The western world has long pioneered the fields of psychology and psychiatry, championing exploration of the human mind and its effect on behavior and illness. Indeed, the trend toward seeking medical or psychological intervention for depression, anxiety, and other behavioral issues is not new to the cultures from which those disciplines emerged.
For those of us children of immigrants, or first-generation immigrants ourselves, we’ve grown up in a dual-cultured world. Often, we live lives that psychologically could even be looked at a bit split personality in nature. At school and work, we speak with American (or British, Australian, German, etc.) accents. We eat whatever food we wish—often opting for things far from the cuisine of our home culture. We live in the world of the country we live in. And then we go home and play a whole different game with rules that compete with our ingrained western sensibilities.
There is sure to be conflict, but we find ways around and through them. And our parents often adapt, embracing nuances of western culture that make sense to them. But there is one area that still represents an uncharted —and highly resisted—territory: mental health.
Speaking to my experience as an Indian American who has heard plenty from people with my background, parents would rather offer you a handful of almonds as a cure for your brain issues than take you to a psychologist. Yoga, meditation, and other faith-related practices are often suggested without a full understanding of the problems a young person is actually dealing with.
For the Indian American family that closely identifies with a particular faith group, be it Hinduism, Islam, and even Christianity, mental health struggles and the inability to surmount them without intervention, is often cast as a failure of one’s adherence to their faith and practice. Christian parents might tell you to just pray and believe. And if you still struggle, the suggestion is made that your faith isn’t strong.
The end result is often that a young person suffers in silence, which may lead them down a horrific path. I knew a Pakistani-American guy in college who shot himself in a dorm parking lot because his MCAT score wasn’t what he wanted it to be. I remember him being stressed and super intense about schoolwork. But to the point that he felt his only option was death? He needed help. I don’t know if he reached out to his parents or what their relationship was like, but there were clearly issues that needed to be addressed.
I know of many kids who live secret lives of self-destruction under their parents’ noses for reasons that reach far beyond rebellion. And if said parents discover their stupidity, say in the case of actually getting into serious trouble, more effort will be given to covering up the misdeed than actually getting the kid set straight. Solutions can often be found in honest communication with parents and help from a medical/psychological professional. But that path is ignored. Why?
Again, speaking from my experience as an Indian American, here’s a big part of the problem. Many parents live and die by what OTHER people think about them. And really, that’s stupid.
“It won’t look nice,” if we don’t go to the 16th birthday party of that kid we don’t even know, just because their parents invited us (and we don’t even know them that well). Or “What will people say if they find out you have to talk to a counselor? They’ll think you are crazy, and we are cursed as parents!” when you tell your folks you need some help dealing with sadness. “How can you call off the wedding (to a complete idiot you should really be running from)? What will the community say? What’s one of the biggest reasons a lot of ethnic parents want their kids to get into Harvard? Bragging rights.
All that superficial junk accomplishes is further alienation of a child that needs help, in favor of appearances to people who don’t honestly matter—because lest we forget, the real people whose love for us is genuine only want us to be happy.
Now if a child breaks a leg or needs treatment for a bladder infection, that’s cause for a doctor visit. But the brain—which is a pretty important organ—gets ignored when it runs into issues. Does that make good sense?
In my opinion, two things need to happen:
1. Ethnic parents need to take a page from the book of Western parenting and be more open about communication. If you struggle with talking about hard topics, (sex, drugs, alcohol, sexuality, religion, politics) learn to do it regardless. If you are going to raise your kids in Western culture, stop trying to force them to remain within the cultural bubble of the country you immigrated from, especially if that culture frowns upon honest parent/child communication.
2. If everything you do is designed to win praise and accolades from people not of your immediate family, knock it off. Stop caring about what other people think and invest that energy into caring about what your children think about you. How can you do a better job at getting them the help they need for any problem that arises—regardless of whether they are physical or mental.
For all the ethnic parents out there saying, “that would never happen to my child,” yes, yes it can. But by the time you actually wise up to it, it may be too late.
And that random aunty will still have plenty to say even then.