Mental Health in Asian Culture: Are We Missing The Mark?

Unfortunately, getting help for mental disorders is often seen as a weakness, not a strength. However, in reality, strength lies in those who allow for vulnerability and open the door to healing themselves and others.

Why is this attitude so prevalent within Asian culture? Our self-worth is focused on our career and academic achievements. We are a culture that pushes our youth to be number one in our pursuits. We are the doctors, engineers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs of America. Asian Americans represent 19.8 percent of the US population of physicians, despite comprising only 5.6 percent of the country’s citizens as a whole. There are approximately 348 medical schools in India that offer an MBBS degree. India and China have the highest number of medical degree programs compared to other countries. This opens the path to immigration, where my story begins.

In 1965, Congress made drastic changes to the US immigration laws. At the time, my parents and other immigrants who wanted to migrate to the “land of opportunity” had no idea how this would drastically alter our lives.

My parents move to the United States was brave, audacious, and scary. They were determined to provide a better life for their children, filled with opportunities for advancement and personal growth. My parents left their loved ones behind and came to a foreign, unknown country with no family here.

The 1980s would be the big gold rush for physicians in the US. This alone set the bar high. The message was loud and clear, whether we were directly told or silently messaged as second-generation children of Asian immigrants.

“Do not disappoint or shame your parents by underachieving” was the mantra of the moment. Our Asian parents would enjoin us with directives such as “you should never be tired.” It was a work hard, work more mentality. A mentality that I, to this day, have a hard time shedding. When a concept is subconsciously ingrained in our core beings, it isn’t easy to let it go.

Here is where the dichotomy exists with mental health awareness. Our parents happily came to the United States with eight dollars in their pockets, two plates, and one lipstick. They never viewed their hardships as stressful. “There was no such thing as stress back in my day,” was the common refrain, along with, “I don’t understand why these kids are so stressed out all the time!” As we bellyached about not getting the latest J Crew ensemble, their perspective was quite different; it was simply their way of life. Their upbringing was marked by scarcity and sacrifice. Many Asian immigrants built their way up in society to achieve more. As time passed, the “if you’re not first, you’re last” refrain rang continuously in our heads.

It’s safe to assume that amongst four highly educated physician parents, no one in our family truly understood or embraced the importance of mental health. Their culture and medical background did not adhere to opening those doors. They were strong, successful, intelligent clinicians that studied medicine in a physical sense. For a problem to be “real,” you had to be able to see it, treat it, cut it, or medicate it.

“Mental illness is a crutch for the weak” was their mindset. Their core belief systems were part of having a “positive attitude” or “making lemonade out of lemons.” Therefore, if anxiety or depression were present, the answer would be just that. Get right back up again. “Have a positive attitude, and all will be ok.” We become acclimated to our experiences and belief systems, and it becomes a part of us, whether we like it or not.

The pressure of the model minority myth inhibits our voice, creativity, and imagination. We have become robots, striving for the end game. Our world is consumed with the pressure of keeping up with the “Indian Joneses.” Any failure to realize the idealized vision of America as the land of unbounded opportunity amounts to supreme disappointment to our parents. It is silent unspoken torture consumed with guilt. After all, our parents sacrificed their old lives to build a better life for their children in America. That is an immense amount of pressure, leading to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and mood disorders amongst Asians in the US.

The problem is even more stark in India, where there are only 0.75 psychiatrists for every 100,000 citizens. Despite numerous innovations in science, technology, and many other realms, India remains a close-minded society that has routinely shied away from the topic of mental illness. Victims are seen as unstable and are actively shunned from communities. Any deviation from behaviorally acceptable or psychologically certain conduct is viewed with disgust. The need for counseling and therapy is seen as a weakness. This results in untreated conditions festering and eventually spiraling out of control.

Sadly, even when treatment is sought, the mentally ill individual may be isolated and disowned from even his friends in the community or, worse, his own family. This is especially true for a parent who is mentally ill and doesn’t want exposure for fear that their children will be blacklisted. “What will the community think?” is the common lament. “My daughter will not find a husband, a job, or have any chance at a ‘normal life.’ She will forever be labeled as a ‘bad seed.’

We are fearful and timid about sharing our voices. A common credo is, “We must not dishonor our family by seeking help with mental disorders.” First-generation Asian immigrants are plagued by ignorance, judgment, or a conformist attitude. Family conflict, viewing oneself as a burden or shame to others, and experiences of discrimination predict increased suicidal attempts and thoughts. Suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian/Pacific Islanders ages 15 to 24 in 2019. It is no surprise that in 2018, Asians were 60 percent less likely to have received mental health treatment than non-Hispanic whites.

“In almost 90% of the cases of severe mental disorder, the first approach in India is a faith healer.” The response to mental illness is typically “send him to the pandit for healing.” The ignorance is even worse in rural areas, where those afflicted by bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses are thought to be possessed by evil spirits.

Seemingly unaware, these attitudes silently trickled into the next generation and determined how I would handle my husband’s mental illness.

Stigma and Denial: My feelings, false beliefs, and stigma toward psychiatric disorders played a vital role in what ultimately happened to my husband, me, and our family. My husband suffered from bipolar disorder for nearly two decades, unknowingly see-sawing from mania and depression, without a diagnosis until six years ago. Our family suffered extreme devastation, a near divorce, emotional and mental abuse, loss of relationships, and financial pain and suffering. We came frighteningly close to losing him, losing everything.

Lack of Education and Awareness: Despite my advanced education, my understanding of mental illness was limited at best. For several years, I remained close-minded and brushed off my husband’s concerns over his depression as a crutch. I could give him a pep talk and offer support as his #1 cheerleader. My ignorance gave rise to the common idea, “This man has everything his heart desires. Why can’t he be consistently happy?” Mental health disorders must be treated like physical ailments.

Lack of Emotional Support: As a result, Nikhil (Jay) suffered feelings of isolation, embarrassment, frustration, guilt, and denial. Opening your heart and mind to unconditional love is crucial.

Ego: It was extremely difficult for me to recognize the role I played in burying the problem for years until it became catastrophic. When our ego and not our hearts drive our actions, we fail not only ourselves but our loved ones.

A dangerous cocktail of ego, denial, and a lack of awareness and education laid waste to our marriage and family for nearly two decades.

Saving my husband’s life and our marriage made me realize that the fulfillment gained from diminishing the pain of others is like nothing else. This epiphany motivated me to launch a healthcare company, GIOSTAR Chicago, in collaboration with some of the world’s most pre-eminent scientists in the field of regenerative medicine.

Today, our mission is to uncover the bipolar reality, offer hope to those suffering from this cruel illness, and ultimately create change. Only through life’s most challenging obstacles can we untether our lives and discover our true purpose in this world.

To learn more about me: shellysood.com or giostarchicago.com

To listen to our podcast, visit: theshellystory.com