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?