Maintaining an image worsens mental health issues among Indian-Americans

I’ve been treating my mental illness with yoga and pujas for the most part; my mom’s been writing me those prescriptions since the day I was diagnosed. Unfortunately, no amount of air inhaled deeply into my stomach, or incense from Agarbatti, has cleared up the mess inside my head.

What she and most other brown parents, including my dad (an empirically-minded PhD in the “hard sciences”), fail to realize is that mental health can’t be adequately treated with any cultural or religious remedy. A glaring, toxic social culture contributes to mental health issues more than anything else. Ignoring it will only make things worse, on both the individual and community level.

 Everything I say here is straight from the horse’s mouth. A welcome change, since for a while I was basically a show pony. I was the perfect brown kid in my parents’ eyes. They saw me strain for straight A’s and obsessively study for the SAT. Miraculously, the mental illness that I was diagnosed with in middle school seemed to have disappeared in high school. It shouldn’t go unmentioned that my mental illness didn’t sprout in a vacuum, like any other young brown person that deals with it also understands. The vagueness of this sentence itself is a symptom of the problem that I’m motioning towards.

 No one outside the household knew about my mental illness when I was in middle school. In our little brown group, the kids’ academic success was prioritized over their well-being. It was also an indication of parental success, and any break from this script indicated the opposite. The fact that your seventh grader was already on antidepressants wasn’t exactly worth sharing when that other couple’s kid was skipping grades in math like nobody’s (everybody’s) business. My parents saw me as a liability that they had to keep me a secret. I was a kid, so I felt like I was a liability and had to keep myself a secret.  Pretending like I was normal, at best, just made things worse.

Yes, worse. In high school, I shut out everything except that which would help me gain admissions into a “good” college. I was still deeply troubled, but my troubles presented in a much more functional and commendable way. I felt like I would die if I didn’t get A’s, but at least I was getting A’s. My main motivation was to destroy any past perception that I wouldn’t amount to anything. I wanted to prove to my parents and myself that we were both wrong, but I was still living for an image. One that my parents would be proud of, and that our little brown group would admire. The people who should be the most supportive in my life were kept from knowing me, or at the very least knowing that I needed help. For all my studying, I withheld that knowledge from myself too.

My parents came during visiting hours at Cayuga’s inpatient psychiatric ward. I spent a few days there towards the end of my fifth semester at Cornell. They looked like they couldn’t recognize me. I thought it finally became clear to them that I needed to deal with my mental illness once and for all.

I came out of the closet to myself at the start of my first semester in college, but my high school self didn’t come out with me. Middle school me did. I could barely bring myself to study, get out of bed or sleep for that matter. I just spent most of my time sinking deeper into rumination, and trolling my hallmates to momentarily escape it.

What was the point of becoming a neurosurgeon with an MD-PhD when being gay would destroy any pride my parents had in that path? My sexuality would be the hottest tea any of these aunties or uncles ever drank in their entire lives, forget mental illness. I couldn’t bear the idea of my parents bearing that shame. I had just made them so proud by getting into Cornell. I eventually gave in and desperately asked my parents if I could take a leave and finally deal with my mental illness in the middle of that semester. They sternly disapproved. But actions have ways of expressing things words can’t.

I thought I was getting too personal in my writing; I’m saying “I” too much. Then I read a piece by Samira Sadeque in The Lily about “The silent lives of childhood sexual abuse survivors in America’s South Asian diaspora.” Sadeque reports on a number of individual stories, and centers that of Samiha Khan, a 23-year-old who dealt with mental illness and decided to end her life. In the piece, her best friend says Samiha’s father sexually abused her as a child. Making Samiha’s story public has done damage to her family’s image. But ironically, and more importantly, it’s the pressure to maintain that image which damages victims like Samiha further. Tania Rahman wrote a piece for Brown Girls Magazine called “Sex, Gays and Suicide: Why Taboo Topics Are the Downfall of South Asians,” which is cited in Sadeque’s. Rahman includes LGBT concerns, alongside parental expectations, matrimonial inequality, and sexual abuse as yet another “taboo” issue that isn’t talked about. Both writers stress that silence about them, including the mental health issues they are tied to, just allows everything to fester.

During my nearly yearlong mental health leave, my mental health did not improve. It was made clear to me that I was a liability that had to be kept a secret. My first and only priority would be getting back to Cornell ASAP.  I underestimated shock value when it came to my parents; it seems they are permanently blind. When aunties and uncles visited, I had to tell them I was doing the Cornell in Washington program to explain my presence. I didn’t care what they knew about me, but my parents couldn’t bear telling them about my mental health leave. Actually, sometimes I did want to tell them. Maybe then I would know what community support feels like, on the off-chance that they would be supportive.

I wish these aunties and uncles, and their kids, were people that I could confide anything in. Technically speaking, they all are since we all hurt. None of us have perfect narratives that chronologically progress in their perfection, no matter how much we want others to see that. If we can just look past that and admit that all our lives are haphazard, then maybe we can actually start straightening some things out, in terms of addressing the structural issues that plague our community that both lead to and include mental health issues themselves and our collective silence on the matter. At its worst, this silence protects criminals and desolates victims. Breaking it would work to reverse this dynamic.

Suicide is preventable. Mental illness and mental health issues at large are empirically real and treatable. Everyone should have confidence that any omission would be met with care and protection when appropriate, not shame and victim-blaming from the community they were born into and grew up in. I’m not a generally urgent person, but some of these situations are life and death.

I can’t shake the feeling that this shift is mostly on my generation’s shoulders. We are growing up and becoming individuals in our own regard, and finding people to lean on ourselves. They are oftentimes other young brown people that we can relate to. It’s not really a community though. It’s more like a refuge. Despite my feelings, I would be remiss if I didn’t extend this hope to my parents’ generation, and my parents themselves even now, considering the extent to which we are still involved in their lives and how much our relationships with them have and continue to affect us. It also has to do with a belief that’s gotten me through a lot: that it’s never too late.

I made it back to Cornell, thankfully. I still haven’t found the time to take treating my mental illness seriously. I found a healthy outlet through writing, but it’s not enough.  I’ve made a real resolution to take matters into my own hands and take concrete steps towards it next semester. I can’t keep living like this, but in a positive way. In an “it’s never too late” sort of way.

I attended a wedding while I was on mental health leave. One of the kids I grew up with in my little brown group was getting married. I don’t really like him; he became nasty to me after I got into Cornell. I’ve known him for fifteen years, but don’t know much about him and he doesn’t know much about me. He definitely doesn’t know about my struggle with mental illness. We were introduced to the bride recently, but she was also Tamil so there was little room for scandal. The groom’s father made a speech thanking his son for “respecting the culture” and it was met with thunderous applause.

It brought back a memory from several years ago, when the groom was talking to me, from the safety of his car, about the confines of “the culture” that we were both raised in. One I’m sure the bride was raised in too. I always thought I wouldn’t see him at all once I didn’t have to, but maybe I’ll invite him to my wedding. Maybe we can talk then.

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