In the Blog
How I learned to cope with my mental health in my South Asian family
Illustration by Saul Freedman-Lawson
Last summer, I remember sitting in my doctor’s waiting room and my leg suddenly starting to shake. By the time she called me in, I had this sudden urge to use the washroom. I excused myself. I ended up racing to the washroom three times during a 15-minute appointment, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was uncontrollably fiddling around in my chair sitting opposite her.
By the end of the appointment, my doctor had noticed my uneasiness and, after a short examination, diagnosed me with severe anxiety. I couldn’t believe what I heard as I had always been told by my family that mental health is not a real concept and had come to agree with them. But when I pause to think about it now, it all makes sense. The lack of self-esteem, the constant nerves, the various times I chickened out from just going up to a cashier, overthinking every single exam and interview - it all fit.
“You should not have anxiety,” my father told me in a stoic tone after I shared my diagnosis with him. Hearing this from him was heart-shattering. But hearing this at a time when I expected to receive support was even more painful and disappointing because it came from a parent, a person who is supposed to be the strongest support system for a child.
It also wasn’t totally surprising. I was brought up in a very traditional household where the concept of mental health is so taboo that even talking about it is considered “crazy.” Any time there was an Instagram post that talked about the topic, or a movie or TV character that was depicted battling mental health, they were disregarded by my family as “controlled media” to make kids “rebellious.”
If I try to pinpoint when my anxiety symptoms started, I think it was Grade 6. My dad was pushing me to prepare for my entrance exams with the Indian Civil Services, which is the permanent executive branch of the Republic of India, and consists of government civil officials. Cabinet ministers are elected, and civil officials carry out their policies. It was a lifelong dream of his because he was never able to make it. Technically, these exams are to be given after one finishes their bachelor’s or undergraduate programs. But he was so adamant that I follow his dream that he started preparing me for it when I was only nine years old. If I put the feelings into words, the whole situation made me feel suffocated as I watched other kids my age play, while I was always home studying.
I was also often pressured to score full marks in school to the point where a 97/100 was not good enough. This was when I started experiencing what I now know were mild symptoms of anxiety. But because I was so young and naive about how important good mental health is, I brushed it off as nothing more than simple nerves.
“We did it all and never complained as you do,” my dad would often tell me. He believes that because his generation used to go through similar issues, be it regarding academic choices or even choosing social circles, it was only fair for me to also not complain.
I don’t blame him. Coming from a South Asian background and growing up in a community where the reputation and honour of one’s family are often considered more important than doing what makes the individual happy, the instinct to give mental health its due was not a natural one. Although I also grew up in India and lived there for the majority of my teen years, our generation was much more aware of mental health (thanks to the internet), which made us feel responsible to educate not only ourselves but also the previous generations. But having moved to Canada in 2015, learning more about the topic and trying to teach our elders only continued to lead to disagreements due to their wired mindsets.
Naturally then, I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad that my recent diagnosis is largely a direct result of all the times I felt pressured by him and not being able to make my own choices to a point where he would decide what I would wear or how I would present myself, with the reason being “You have to carry yourself gracefully and I am just teaching you.”
There were days when I was expected to be a different version of myself, which made me hide who I was. I neglected this fact for so long that, even after so much effort, I find it difficult to channel my true voice when I write this piece. In order to save my life and preserve my identity, I cannot be the person I am in front of my family and express my views or opinions on various subjects without being perceived as rude, mean, disrespectful, or reprimanded for being out of character. All they want to see is a person who listens to what they say without asking questions; someone who is obedient and does not challenge their ideas or opinions with her own.
Now, at the age of 24, life has certainly not been easy. My mom passed away around the time I graduated from high school, and I was married off to a cousin soon after. Being an only child, I was always very close to my mom. When she passed away, I experienced severe depression and attachment issues, which affected how I trusted the people around me. With an arranged marriage added to the mix, where I was put under the constant pressure of being a “perfect wife,” my condition started getting worse. The overpowering nature of my ex-husband in making important decisions in my life and shaping my personality as per his taste led me to develop inferiority complexes and a reduced confidence in the way I carry myself. Although I have since happily remarried, I find that these past incidents have played just as much of a role in my mental health as they did in the shaping of my personality.
