The South Asian Times

13 December 2019 05:01 AM

Indian Americans struggle with mental health issues

By Jinal Shah

South Asian Americans especially Indian Americans may be a ‘model minority’ in achieving ‘the American dream’ however this mod-el community has not been particularly successful in addressing issues related to mental health.

In fact experts believe that there may be psychological effects on being perceived as the model minority. A 2009 focus group study- ‘model minority at risk: expressed needs of mental health by Asian American young adults’ that had two focus groups with 17 young adults from eight Asian American communities including Asian Indians in Montgomery County, Maryland highlighted several common sources of stress  that affected the mental health of Asian American young adults. Some of them being: pressure to meet parental expectations of high academic achievement and live up to the "model minority" stereotype; difficulty of balancing two different cultures and communicating with parents; family obligations based on the strong family values; and discrimination or isolation due to racial or cultural background. Experts suggest that stress leads to isolation and depression.

In a bid to raise awareness around the issues of mental health among minority communities, the United States House of Representatives, in2008, proclaimed July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to address severe mental illness in di-verse communities. According to a report by National Alliance on Mental Health-one of the country’s largest non-profit organizations ad-dressing the issue of mental health-one out of four adults living in the US and one out of every 10 children struggle with mental health issues. The numbers become grimmer when they are associated with Asian and South Asians; due to lack of data, it is difficult to point out the specific number of South Asians facing mental health issues. However, a study released by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF) reported that a higher percentage of South Asian Americans, especially between the ages of 15 to 24, tested positive for symptoms of depression. Additionally, young South Asian American women have a higher rate of suicide when compared to the larger American population. The study noted that family conflict, anxiety and stress were precursors to depression and suicide in this community.

Dr  Vasudev  Makhija, clinical associate professor at department of psychiatry at Seton Hall University and founder of South Asian Mental Health Initiative and Network (SAMHIN), adds cultural change, isolation, lack of support from loved ones and in some extreme cases even domestic violence as some of the triggers of mental illness in young women. The APIAHF report further noted that despite the high number of cases, South Asian Americans are the lowest users of mental health services because of the perceived cultural stigma attached to mental health issues.

The 2009 study supports the findings of APIAHF report stating that young Asian Americans tend not to seek professional help for their mental health problems; instead they use personal support networks-close friends, significant others, and religious community. “Cultural stigma is not unique to the South Asians but is very much prevalent and this stops many families or individuals from seeking help,” added Dr Makhija who is also the past president of NJ Psychiatric Association.

 However, another aspect is the lack of culturally and linguistically specific services that address the unique issues faced by the South Asian com-munities. This lack of culturally appropriate programs and caregivers motivated Dr Makhija to start SAMHIN. “Through the organization, we are trying to educate, engage and empower the South Asian community to promote mental health literacy and serve as a resource to pro-vide consultation to health care policy makers and health care delivery facilities,” he said.

Currently Dr Makhija is in the process of developing a searchable database of South Asian mental health care providers, social services and mental health resources to improve access to mental health care. He is even exploring ways to make affordable treatment services avail-able considering a lot of patients do not have medical insurance or their insurance is not accepted by providers in the patient’s vicinity.

Another organization actively working for South Asians for years is South Asian Mental Health Aware-ness in Jersey-SAMHAJ, affiliated with National Alliance of Mental Illness. The organization has a number of resources designed for South Asian individuals and families suffering with various mental illnesses.

Dr Makhija tapped this source of religious support along with Arsha Bodha Center four years ago. “The Hindu community in Central New Jersey has grown significantly in the past decade, but culturally competent services have not kept up with this growth. The Jana Raksha  community care program at Arsha  Bodha Cen-ter reaches out to community members coping with physical or emotional distress caused by illness, life events or family situations,” said Dr Makhija.

The center provides free of charge confidential one-on-one support, offering encouragement and spiritual comfort to those in need and also provide referrals to community based services that are available.“Although the program is intended to help members of the Hindu com-munity in Central New Jersey but the program can be replicated in all religious places, schools etc.” he added.

Update: 30 July, 2014