South Asian Mental Health Stigma

mental health stigma

Mental health has, in recent years, become increasingly recognized in many communities. More than 21% of adults across the United States received mental health care in 2021, according to a report released by the CDC. Furthermore, the younger generation is gradually becoming more comfortable discussing mental health. 

Now, people are more likely to pursue treatment for mental health disorders. They may openly discuss mental health conditions and challenges, both among friends and family members and the workplace. As the stigma gradually continues to lift, many people can better receive diagnosis and treatment for serious mental health conditions. 

Unfortunately, some communities remain underrepresented when seeking the mental health care they need, often because of a built-in stigma against mental health care and everything it represents. 

People are more likely to receive the mental health care they need when it is accepted in their communities. When others around them embrace mental health support, resources are readily available, and people are willing to break the silence and talk about mental health. In South Asian communities, there is a strong taboo against speaking about mental health. As a result of the mental health stigma, many people go untreated.

The Taboo of Mental Health in South Asian Communities

In many South Asian communities, there is a strong taboo against speaking about mental health issues. Elders and others of repute within the community might talk about mental health as “all in your head,” which gives the impression that “positive thinking” and “determination” should be enough to move past many mental health issues. Often, families do not speak about mental health issues at all or do not give appropriate weight and consideration to those mental health concerns. As a result, many South Asians suffering from mental health disorders go untreated.

South Asian Mental Health: A Cultural Kaleidoscope

In South Asia, mental health is a complex issue interlaced with myriad cultural beliefs and societal norms. Every region, with its unique customs and traditions, impacts the mental health landscape differently.


India: Overcoming Stigma and Misunderstanding

In India, mental health disorders are often associated with intense stigma and a misunderstanding of mental health issues, which often hampers early intervention. However, there has been a gradual shift towards better awareness. Government initiatives like the National Mental Health Program are aiming to ensure accessibility of mental health care services to the broader population.


Pakistan: Bridging the Mental Health Gap

With just over 400 trained psychiatrists for a population exceeding 220 million, Pakistan faces a significant gap in mental health care. Non-profit organizations like Taskeen are working to fill this gap by offering mental health education and resources, aimed at reducing the stigma and facilitating access to professional help.


Bangladesh: Prioritizing Mental Health

Bangladesh, a densely populated country, has a relatively higher prevalence of mental health disorders. The government, recognizing the necessity of mental health, has incorporated it into their health care policies, with the National Mental Health Act (2018) being a landmark step towards ensuring mental health services.


Sri Lanka: Post-conflict Mental Health

Sri Lanka’s mental health landscape is marked by the impact of its civil war. The government and NGOs are working together to provide psycho-social support to affected communities, highlighting the need for trauma-informed mental health care.


Nepal: Mental Health in the Aftermath of Disasters

Natural disasters like the devastating 2015 earthquake have had a significant impact on Nepal’s mental health situation. Organizations like TPO Nepal are focusing on providing mental health and psychosocial support in post-disaster situations.

Lack of Understanding and Grace

In many South Asian communities, there is a general lack of understanding and grace regarding mental health concerns. Families may not offer support or compassion when loved ones are diagnosed with mental health conditions. They may also fail to provide the necessary support to overcome many mental health challenges or refuse to participate in family counseling or other measures that could help improve overall mental health. As a result, many patients may struggle with symptoms longer.

Reluctance to Seek Care

Dealing with intrinsic reluctance to seek care for mental health concerns can make it very difficult for people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek treatment for those mental health conditions. 

Often, patients worry about the stigma associated with seeking care. Their parents and other members of older generations might insist that they should not have those challenges. People who are struggling may be encouraged to push past their mental health challenges.

As a result, even younger people who may have started to shift away from the intrinsic bias against mental health care may be reluctant to seek treatment or stick to a treatment protocol they might have to share with others. 

Children may also be reluctant to share mental health symptoms with parents and other family members. Despite the need for care to help overcome those symptoms, children may choose instead to keep them to themselves out of fear of the stigma attached to them. Even when they report symptoms to their parents, children may not be given treatment options or support and may instead have their concerns brushed aside.

Failure to Recognize Mental Health Symptoms

Among older members of South Asian communities, there is often a general lack of awareness regarding mental health symptoms. In many cases, members of those communities may fail to recognize the presence of even severe mental health symptoms and warning signs due to a lack of overall awareness of those symptoms. While younger people in South Asian communities are now more likely, in general, to discuss mental health, their parents and other adult members of the family may not fully recognize the symptoms in front of them. 

South Asian parents may also prove less likely to recognize warning signs of serious mental health conditions in their children. That may mean that they miss signs of things like:

Because those symptoms may go unrecognized, it can prove much more difficult for children to receive treatment, which means that those conditions may develop into something more severe. Furthermore, parents may not recognize the challenges associated with things like divorce for their children or simply expect children to “deal with” those challenges rather than provide them with mental health support during difficult times.

Resistance to Treatment

Sometimes, even with a mental health condition identified, members of South Asian communities may show a generalized resistance to treatment. South Asian parents, for example, may show reluctance to treat their children “because of what others might think,” especially if they worry about identifying that treatment to other community members. 

There may also be a general fear that the family will end up bearing the weight of the diagnosis: that others will notice that the family cannot make one member happy, increasing overall depression, for example. Even when families bring their children in for counseling, they may not be willing to seek appropriate treatment for any diagnosis they might receive.

Physical Expression to Symptoms

Members of the South Asian community may prove more likely to experience symptoms of mental health conditions as physical symptoms. Mental health symptoms can manifest in several ways:

Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with mental health care in the South Asian community, many people may not receive adequate treatment for those conditions. The underlying mental health condition may go undiagnosed for an extended period, especially if the family, in general, is reluctant to seek treatment for those mental health conditions or provide the support a patient might need.

