HomeIndian AmericanHow stigma about mental health impacts Indian Americans

How stigma about mental health impacts Indian Americans

By Harshi Dhingra

Indian Americans with mental health problems struggle with severe distress.

In addition, myths and misconceptions about mental illness have led to severe stigmatization that has undermined people’s quality of life – and Indian Americans have not been spared.

Who are Indian Americans?

A report shows that about 2.7 million Indian Americans were living in the United States as of 2019.

Currently, Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrants, accounting for about 6% of the U.S. foreign-born population.

Indian Americans are the second-largest group after Chinese Americans of Asian Americans. Indian Americans make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, making it the biggest group of southern Asian Americans.

Mental health landscape in India

In research by the World Health Organization in 2015, one out of every five people in India suffers from depression at some point in their lives. And mental disorders are among the most common non-fatal illnesses in India.

In another study conducted by the Lancet Healthy Longevity in 2017, of every seven people in India, one is affected by mental illness.

Mental illness in India is the second leading cause of burden of disease based on years lived with the disease. According to the report, the number of people with mental health problems in India has risen over time.

Here are some mental health problems faced by Indians:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Idiopathic
  • Developmental
  • Intellectual disability
  • Conduct disorders
  • Autism
  • Eating disorders

Mental health treatment access in India?

Despite these numbers, mental health is often not a priority in India. According to the National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI), there are very few psychiatrists in India. For every 100,000 mentally ill people, there’s only one psychiatrist. 

Due to stigma related to mental illness in India, less awareness is created, and there is limited access to resources and professional help.

In addition, about 75% of these people live in rural areas, making it more challenging to access primary health care.

Mentally ill people are often mistreated and locked away to avoid shame in families. This is because the challenges of mental illness are perceived as weaknesses, hence the need to hide the condition.

Indian culture perceives the mentally ill as dangerous, aggressive, violent, and not fit to live among them. Because of cultural beliefs, mentally ill people do not receive the care and support to recover.

Mental health landscape in America among Indian Americans

This stigma about mental health in India has seeped into the consciousness of many Indian Americans. Mental health challenges among Indian Americans are still common. The challenges are common because of expectations from their families and culture.

Pressure to be successful either academically or professionally can lead to mental illness. Even for Indians in America, mental illness is a taboo subject that they don’t often address.

In the United States, mental healthcare is much more readily available than in India. But many Indian Americans don’t take advantage of it. Many continue to ignore the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Fear of being ridiculed, especially while living in a developed country, makes them not seek professional advice on their mental health and their conditions continue to worsen.

According to data, Asian Americans had the lowest percentage of seeking mental health services, at 8.6%, compared to 18% of the total population in the U.S. who seek the same services.

Also, the data shows that Asian Americans have a 17.3% rate of suffering from mental illnesses at some point in their lifetime.

Factors in India influencing the mental health conditions of Indian Americans

Since many Indian Americans were born in India and later migrated to the United States, their cultural values and linguistic diversity make them suffer from mental illness.

Transitioning from a country where they primarily speak Hindi to a new country where English is the main language can cause or worsen feelings of stress and isolation.

Here are some factors that contribute to mental illness among Indian Americans:

1. Stigmatization from family and friends

When your family pressures you to succeed academically or professionally, stress can result from failure to meet their expectations.

You start to feel anxious, and because you don’t want to discuss your feelings with your loved ones for fear of being stigmatized, it progresses into depression.

Even after noticing you have signs of depression, you avoid seeking health services because you fear your friends and family’s perception of you. Family can isolate you and perceive you as weak and cursed.

2. Balancing two different cultures

Indian culture is more complicated and rigid than American culture. What can be done in the United States with no cultural expectations can be taboo in Indian culture.

For example, drinking alcohol and smoking is forbidden for women in Indian culture, but not in the United States. That can put additional stress on Indian Americans, who may be caught between the cultural norms of their Indian-born parents and those of their American friends and coworkers.

3. Living together in the same house

In India, it’s traditional for families to live in the same house. They can comprise three to four generations: grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles, nephews, and nieces. This is also somewhat common in Indian American families.

For some, this arrangement offers additional support. For others battling mental illness, it’s seen as more people around judge them for their behavior.

What needs to be done to reduce effects of mental health stigmatization?

Stigma is a critical barrier to seeking mental health care. That’s why the government and the private health sector should work together to reduce its impacts. Family and friends should take part in the reduction of stigma in mental health.

Possible steps might include:

And on the home front, families who know their loved one is struggling with their mental health should speak to them about available treatment programs and support them emotionally. A step outside of cultural norms might be needed for the long-term mental well being of a family member.

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