My Voice - 2019

Desi and Depressed: Living with Mental Illness in the South-Asian Community

By Pooja Mehta

I never wanted to die. I just wanted the nightmare to end.

I had a wonderful childhood. My parents immigrated from India in 1991, and worked hard to give my brother and I a great life in Cary, North Carolina. I got to fully explore both the Indian and American parts of my identity. I did gymnastics and garba-raas. I did Sanskar Gurukul and Kumon. I was student body vice-president and on the board for my temple youth group. In 2013, I graduated from high school in the top 10 percent of my class and started my bachelor's degree at Duke University. On the surface, my life was perfect.

Yet, despite my “perfect" life, when I was 13, I started having debilitating panic attacks. When I was 15, I got my formal diagnoses—Anxiety Disorder and Depression. It didn't make sense, but, like cancer or multiple sclerosis or any other chronic disease, mental illness usually doesn't make sense. The symptoms of my disease became a big part of my life. I would have periods of depression so bad that I could not physically move. I would have panic attacks so consuming that the only thing that seemed real to me were the voices in my head. I would become so overwhelmed by agony that the only way to make the symptoms stop seemed to be to kill myself. And I would attempt to—not once, but three times before my 21st birthday.

I was so afraid of anyone finding out about my symptoms that I tried hard not to tell anyone. But, my parents noticed that something was wrong, and we went to my general physician to get help. My physician referred me to a psychiatrist and psychologist, and from then on I started taking daily medications and seeing a therapist regularly. Still, I held the false belief that it was shameful to have a mental illness, and that having a mental illness was my fault. My parents and I had to decide who to tell about this, if anyone, because we did not want to be ostracized or become a topic of gossip. For six years, my mental illness was an intimate secret, shared with only the most trusted of family friends. And for six years, I thought I was the only person in my community who was going through this, until I started speaking up and realized I was not alone. It opened up my world to see many people around me going through similar ordeal. They were able to confide in me knowing that I was right there with them, and I was able to encourage them to get the help they needed.

1 in 5 people in America live with a diagnosable mental illness. According to the Center of Disease Control, among teens and young adults, Asian-Americans are twice as likely to have attempted suicide, and 30 percent more likely to die by suicide than our white counterparts.

Yet of any ethnic group, we are the least likely to seek mental healthcare. Our culture calls for silence around these issues. Diseases like mine are seen as illegitimate, or a poor reflection on my family or my upbringing. People with mental illnesses are seen as incapable, unreliable, and are often a topic of gossip. For a teenager like I was, that translates into immense cultural pressure to suffer in silence until we reach our breaking point. Opening up about having a mental illness feels like a betrayal to the South Asian part of our identity.

I hope to see a future where that is no longer the case. I have Mental Illnesses, and I am a South Asian-American. While it feels like the two cannot coexist, change needs to happen for the hundreds of thousands of people who are South Asian-American and have a mental illness.

Change needs to happen for the kids in our community who have reached out to me asking for help, and said “please don't tell my parents." That change starts with you. Help eliminate the stigma by educating others that mental illnesses are real, and deserve as much importance and respect as physical illnesses.

Make sure that those who have mental illnesses are welcomed and included in your community, and stop discussions that place them as a topic of gossip or drama. Talk to your loved ones about emotional health, and help them recognize that any sadness, stress, or upsetting feelings they may have are valid and not something to be dismissed. If you think someone might need help, encourage them to go to their family doctor who can make an initial assessment and connect them to any other resources they may need.

Remember that mental illness is nobody's fault. It is a disease, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or cancer, and it needs to be treated as such. It can affect anyone, from Deepika Padukone and Trevor Noah, to people who need to live in psychiatric hospitals, to “normal" people like you and me.

To get help during a crisis, call 1-800-273-8255 or text “Help" to 741741. For help finding long-term resources, visit, or call the Helpline of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 800-451-9682. Both of these services will help you find appropriate care for you or your loved one in your area.


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