Failure to Address the Underlying Cause of Symptoms

In some South Asian communities, parents and older adults may assume that mental health symptoms occur because the family cannot make the individual happy. This may be seen as a breach of familial duty, and the family may assume that they need to personally take on responsibility for the individual’s mental health. This can, however, cause several vital problems. 

First, it may mean that the underlying issues and challenges are not addressed. Second, it may mean that the family feels great pressure related to “fixing” the mental health condition, even though the family cannot provide that support in isolation.

Failure to Address Hereditary Challenges

Mental illness is often hereditary. While the fact that a family member has a mental health condition does not necessarily mean that others will develop it, it can increase the likelihood. Children with parents with specific mental health conditions may be more likely to develop those symptoms themselves. 

In South Asian families, however, many family members will not address those conditions. Parents with ADD or ADHD may not identify their symptoms and may continue to struggle with them all their lives. Unfortunately, this may also mean that when children start showing signs of ADD or ADHD, parents simply expect them to manage those symptoms independently. Rather than providing children with the support they may need to overcome those diagnoses. 

Parents may also think those mental health symptoms are “normal” or “something everyone goes through.” This may be particularly true in cases of hereditary mental illnesses, where many family members may show the same general symptoms.

Lack of Appropriate, Cultural-Based Treatment

Mental health treatment in the United States may fail to take into consideration the unique cultural needs of South Asians. While clinical psychologists and psychiatrists may aim to present the best care possible to their patients, they may not fully understand South Asian culture, making it more challenging to provide the support those patients need. Often, South Asian patients may have difficulty finding care providers who understand and focus on their specific treatment needs.

South Asian Mental Health Statistics

Mental health problems can be a serious problem for members of the South Asian community. Unfortunately, lack of access to resources and treatment can cause those problems to grow more serious, leading to a longer road to recovery or more severe symptoms.

1 in 5 South Asians Report Suffering from Mood or Anxiety Disorders

graphic showing a south asian mental health statistic

Across the course of their lifetimes, at least 1 in 5 South Asians report a mood or anxiety disorder. The actual rate of those disorders may be higher thanks to self-reporting and a lack of identification of key symptoms of those mental health conditions. 

Around 19% of adults across the United States seek treatment for anxiety-related conditions each year. Assuming the same rate of occurrence within the South Asian community, that may mean that a high percentage of South Asians suffering from mental health conditions, including anxiety, go without treatment each year.

South Asian Men Have More Trouble with Heavy Drinking

graphic showing a south asian mental health statistic

While South Asian men may generally shower fewer drinking behaviors when they do drink, they often have a greater likelihood of struggling with heavy drinking. In one study, 24% of South Asian men surveyed reported an episode of heavy drinking within 30 days of the survey. 64% of those surveyed reported drinking within the same period. 

Many people use alcohol to help self-medicate for various mental health conditions. Drinking can, temporarily, seem to alleviate symptoms of anxiety or make them easier to handle. Unfortunately, drinking can also increase the risk of depression and exacerbate the presentation of many mental health conditions. 

Furthermore, heavy drinking may interfere with processing several types of medications used to treat common mental health conditions. Sometimes, drinking may make those drugs more effective, which means that they can increase the symptoms of intoxication or that drinking may cause those drugs to process through the system faster, leaving overall gaps in treatment periods. In other cases, heavy drinking may prevent the medications from working or absorbing, leaving the patient feeling as though they have received no treatment for those conditions.

South Asian Populations May Prove Less Likely to Seek Clinical Treatment

graphic showing a south asian mental health statistic

In many cases, members of the South Asian community will be less likely to seek treatment for mental health conditions, even after diagnosis. Among Asian Americans with a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, only around 40% of American-born individuals reported using mental health services. Only 23% of those born outside the United States took advantage of those services. 

Asian Americans may also be less likely to seek mental health care within 12 months, even when presenting with serious symptoms of a possible mental health condition. Across the United States, around 41.1% of the general population reports pursuing care within a year of establishing the presence of symptoms. Only 34.1% of South Asian Americans sought treatment.

No Published Data Exists Regarding Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder in South Asians in the United States

While the UK reports higher rates of both types of disorders, greater severity of those disorders in many patients, and a lower overall likelihood of treatment or worse general treatment, the United States does not have adequate research into treatment protocols or how to ensure the best outcome for Asian-American citizens. As a result, South Asians who do pursue treatment for those conditions may not receive the support they need.

South Asians in the United States May Have a Higher Rate of Suicide

In the United States, suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death. However, suicide rates are significantly higher than the average in the Asian American community. Unfortunately, people under severe mental health pressure may prove more likely to commit suicide when they cannot pursue treatment or do not have a reasonable treatment option. 

A persistent lack of acceptance from family members, including the “all in your head” mentality or “get over it,” can continue eroding mental health. In some cases, mental health can be strained to the point that suicide becomes more likely. Instituting proper mental health support within the South Asian community in the United States can help decrease suicide rates and improve overall mental health.

Mental Health Resources for the South Asian Community

Having the proper mental health support in place can make it much easier for many South Asian community members to seek treatment for the challenges they may be facing, including helping them get the help they need.

Having the proper support to overcome mental health conditions is critical, whether you need to pursue counseling, medication, or a combination of treatment methods. At First Light Recovery, we offer mental health resources and support for ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, BPD, depression, impulse control disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, social anxiety, and suicidal ideation. 

Contact us today to learn more about how we can support members of the South Asian community and others on their mental health journey.


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