HomeIndian AmericanOp Ed: Asian American youth struggle with mental health

Op Ed: Asian American youth struggle with mental health

By Raghav Subramaniam, One Suryan

Life is a boat on water. 

Yes, the overused yet timeless analogy ties perfectly into the topic at hand.

The boat is no single color in particular, it’s just enough to tell where the boat starts, and the water ends. 

It seemed like there were other boats around, but it’s too blurry to tell. You’re wearing a rough hoodie adorned with the emblems of the Ivy League, one that still never fits you. You were barefoot for some reason. A reason that you’re too tired to think of. 

Sleep. The enticing idea forms in your mind, but now was no time to sleep. So you dip your hand into the freezing water, warm enough to not freeze your arm, but cold enough to jolt you until your feet jerk into the place where your head was once laying.

It was anything but pleasant, but it woke you up, didn’t it?

Now, everything seems clearer, calmer, almost too calm actually. “Why am I not doing anything?”, “Why didn’t I bring someone else?”, “Shouldn’t you be preparing for your Economics exam right now?”. The questions keep falling, as does your sanity. School, exams, parents, deadlines, due dates, the worry, the want to be “productive” keeps looming. Again, for the millionth time, the mind never endingly debates itself, on the question of whether it’s really worth it.

But before it can drive you to complete madness, everything stops.

It could have been a sign of peace, of stability, or maybe even finding the purpose of life.

Though it was most probably the seemingly omnipresent wave that pummeled the face of the ocean itself.

You cry for help, then your hands instinctively pin your mouth down, because you remember the flashbacks. Of the rules. Of showing honor, humbleness, and respectfulness. Yelling your lungs out doesn’t seem to fit into any of those, you think. 

from Unsplash by Viktor Jakovlev

The waves grow bigger, and bigger, until eventually the sky is dressed with nothing but enormous streaks of water rushing down.

Consequently, you go down, still alive however. You can still hear your heartbeat, your mind being terrified, your brain yelling at you for putting yourself in such a position.

It was a feeling akin to a black hole engulfing reality itself. At the blink of an eye, what you had held in your hand, had now become your captor, your most enchanting enemy.

But wait, this was different. Black holes have no escape, no light, no weakness. But this was just water, right? The surface is visible. Getting to the other side of a glass wall, seemed easy enough.

You need to swim. Other people didn’t drown at this age, as you’ve been told many times. Because drowning was for the weak. For kamzor people who didn’t study, or drink enough water. For those who had no self control, and no discipline. Because what is a person without discipline?

The legs start moving, pushing frantically, for a chance to burst through the surface. All just for one single breath of air. The surface came closer. Closer. Closer. The promise of oxygen teasing your mind. Until your nose is at the tip, and you can feel the sun waiting to embrace your face. But there was something wrong, for while you kept getting closer, you never actually got over the surface. Knowing that a human can only hold their breath for so long, you push even more frantically, but when you look down, the legs are not moving. They never were, and never knew how to. 

Your mind, now clinging to rationality by a single hair, begins the questions again. “Is it really worth it?”. It now seems so convincing to ask. Were the sleepless nights, the constant stress, the trauma, was it all really worth it?

Finally, you reach the surface somehow. The wet clothes and cold wind, forever burning your skin. 

You sit in the boat, restraining your knees to your soaked hoodie. The emblems now discolored and disfigured as you look around you at the other boats that were once in sight. Now they were gone. 

You start to question, did you really drown?

You felt the water on the ground, the coldness of your skin, and the tiredness in your eyes. 

But when you ask, the world tells you the same line. There’s no honor, no maanam (honor) in drowning. “Drowning is for the weak”. 

In the end you’re left with nothing but eyes full of seawater, and the Economics exam you still haven’t studied for.

Many would give anything to learn how to stay above water. Whether it be wearing a floatie, gripping 5 life jackets, or taking private tutoring on it. But your society, culture, and world, tell you it’s normal. You should get over it. 

