Ritu Bhasin
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Why I Care About Mental Health
 

A mental health researcher at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health recently shared a fact with me that I’d never heard: that young South Asian women are at a higher risk for suicide and psychotic disorders. This got me thinking a lot about my own journey with caring for my mental health as a South Asian woman. It also got me thinking about the stigma surrounding the subject of mental health, which prevents so many people from accessing the support they need.

It’s time for all of us to speak up about mental health, and take proactive steps to normalize this conversation in our communities. So I want to share my story with you. 

My Mental Health Journey

My journey with caring for my mental health started when I was a teenager. By the age of 15, I was experiencing a lot of turmoil in my life. As a child of South Asian immigrant parents, I struggled with a strict home life that felt suffocating, coped with cultural confusion, and endured relentless racism from my peers. All of this led me to feel very down, and I even experienced suicidal feelings at times. Luckily, I was close to one of the guidance counsellors at my high school and through talking with her I was able to see my way through a very tough time. 

A new set of struggles cropped up a few years later in university. During my undergraduate studies, I was striving to achieve the high grades and high LSAT score I knew I needed to get into law school, and the pressure was tremendous. Coupled with ongoing family stress and romantic ups and downs, I was in a place where I again needed support. As a university student, I was fortunately able to access free psychotherapy through my school. This was my first experience with therapy, and I’ve never looked back. 

Since that time, over twenty years ago, I’ve had consistent pockets of psychotherapy to help me through painful times like bad breakups and family stress. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to access this support, which has enabled deep, healing self-reflection. I’ve been seeing my therapist now for the past four years, which I credit in part with why I feel anchored, healthy, and well-adjusted overall. Most importantly, my two decades of therapy work have equipped me with the tools I need to cope when life inevitably has its ups and downs. (For example, when I’m struggling through a really hard moment, and my therapy session isn’t for another three weeks, I actually say to myself something to the effect of, “You are going to make it through this because you have the tools to work through it. What action would best serve you here?”)

When I mention that I’m in therapy, people often remark that they’re surprised to hear this—especially given how “happy and together” I seem on the outside. But the truth is that it’s therapy and my deep commitment to doing other self-work (see below for examples of this) that have gotten me to this place: I owe being anchored, healthy, and well-adjusted to the work I’ve done, and continue to do, there. Of course, I still struggle in moments across life’s various “buckets” (how I feel about myself, my family, and personal relationships, my love life, work, and more), as we all do, but structured outlets for mental health care have been transformative for me.

Caring for Your Mental Health

It’s important that each of us care for our mental health in a way that’s individualized and feels right to us—for who we are, and how we live. For me, one-on-one psychotherapy has been a really effective strategy. But I recognize that this is a very Westernized way of caring for mental health—it won’t work for everyone across every culture, and it’s not the only option. 

There are a number of activities you can engage in to care for your mental health, quite a few of which I rely on in addition to therapy: retreats, courses, or classes (for example, on mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other forms of healing), journaling, meditation, prayer, exercise, hobbies, body work like massage, reiki, or acupuncture, reading and research on well-being, and much more. The point is to take proactive steps to care for your mental health.

If hiring a professional, or availing yourself of some of the strategies above, is cost prohibitive, you can always look to the internet. There’s a wealth of free mental health resources online, including The Roshni Project—which I’m proud to have supported through the bhasin consulting inc. Fund for Inclusion in Mental Health.

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma

Several years ago, I’d only have told a select group of people about my work in therapy, and other forms of mental health self-care that I do. Why? Because of shame and fear—two emotions that, unfortunately, many people feel around the subject of mental health. I thought that if I revealed my struggles with experiencing moments of depression to others that they would look at me differently, as though I was flawed. Now I know that I have to speak my truth—and I also know that I’m far from alone in struggling. 

There is so much stigma in our society tied back to mental health, and some cultures are particularly reticent to discuss it, including South Asian cultures. This is unfortunate, because the South Asian community—my community—struggles with mental health issues, domestic violence, addiction, sexual abuse, and other issues that desperately need to be discussed in the open. We must do a better job of speaking out about what we’re experiencing and living with.

I remember a particular exchange with my father a few years ago that illustrates this kind of discomfort. He grew up in India, and at a time when mental health was really not discussed, and he immigrated to Canada in adulthood. About ten years ago, I was speaking to him on the phone while walking to the subway on the way to a therapy session. He asked me where I was going, and I responded that I was going to see my therapist. 

“What?” he said.  

“I’m going to see my therapist,” I said again.  

“Why are you going to do that?” he asked. 

“Because I have to talk about my problems,” I said.

He paused and then said, “You don’t need to see a doctor to talk about your problems—that’s what your family is for! You should talk to us.”

Without skipping a beat, I responded, exasperated, “What if my problems ARE my family?!?!”

A long, awkward silence followed. I laugh about it now, but it was uncomfortable for both of us. But here’s the key to pushing back against stigma: Despite the discomfort, I’ve continued to speak about mental health to my family and others for years to normalize the topic, and I can say honestly that despite the discomfort and judgment, it’s been worth it for me.

