weak or would you advise them to visit a doctor? We should learn to seek help for mental problems as readily. Mental health maintenance means understanding yourself biologically, socially, and environmentally. Seeking assistance such as therapy from a mental health professional does not mean you are crazy, it means you need help understanding why you experience the emotions you experience.

As a community, we tend to go for what we want: first-rate education for our children, nice cars, and decent homes. Overall, I think we are a successful community. And yet, we have a tendency to be counterintuitive—we are willing to fix superficially what is broken, but we are scared to look beyond the break. Is it because of what society will think of us, or is it because we do not believe in looking beyond what is broken? We freak out because we see the word “mental” or “psychology” or “therapy” and this is causing a friction between an individual’s personal opinions and societal views. Take a minute and ask yourself what you believe and why you believe it.

Many of you would have seen the move 3 idiots. (If not, I apologize in advance for giving away some of the movie.) One of the main characters in the movie struggles with mental stress and pressure, and attempts to take his own life. I am wondering if the young man would have sought professional help had the situation been a real one. First off, because it was a movie, the writers did not want him to, but a young man in real life in similar circumstances in India would not have gone for therapy because it would have displayed weakness in the eyes of his colleagues and professors. Like most Indians, he would probably care too much about what people would think of him if they found out he was seeking professional help. If you feel the movie reference is unrealistic, then reflect upon the young adolescent I referred to earlier. Take a second and identify all the “what ifs” that could have happened if this child’s severe depression went unrecognized.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in what society thinks of as right and wrong. Instead, take a moment to ponder about what you think is right and wrong. It is very important to understand why you are experiencing the feelings and emotions you may experience in certain situations. No one can tell you that you are wrong for feeling the way you feel in particular situations. Seeking mental health assistance helps you understand why you feel the way you feel.

It has been said many times that the mind is a powerful thing. There has never been a truer statement. If the most powerful thing in your body was not functioning properly why would you avoid seeking professional assistance to help improve its functioning? Because the members of your community will think that you are crazy? If you ask me, I think it takes too much unnecessary energy to be unhappy, and it is much easier knowing and understanding yourself than hiding your feelings.

[Anokhi Patel holds a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology and is currently a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor providing therapeutic services to at risk young adults, and adolescents who have been placed in the foster care system.]

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