Mental health has become a trendy topic in the past few years. With many advocates raising awareness about the importance of mental health, and more resources now being available, stigma around the topic is slowly disappearing in Western society. However, even with this increase in awareness, research has shown that minority groups, such as South Asians, are influenced by cultural expectations that hinder open discourse around mental health. Those minorities continue to be impacted greatly by the stigma surrounding mental illness, leading to negative attitudes around seeking professional counseling.
Mental health can be best defined as “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being” (MentalHealth.gov, 2022). It impacts the way an individual behaves and feels, and even how they deal with stress and important decisions. In order to understand the stigma surrounding mental health in South Asian Americans, one needs to understand the particular behaviors and beliefs that that group holds to be important. As populations of individuals with ancestry from South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and India, grow in the United States, it is more important than ever to do just that.
South Asian communities have unique values that sometimes clash with mainstream Western ones; conversations about professional help are rarely or never had. South Asians tend towards a collectivist attitude and a set hierarchical structure in the family. Family values are weighed much more greatly than individual matters, which generally must be figured out discreetly (Loya et al., 2010). When an individual strays away from the cultural norm by seeking out psychological help, it is believed that she brings shame to her family. Additional complicating factors that lead to hesitation in using mental health resources include “fear and secrecy” neighboring mental illness, misunderstanding of the causes of mental illnesses, “social pressure to conform,” devaluation of people with mental health disorders, and even the damaging of marriage prospects as a result of a person’s acquiring help (Ahmed et al., 2017). All factors mentioned, among others, heavily influence perceptions of mental health, which carry from youth to adulthood. A cycle of negative attitudes and dismissive beliefs is created, such that stigmatization blocks access to mental health resources.
Research indicates that in comparison to Caucasian college students, South Asian college students have less positive attitudes towards counseling (Loya et al., 2010), making it less likely that they reach out for those services. Continued stigma surrounding mental illness explains these attitudes towards psychological counseling, which consequently leads to South Asians less frequently utilizing available resources. Compared to Caucasian students, South Asian students evince more personal stigma than perceived stigma around mental health (Arora et al., 2016). Perceived stigma refers to the negative attitudes that are held by a society as a whole about those with mental illness, while personal stigma is an individual’s own belief about those with mental health disorders. Though there are questions about which has greater impact, both affect attitudes toward professional help, serving as a barrier between needed resources for treatment for many.
Gender-based research shows that women tend to be more receptive in seeking psychological attention for mental health concerns than men (Arora et al., 2016). The gender dissimilarity is likely influenced by the variation in gendered expectations and ideals. For South Asian populations living in the United States, orthodox views are more likely to be prevalent in those who immigrated, as they tend to favor conservative attitudes. Traditional values whereby men are socially pressured to be “stronger” and women are seen to be more “fragile'' create rigid definitions of what it means to be a man and a woman in society. South Asian women in particular are seen to be more impressionable to instability and more liable to shame. Contrastingly, South Asian men are discouraged from expressing emotion and pain. In this context, it figures that South Asian men are less likely than women to seek help (Arora et al., 2016).
Though there is limited detailed research about the beliefs of South Asian communities that affect their perspectives on mental health, there is a great deal of research that captures the negative impacts of their maintaining a stigmatized lens. That research is relevant to efforts to promote those communities’ use of mental health services (Arora et al., 2016). Education catered to the concerns of South Asian communities about mental illnesses would allow for more open conversations about the potential impact of reaching out for help. Taking into consideration the ideals and values of South Asian culture, while also promoting available resources, would improve engagement in treatment and work against stigmatizing beliefs.
In a society that has come to encourage the acceptance of one’s mental health, it is important that this change reaches everyone, including those in minority groups. South Asians must overcome their communities' traditional views that stigmatize mental health and prioritize their individual needs through seeking professional help. This can not be done alone; the youth and older generations must be educated, and more in-depth resources need to be created to cater to the specific issues faced by those in the South Asian community.
Ahmed, N., Ahmed, S., Carmichael, Z., & Sami, A. S. (2017). Measuring Healthy Lifestyle and Mental Health Indicators in South Asian Women Using the “Your Health: Quality of Life and Well-Being” Questionnaire. Annals of Global Health, 83(3-4), 463–470. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.aogh.2017.09.007
Arora, P. G., Metz, K., & Carlson, C. I. (2016). Attitudes toward professional psychological help seeking in South Asian students: Role of stigma and gender. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44(4), 263–284. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmcd.12053
Loya, F., Reddy, R., & Hinshaw, S. P. (2010, September 20). Mental Illness Stigma as a Mediator of Differences in Caucasian and South Asian College Students' Attitudes Toward Psychological Counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021113
What Is Mental Health? | MentalHealth.gov. (2022, February 28). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health