Bottom line—I have to openly talk about my mental health journey, because it’s an important part of my truth.

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After today, how will you interrupt any stigma you’re feeling yourself around mental health, and the stigma that others hold?

Which mental health care strategies do you currently engage in? If you aren’t doing any structured mental health care yet, what will you engage in after today?

 
If You’re Not Black, Don’t Use the N-Word
 

My cousin’s teenage daughter, whom I affectionately call my niece, was recently hanging with some family friends her age when a boy in the group started using the N-word when speaking with another group member (like you would use the term “buddy”). Like us, the boy was South Asian, so my niece told him it wasn’t right for him to use the word. He disagreed, saying, “My Black friends don’t mind.”

Knowing that I teach about culture and diversity for a living, the next time she saw me my niece inquisitively asked, “Is it ok for us to use the N-word?” By “us” she meant South Asians, as other people of color. It took me about a millisecond to respond—"No!”

A person of color who is not Black may identify as an ally, friend, supporter, or advocate for the Black community—which I certainly do—but when it comes to using this word, the answer for us is always is always a resounding, unequivocal “no.” Obviously, the same goes for White people.

Hearing this story, you might be thinking, “Oh this is just teenage behavior! As adults, only white supremacists use this word.” Unfortunately, though, I hear this term used often enough by adults (who, frankly, you’d think would know better) that I feel compelled to address the issue directly and openly. These adults, many of whom would vehemently tell you that they’re “not racist,” are often under the misguided impression that if the N-word shows up as a lyric in a song, or if a Black friend gives them permission, that it must be ok to use, at least sometimes. But it’s not.

Words affirm power, privilege, and supremacy because they hold historical significance. The N-word has been used for hundreds of years as racist language against Black people and has been used as part of an effort to directly and systemically marginalize, oppress, and stigmatize members of Black communities around the world. When we are not Black and we use this term, its use is connected to this history whether or not we intend it to be. Our intentions here don’t matter. The impact does.

We know the impact. Many Black people will tell you that hearing the N-word out of the mouths of people who aren’t Black (and even, sometimes, people who are Black) immediately sends feelings of anger, upset, pain, sadness, inferiority, nausea, and more raging through their bodies. In carrying meaning, words matter.

Which leads me to related questions that burn for many people who aren’t Black: “If Black people are saying it, doesn’t that make it ok?” or “Black people use it in music, so why can’t I sing along?”

Let me be clear here: How Black people choose to use the N-word is entirely up to them. When you are part of a community that has been systematically oppressed for generations, what you choose to do with language that has been used against you is up to you, because you’re directly impacted by its use. There may be disagreement among community members about how a racist slur should be re-claimed or used, but unless you’re part of that community, you don’t get to decide that it’s ok to use it.

If this feels unfair to you, let this be an opportunity for you to examine the impact of systems of power, privilege, and supremacy—and especially to explore how your own behavior can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Because, in feeling that not being able to use the N-word is unfair, you’re part of the latter.

Here’s where I’m going to get even more direct. I have observed that using the N-word is particularly prevalent among South Asian men in Canada and the US, as a greeting or as term of “endearment.”

If you’re doing this, I suspect it’s because you affiliate with aspects of Black culture (for example, music, dance, and art), but know this: it is flat-out wrong for you to use the N-word because of its racist connotations. Even when a Black friend seems okay with it. And maybe, having experienced sting of racism yourself, you think your use of the N-word doesn’t make you racist. But how you choose to behave—including the words you use—impacts how others, including those in the Black community, experience oppression. So do better, and stop using racist language.

There’s a lot of talk about being inclusive these days, but we need to walk the walk if we want to see change—even when it comes to things that might feel small in the moment, like singing along to lyrics in a song. If you’re going to talk the talk, make sure you also walk the walk by interrupting actions rooted in racism when you see them—in yourself, and in others. Paying attention to the language you use is one important way to do this.

If you’re not Black, don't use the N-word. Full stop.

 
4 Ways I’m Underestimated as a Woman of Color
 
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Racism is real, and it seems as though now more than ever before it’s being called out in the public sphere. Just recently, a racist incident at Starbucks—in which two Black men were arrested for not ordering anything, aka for “waiting while Black”—received significant news coverage, caused an uproar across many communities, and prompted immediate action from the company. This kind of coverage helps to make it clearer to those who’ve never experienced the sting of racism that it does, in fact, infiltrate all aspects of our society.

The unfortunate truth for people of color is that what we’re finally seeing discussed in the mainstream just affirms what we already know is true—that racism shows up constantly in our everyday lives and permeates everything that we do. Sometimes this racism shows up as violence or a state-sanctioned violation of our rights. But often it’s far less overt, which can make it more insidious. 

As people of color, these “subtle” acts of racism affect our countless interactions and experiences—who sits beside us on the subway, the level of customer service we receive, how we’re treated at work, and so much more. I can tell you that, as a Brown woman, it’s these more covert forms of racism that I experience on a regular basis. 