In reality, feeling your heartbeat out of your chest every second isn’t a sign you’re “still alive”. It’s a sign that there’s something bothering you, that can be fixed. And that there’s no shame in finding a way to fix it.

From Unspash by Anthony Tran

Far too many youth in the Asian American and Indian American community feel the pressure to suppress their mental health. Even when they want to seek help, and want to learn how to swim, more often than not they must silence themselves to “save face”. 

Nobody would think twice about sending someone to a hospital because of a physical injury. If you have a sprained knee, take this physical therapy. If you have arm pain, take these pills. If you have a cold, take these lozenges. But when it comes to mental health, taking mental therapy becomes a disgrace. A disappointment to not just yourself, but the whole family name. 

Nevertheless, some may argue (and rightfully so), that our forefathers and ancestors had to endure far worse struggles, and performed the unthinkable. Without drowning. Wars, flus, crossing the ocean, colonization, lynchings, no water, no infrastructure. They overcame all these problems without drowning. 

But while the struggles of a very different generation in a very different world are vastly different from what others faced, this doesn’t make them any less important. They need to be given attention too, regardless of their nature. Differences aren’t permission to invalidate what people are feeling.

A few weeks ago, One Suryan, an organization empowering South Asian youth worldwide, founded by the author, Raghav Subramaniam, teamed up with South Asian Girls Project; an organization giving mentorship to South Asian girls, to run a focus group and survey to try to understand mental health needs in the South Asian community. Out of the people who participated, only 4 people were able to answer a definitive ”yes” when asked whether or not their parents supported mental health. Popular responses included “don’t know, we don’t talk about it”, “what”, “I wish”, and “both”. It goes to show how chaotic talking about mental health currently is. If a problem can’t even be acknowledged, then addressing it is out of the question. 

One person in particular who participated, used this to describe Desi culture: “everyone is working towards the same goal, some for the wrong reasons, creating a huge amount of competition, which frankly, I am horrible with dealing with. This is, of course, the cause of so much of my academic stress”

Though many responses were collected, she was one of the only participants who was okay with their responses being shared.

“While asking for responses from some of my close friends, a lot of them refused to even enter, because they thought they’d get caught”, says Somya Sakalle, director of campaigns at One Suryan. 

“Even when they were told it would be anonymous, many wanted to hide their devices while they took it”.

From Unspash by Aman Hasani

Another response puts it as so: “To put into better words, nobody seems to care for each other anymore as a result of academic pressure and I’ve had many experiences with toxic friendships because of this. I personally don’t see the reason why people should break friendships out of something so trivial, but I can see that academic pressure is becoming a huge problem”

Under no circumstances should academics be forgotten, but the essential needs of humans should be addressed as well. Academic pressure is driving many to exploit their very own friendships, just for academic gain. It also drives many to skip a good night’s rest for a test or quiz. Sleep is something that should never be seen as too “unproductive”. In the Whitehall II Study, researchers found that those who had cut their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night nearly doubled their risk of death from all causes. These are all issues that many feel aren’t important enough to address.

“Some of the answers were really tough to read,” explains Shyamsundhar Nagarajan, a One Suryan member. “It makes you think how restrictive culture may be right now, that people feel more comfortable telling their struggles to people they’ve never met, than to tell their own family and friends”

Many other responses that were collected described the never-ending cycle of supposed serenity, and deep lows. They explained how they felt it repeating, and repeating. How every happy moment just felt like the lull between another panic attack. The key to the exit, left unreachable by society.

The last response ends with this.

“Thus begins my self deprecating thoughts and extreme stress, yet again” 

But one day, it will be acceptable for someone to finally learn how to keep their head above water, by themselves. And that day, nobody will have to restrain themselves from being human. 

About the Author: Raghav Subramaniam founded One Suryan, a youth organization of mostly high school students that advocates for change in the South Asian community

For more information on both organizations, visit suryan.org, or visit @onesuryan on Instagram!

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