Since my diagnosis, when I try to think of ways to work on my mental health, I realize that no person is more important than myself. No matter how cliché that sounds, I am now trying to let go of relationships that strip me of my individuality and freedom. I have also stopped trying to please the people around me, including my dad, and started focusing on what pleases me. Despite the fact that this change in mindset has been liberating for me, I sometimes feel guilty and selfish for these thoughts because I grew up being taught that we should let go of things that make us happy for the sake of the society that we live in.
There’s a culture of silence surrounding mental health in South Asian communities that stems from a lack of acceptance and understanding. Some parents think it is unacceptable to talk about a child’s feelings because, according to them, children know nothing. I think it might be fair to say that many young “desi” people reading this would support this statement if they have heard this suggestion at least once in their life. Some of our parents believe we don’t understand the world as they do - and they’re right. We don’t. But that doesn’t mean that our feelings don’t matter or that our philosophies shouldn’t evolve. Especially as we grow up in a world where we are supported by our peers, society, and even the government in prioritizing our well-being and mental health.
It also has to involve a shift in the family mentality. Consider that some young people grow suicidal from family pressures alone. According to a 2013 paper by researchers Diana Samuel and Leo Sher for the National Library of Medicine, for example, the family unit has both a good and bad influence on suicide in the Indian culture. When seeking mental health care, the family acts as a protective component that gives significant support for the individual, but it also produces an individual that is inseparable from their parent’s choices, culture, and values, which frequently complicates the problem. Because of the stigma, Indians often regard mental illness as a source of shame. Religion is so valued in Indian society that people who are diagnosed as mentally ill frequently employ herbal cures, seek advice from religious leaders, and visit religious facilities before seeking a medical mental health diagnosis.
Children in South Asian households are under so much pressure to be “perfect” that parents fail to realize they are curbing the growth of their children’s personalities and stripping them of their innocence. Parents also have to let go of the “log kya kahenge” (what will people say/think) mentality. Often used to suppress the desires of a young person or, for that matter, anyone who finds happiness in something that is not traditional in the community that they come from, this mentality has led to so many choosing life paths they perhaps did not originally want.
Today, I am happy, largely because I distanced myself from my family (in a good way and not by having to cut ties) after I moved in with my husband, and I am no longer under their constant radar. I am pursuing a career in journalism that gives me a voice I’ve long suppressed while being married to a wonderful person who supports me in all my endeavours and teaches me how to love and put myself first. My father, however, although on the sidelines, only expresses interest in my marriage and remains discouraging of my career. Ultimately, he feels that my putting myself first is wrong and I do it only to be rebellious.
But that doesn’t bother me quite as much anymore, because this journey has taught me that perhaps my father is dissatisfied with the choices he made in life because he decided to live up to society’s so-called expectations. This vicious cycle is proof of how important mental health awareness is. The South Asian community needs to leave behind its prejudiced mindset and adopt a more open approach to the conversation. We must start learning more before we continue to prevent further generations from bottling up their feelings, and in order to make it more comfortable for them to speak up.
As I arrive at my conclusion, I still am not able to decide whether I should publish this piece or keep it to myself. I am weighing the pros and cons of it as I am writing this very sentence and phew, do the cons outweigh the pros. After all the eye-openers that I have listed, I am afraid to say that the reaction I will get from my family if I do choose to publish this is something that I don’t want to deal with for the sake of my sanity.
I know that sharing my experience will give a voice to the many young readers from the South Asian community that relate, but I also know this would mean that I would have to face the many tantrums sure to be thrown by my family for airing our dirty laundry in public and bringing “dishonour” upon them (as they would put it).
But as I look back at my journey, I also look at this piece with hope. A hope that this might bring forth that awareness, that people might begin to make sincere efforts toward learning and acknowledging mental health and giving it as much importance as physical wellbeing. This process has been an emotional one that made me open my eyes to the things I love, the choices that matter, and my sense of being. I finally feel validated, not by the world, but by myself for being true to my emotions.
About the Author: Naila Syed is a Toronto-based Indian Muslim journalist, a dedicated wife, and a dessert lover. Playing with words is something she has always done, even as a child. She hopes to be a representative for hijabis in the industry. When she isn’t writing, she loves to travel, cook, paint, interior design, DIY, and is a huge foodie.