One way that racism consistently shows up for me as a woman of color (note: the intersection of race and gender has an amplifying effect on the racism coming my way—the racism I experience is sexist, and the sexism I experience is racist) is in constantly being underestimated. When I was younger and people signaled that they didn’t believe in my value, I would question my own behavior (which I discuss in my book). But now I have crystal clarity about how the racial bias that is woven into our social dynamics impacts how I’m treated.

Sharing our stories of oppression is critical for change, so I want to share a few of the ways that bias and racism impact my daily life. In particular, I want to share examples of less overt racism—what may at first appear to be simple acts of disrespect—because I desperately want more people of color to gain clarity about what’s really going on. Only then can we collectively disrupt what’s happening.

“Are you supposed to be here?”

I travel a lot for work and find myself spending a lot of time in transit with fancy business types—mostly older white men, and very few people who look like me. Because I fly so often, I’ve racked up a high frequent flyer status with my favorite airline, which allows me to be at the front of the line for boarding. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked (by fellow passengers, usually trying to butt in line) to confirm that I’m in the correct line for boarding. Often, I’m met with confusion by people who assume, at first glance, that I couldn’t possibly be in “Zone 1” of the plane. 

This happens to me a few times a month, and every time, I ask myself why I’m experiencing this type of questioning behavior when others in the same line are not. The fact is, these experiences tie back to judgments made about me as a brown-skinned woman. The people in these encounters underestimate me, assuming that, as a woman of color, I couldn’t be “important” enough to board first.

“Are you really worth this much?”

In my work as a global speaker on leadership and diversity, my abilities, level of excellence, and value are often blatantly underestimated. Frequently, people will come up to me after a presentation and say some version of, “I wasn’t expecting much from this presentation, but you really surprised me. You were amazing!” Which leads me to wonder: Why did you assume my presentation wouldn’t be of high quality?

I’m also frequently challenged on my pricing, particularly by new clients. Recently, I had a first-time client (literally) yell at me over the phone, saying, “Are you kidding me? You're trying to charge the same rate as investment bankers on Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street]!” Because I had already signed the agreement, I proceeded with the work. After my presentation, this same individual came up to me and said, “Now I understand why you charge what you do. That was excellent.”

It often feels like, as a woman of color, my credentials and CV are simply not enough to prove my value as a professional. I’m constantly having to “re-audition” for a role that I’ve been an expert in for years now, decades into my career. I know that being questioned in this way is not the norm for similarly qualified, or even less-qualified, white men in my field. Again, when it comes to my work, I’m being underestimated because of others’ biases.

“People don’t care what you have to say.”

When I launched my book last year, I hired a (white, female) publicist to help land media coverage. She pitched the book, which reveals my experiences with bias at work and how to interrupt these types of experiences, to a mainstream TV program. At first the producers (with whom she’d worked often) avoided her messages. After persisting, she was finally told outright that the topic was “too provocative” for them to cover. 

Upon getting this news, my publicist was shocked—she’d never been treated like this by a network, and she rightly identified it as racism, which was very upsetting for her. She couldn’t believe it. I, on the other hand, was not surprised. I knew going into it that it would be an uphill battle to get mainstream coverage as a woman of color—despite the media’s refrain that it wants more diversity, but can’t find it.

This is what racial bias by the media can look like. Covering a topic that is highly relevant among people of color (and others) is considered too provocative for a mainstream TV program—one that regularly covers cutting edge topics, and whose audience is drawn from the most multi-cultural city in the world. Simply put, the network underestimated the relevancy and importance of what I had to say.

“Are you really good enough?”

I was recently put forward for a leadership speaker’s series at a top institution by an esteemed leader there, who knows my work well. Right away it became clear that the event director perceived this as a favor and assumed that I wasn’t qualified to be featured at an event. He immediately scheduled me into a bad timeslot—a Friday afternoon in the summer—knowing that most of their usual audience would be unavailable. As soon as I saw his email with the time it was scheduled, I knew that he expected very little of my talk—both the quality and potential turnout. Of course, I wrote back to advocate for a prime timeslot, because I know my value and there was no way I was going to do the event without one.

Yet again, I was underestimated. Despite being endorsed by a well-respected leader in the organization, and despite the fact that I’m a speaker who does nearly 100 gigs per year, the event director (wrongly!) assumed that nobody would want to attend my event.

It’s Not in My Imagination

Some people who don’t regularly experience racism may argue that there are factors besides race and gender at play in these experiences. Maybe, they’ll say, it’s because people are just jerks. Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe someone was just having a bad day. Maybe you’re reading into it. Or, perhaps, you’re just too sensitive.

But when I recount these stories to other women of color, they know exactly what I mean, because they too have experienced the intersection of racism and sexism.

There are myriad factors at play in any given situation, but over the course of a life, regular patterns begin to emerge tied back to race, gender, and other differences. It doesn’t serve me, or anyone on the receiving end of bias, to dismiss what we know to be true. 

We live in a society entrenched in misogyny and white supremacy, and it does show up in our lived experiences. It’s critical that we recognize this for what it is and keep sharing our stories to help others understand the hurt, the exhaustion, and the setbacks that result from our experiences.