Unmuting Mental Health: Breaking the Taboo at Home

‘Abbu, I saw a counsellor today,’ I said, clutching the corner of the kitchen counter top. I waited for my dad’s response, feeling a little too hopeful.

How could I think telling my dad I was having mental health issues would evoke the sensitivity I deserve? It was nothing against him personally, he is my dad and I would go to the ends of the earth for him. But being from a traditional South Asian cultural background has its drawbacks—there are some issues these cultures have very little awareness of.

And one of those issues, alongside love marriages and the decision not to pursue STEM careers, is the discussion around mental health.

The ominous look that covered my dad’s face was an indication that he was not going to be as understanding as I had hoped.

‘What do you need to see a mental health professional for when you have your family?’ he asked, the name rolling off his tongue so uneasily I knew he wouldn’t be as understanding as I had hoped.

Unintentionally, this revelation somehow became a guilt complex; I was suddenly feeling culpable for even considering speaking with a stranger about the way I was feeling. Of course, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. ‘It’s just a bad day’, ‘we all feel depressed sometimes’ or ‘why can’t you tell me what happened so I can fix it?’ are among some of the more popular responses I have become so used to whenever I try to tell my parents I’m a little upset.

When I finally escaped my dad’s lectures, and his disapproval, I got to thinking—why have children of migrants like myself just accepted this behaviour from our parents? And why have we just accepted that we can’t speak about mental health?

Perhaps it is simply a generational gap between baby boomers like my parents and millennials like my sister and myself. Or, maybe it is a cultural conflict between migrant parents and raising children with a South Asian background in a Western country like Australia.

Many migrants create this ideal fantasy about what life outside the motherland could look like. And for my parents, when they made the move in the mid-1990s, that included better job opportunities, career security, a far more stable economy, fair legal systems and a less polluted climate to raise children in.

But perhaps what many migrants fail to negotiate is the cultural and traditional compromise they must make in order to raise their children away from their home country. And when children grow up in a country like Australia, where mental wellbeing is discussed within educational institutions freely and from a young age, a certain internal conflict occurs for a child living between two cultures.

So, why is mental health stigmatised in South Asian cultures?

Mental health is taboo in South Asian cultures, but the reason why is blurry. The Time to Change campaign from the UK conveyed that unlike western cultures, which encourage individualism, South Asian cultures take a collectivist approach, one that thrives on the bond and status within that community.

The fact that there is such little research into mental health in the South Asian community reveals much in itself—it tells us that many members of this culture lack the awareness of these issues and therefore resist its discussion. A 2014 study on the mental health of South Asian immigrants shows this, concluding that stigma and denial of mental illness became a barrier in providing treatment to those mentally struggling with their immigration.

Moreover, many feel that the South Asian community, especially those of the older generation, fail to talk about mental health because the ‘brown way’ prefers silence. If we threaten that silence and reveal we may be feeling slightly unhappy for no apparent reason, we give the impression that we are weak. And in South Asian cultures, impression is everything—disclosing mental health issues may lead to a loss of respect for not only the person suffering, but also their family. But this silence is what has caused our fear of telling our parents what we are going through. If we tell our parents we are dealing with anxiety or depression, we risk inadvertently telling them we are ungrateful for all they have sacrificed for us—which of course, is not even remotely the case.

Growing up with two completely contrasting cultures aside, dealing with mental health issues requires sensitivity, awareness and a delicate understanding. If there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout our schooling, it’s that it’s always okay to ask someone for help if we’re struggling.

And if we as the children of South Asian migrants are ever going to decrease the stigma around mental health, we not only need to begin discussing the issue in a more constructive and conversational way with our parents—but more importantly, we need to accept that our feelings are valid, our mental illnesses are not personal weaknesses, and that seeking professional help is a perfectly responsible thing to do for ourselves.

Once we start holding ourselves accountable, accepting our feelings and honouring our decisions to seek help, we can pass these attitudes down to our own children and reduce the taboo that surrounds mental health.

As cliché as it may sound, that change starts with us.


Image: Almond Blossom (cropped), Vincent Van Gogh, 1890. Licensed for reuse under the Public Domain.


The author is a student, writer and poet. Introduced to old media by her father at a young age, she shares his love for worn books, black-and-white films and scratchy records. She is forever trying to make sense of her imagination through poetry, words and art.

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