When Bairavi Maheswaran was a high school student, she remembers the constant academic pressure of test prep and tutoring classes that negatively impacted her mental health. Maheswaran, now a medical student and volunteer at SAMHIN, writes in a blog post, “I felt an over looming cloud that kept telling me I was not good enough.”
She recalls staying up all night to study, skipping meals, and consistently worrying, while completely disregarding her health. Maheswaran said she stopped doing things she enjoyed and kept blaming herself for perceived failures. “I saw my friends doing the same and resorting to coping mechanisms such as illicit drugs or alcohol to reduce their stress.”
1 in 5 US South Asians Experience Anxiety
SAPHA, the South Asian Public Health Association, reported that “1 in 5 US South Asians admitted experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime, with women reporting higher levels of distress than men.
The study primarily represented South Asians who were foreign-born and Indian. One major barrier to getting help in this community was the social stigma associated with mental illness. That’s why young South Asians rarely speak up if they have mental health issues, wrote Maheswaran.
On the other hand, many South Asian parents are inadequately prepared to deal with mental health issues that surface in their families.
Dealing With Clinical Depression In Your Child
Joshua Ho hadn’t ever expected to deal with clinical depression so intimately. He had achieved a measure of the American dream by becoming a successful teacher and coach in Miami and had a happy family with three sons. One day he noticed that his oldest son had started picking at his skin, leaving deep scabs and wounds. This was accompanied by fits of anger and frustration, which were alarming in their intensity.
“I didn’t know what to do,” recalled Ho. “I took him to see to our local pastor, but that didn’t help much. I took him to a friend who was an Eastern medicine practitioner, and that wasn’t effective either.”
“Finally, I found a counselor, and, with medication and counseling, he improved. However, I know now that he was suffering from clinical depression, and this is going to be a lifelong battle for him.”
“I was a typical Asian parent, aggressive about the standards of achievement I set for my kids. After my son’s experience, I’ve changed dramatically. I knew he would have done serious harm to himself if I hadn’t intervened. I don’t want my son to become a suicide statistic. Nothing is worth that.”
The Mental Health Crisis Among Children
Ho shared his personal experience dealing with severe depression in an immediate family member, at a June 17 briefing on the mental health crisis among children and youth. The forum was hosted by Ethnic Media Services and the Miami-Dade chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI-MIAMI).
Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the mental health crisis among American youth a Public Health Emergency. Children’s mental wellness had plunged due to an explosion of social media, financial insecurity, easy access to drugs, and a number of other social factors. The pandemic accelerated that downward spiral.
The Numbers Are Disturbing
The suicide rate for teenager between the ages of 15 to 19 increased by 60% since 2007, and the rate for 10–14-year-olds increased threefold, reported Beth Sarosz, the program director for PRB, (Population Reference Bureau).
“Social media, and the pressure it places on young people to be ‘liked’ is definitely a contributing factor. However, there are a host of other issues like poverty, living with abuse in the home, being bullied, or having a different sexual orientation, which put youth at risk for anxiety disorders,” stated Sarosz.
Get Help To Turn A Corner
Estefania Plascenia, a youth coordinator for NAMI (Miami-Dade chapter) described struggling with extreme anxiety issues through her school years.
“I was a perfectionist and would blame myself if I failed even slightly at something.”
After college, her symptoms escalated to the point that she found she couldn’t get out of bed or even leave the house. Eventually she found help through NAMI’s Miami-Dade chapter. Plascenia has recovered with the help of medication, therapy, and the support network NAMI provides.
Now she works through NAMI’s ‘peer coordinators’ system with others who have recovered from anxiety and depressive disorders, to guide youth through the process of healing.
Plascenia is a fierce advocate of disseminating information to vulnerable groups about the resources available to them if they are suffering from any form of anxiety or depression.
“The best way to reach the community is by sharing your story, without fear or shame. Getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental issues is an important NAMI goal,” urged Plascenia.
“It’s really important to get education about mental health information and resources out into community. We want people to understand that mental health services are easily accessible if you know where and how to look. Reaching out to NAMI-MIAMI saved my life. And NAMI is a free resource with information, support groups, and peer supported guidance. Our goal is to get as much information out, particularly to at-risk youth.”
Parents, Don’t Blow It Out Of Proportion
Often, parents are ill equipped to deal with the mental health issues in their children or do not know where to look for services.
Eddy Molin, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the Jackson Health system in Miami, urged parents to watch for warning signs.
“Be alert to your teenager’s routine and any unusual changes in it. Beginning to spend a lot of time alone, or cutting off from friends, should be red flags.
“It’s really important to ask your child (whether a teenager or a young adult), how they’re feeling, on a regular basis, even if they appear happy,” Molin emphasized.
“However, you must be totally non-judgmental. Too often, parents (and even friends), make the mistake of conveying subtle disapproval of what they feel is pointless anxiety or depressed mood.”
“You go to a doctor for a stomachache. You pay attention to your symptoms and decide when to go. This is no different. It’s important to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of mental health, because warning signals appear long before the final collapse.”
Yet, Molin cautions, “Don’t blow it out of proportion.”
Getting Help Won’t Disappoint Anyone
A recent study found that Asian Americans (including Indian Americans and Pacific Islanders), are more likely than the general population to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, but less likely to seek help for their problems. Social stigma and a long tradition of viewing mental illness as conquerable by will power (just concentrate on your work and all your bad thoughts will go away), have prevented Asians from actively seeking medical help.
The two most important words when dealing with a loved one with mental illness are compassion and empathy, said Molin.
“A person with mental illness is trapped in the cycle of self-blame, anxiety, and hopelessness. No amount of scolding or tough love will get them out of it. Listening with love and without judgement are critical for someone on the edge of self-destruction. And when simple anxiety slips into pathology, there is a biochemical imbalance in the brain which needs to be addressed by medication.”
Young people must voice their opinions about the stress they feel with their parents, writes Maheswaran.
“One thing that always stops us is the fear that we might disappoint our loved ones. However, put yourselves first. Your happiness is so much more important than prestige from our community.”