On May 11, 2011, Chicago mental health advocate and DePaul University graduate Dimple Patel was at work when she received several missed calls from her cousin about her mother. Earlier in the day, Patel’s mother had asked her to pick up her medication — an errand Patel, who was 23 years old at the time, said she couldn’t do because she had been in the middle of studying for the upcoming GREs and had to head straight to work afterwards.
Yet, upon realizing the urgency of her cousin’s calls, Patel knew something was off. She told her supervisor that she needed to leave work early and drove home to find a police officer waiting for her in the driveway. Patel’s mother had taken her own life in the family’s guest bedroom, she learned.
“I think that was the hardest moment in my life,” she told me. “I would do anything if I could go back and repeat that situation, maybe things could have been different.”
The passing of Patel’s mother not only made Patel, an Indian American who moved to the U.S. when she was young, regret the fact that the two had not been closer — it also reinforced her commitment to a subject that has long been considered taboo in the South Asian community: mental health.
A couple years earlier, Patel had been in a serious car accident that left her with a fractured pelvis and several panic attacks. She had been told by her family that she would be fine, that she’d be able to get over the trauma on her own as time passed. But she knew something was wrong — she would frequently throw up and have trouble sleeping alone.
“I knew that this [was] not normal, what I’m experiencing, what I’m feeling,” she said. “My mom and I were born in India, but we were raised in two different cultures … When my mom had asked me about my car [accident], she was like, ‘Don’t tell your dad. He’s going to make you leave school and come home to recover.'”
So Patel would secretly go to DePaul’s counseling center and attend free 15-minute sessions without telling her friends and family. At one point, she was even asked whether she wanted to do an intake session, which would have required her to disclose almost everything to her therapist. Though Patel agreed, she initially rejected the center’s suggestion to talk to a South Asian therapist because of her fear of judgment by a fellow member of her community.
“In the Asian culture, you respect your elders,” she explained. “You kind of don’t talk about your personal business outside of your family … Like people gossip. Even when it’s not their family business, people gossip.”
With some prodding, Patel, who had had plans to go to medical school, reluctantly gave into the idea — a decision she now credits for jumpstarting her journey toward becoming a therapist instead. Not only did Patel gradually feel more comfortable about opening up to her own therapist, she said she learned a lot about herself in the process.
“The awesome part is that [my therapist] helped me kind of put my life back together,” she said. “I came in for one thing — as we always say in therapy, you come in for one thing, but all these other things pop up.”
Following her mother’s passing, Patel said she continued to go to therapy on and off, but her brother and father coped in different ways. Her father, in particular, seemed to be constantly at odds with Patel’s method of processing her mother’s absence. There were times when he simply didn’t understand the need for therapy — an attitude that Patel, who also has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at National Louis University, attributes to the stigmatization of mental health within the South Asian community.
“I remember when I first got into my doctorate program and I was in India for my cousin’s wedding and I told them what I was doing and they said, ‘Oh, you’re working with crazy people,'” she recalled. “I was livid. I was like, ‘That’s not the word you want to use.’ They’re not crazy. I’m not crazy.”
The truth is that, among many South Asians, the shame surrounding mental health runs deep. According to the South Asian Mental Health Initiative and Network, resistance to find help and accept mental illnesses stem from strongly held religious beliefs, along with family expectations and social stigma. All of these factors exist despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that approximately 17 percent of male Asian American students and 17.8 percent of female Asian American students between ninth and 12th grade had suicidal ideations in 2017. Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out that South Asian refugees have reported the highest rates of depressive symptoms among all Asian groups and well above that of whites.
As University of Missouri’s Dr. Nidhi Khosla suggested in a 2015 interview with The New Republic, the high rates can be partially connected to the American South Asian community’s “minimalistic attitude towards medication” and reluctance to seek medical help. The HHS, for instance, found that just 6.3 percent of Asian Americans 18 years and older received mental health services in 2018.
“In South Asian culture, it is common for patients not to report their pain to avoid burdening others or being seen as weak,” Dr. Khosla told the magazine.
Patel points out that the effects of doing so can be devastating.
“I didn’t want to work with the South Asian therapist because of those stigmas and just [the] perception of things that I grew up with like, yes, we have to respect our elders, we can’t say certain things or we need to keep whatever we are going through suppressed,” she said. “And a lot of those consequences of pressing your thoughts and emotions really are going to boil up. You may explode. You may be suicidal and write a note and act on it.”
To raise awareness, Patel has since been involved in a number of initiatives, in addition to pursuing a career in therapy. In 2014, she, along with some family members, took part in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention‘s Out of the Darkness walk, which they have continued to participate in. In the aftermath of her mother’s passing, Patel also wrote an eye-opening Facebook post about mental health to educate others — a move she initially felt nervous about making.
“I wanted to share my voice and I wanted to share my experience because all the other people that were talking about our experience do not have a clue what my family and I were going through,” she said.
In 2018, a former board member of the foundation approached Patel to let her know that she had been nominated to be on the board of directors for the foundation’s Illinois chapter. That culminated not only in her acceptance to the board but also her involvement in a national campaign on suicide prevention — the latter of which has been one of her proudest moments as a mental health advocate.
“Nobody understood what I was going through,” she said. “And I wanted to let people know that they’re not alone. This happens in our community, and I wanted to do something about it. I was so tired of the shame and stigma that’s often surrounded mental health.”
In recent months, Patel has continued her efforts in other ways, such as sharing resources on her Instagram account. At the same time, she said she has also seen progress within the South Asian community in terms of having conversations on mental health — a trend she hopes will encourage more people to seek therapy should they need it.
“It’s okay to be depressed or [have] any other type of mental health issue that you were going through because chances are you’re not alone,” she said. “We’re truly going to make a difference if we just keep continuing to talk about it.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Click here to learn about the warning signs of suicide. For those of you who identify as a member of the South Asian community, please see below for a list of organizations and resources that address mental health:
- South Asian Mental Health Initiative & Network
- ASHA International
- Deconstructing Stigma
- Apna Ghar
- South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance
- South Asian Americans Leading Together
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center
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