Always On My Mind
On Friday, September 11, 2020, Smita Nevatia of Foster City in California received the worst news of her life. Her 21-year-old son, Karan Nevatia, a junior at University of Southern California (USC), had taken his own life.
In a sad twist, Karan, a journalism student at USC, was a passionate advocate of mental health awareness.
He wrote a column called “On My Mind” in the USC newspaper, the Daily Trojan, where he shared his personal challenges with depression. He wanted to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
Signs of Depression
Karan had spoken to his mother about the importance of addressing mental health openly, acknowledging feelings, and seeking help. But prior to this revelation, Smita had never seen signs of depression in Karan. He had always been an introvert. Since he was away at college, the family had missed out on warning signs and changed behavioral patterns.
Karan’s siblings, his 24-year-old brother Yash who works in New York, and his sister Simran, a 15-year-old high school freshman, were shocked by their brother’s suicide.
Only weeks before, Simran had visited her brother at college along with their mother for his 21st birthday.
Impact on Family
After Karan’s loss, Simran stopped communicating with her parents, teachers and friends.
“She would lock herself in her room, not do homework or eat,” says Smita. “She first got individual therapy and then we took some family therapy. Thankfully, she has slowly caught up with high school and has started speaking with some friends.”
Smita has a message for parents and caregivers.
”Try having open communication around mental health with your young adult children. Spend as much time as you can together and find a connection that you talk about. Sometimes, even if the child is close to one parent or caregiver, they might still feel ashamed or fearful of sharing their feelings with them. If your child is going through mental health struggles, please take all the help you can from family, friends, therapists and the resources you can find.”
An Urgent Need for Resources
Smita has established a foundation named after Karan’s column On My Mind (https://www.onmymindfoundation.org/) in memory of her son.
There is not much data on depression in the South Asian community. According to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), South Asian Americans—especially between the ages of 15-24—were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.
Another report said that South Asian Americans had the lowest rate of utilization of mental health services. This can also be understood anecdotally. Topics like depression and anxiety are not openly discussed in desi communities, unlike physical ailments like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
Multiple studies have found that immigrant South Asians are particularly prone to depression and related mental health issues but talking about mental or emotional health or seeking care is not the brown way.
There is an urgent and immediate need to eliminate the social stigma around mental health, and support the overall well-being of youth and others in our community.
According to Smita, Karan felt his first suicidal ideation in September 2019 when he asked to be admitted into a mental hospital to prevent harming himself.
Karan and Smita struggled to find treatment without support from insurance or professionals in the mental health industry.
“It was traumatic and overwhelming. I had no clue what PHP (partial hospitalization program) or IOP (intensive outpatient programs) stood for, nor did I know whether we needed to find a residential mental center or a mental health center to meet with the appropriate psychiatrist,” recalls Smita.
A residential mental center is where a patient lives for a period of time and gets 100% therapy with limited communication with family. The psychiatrist, therapist and patients determine the length of stay, but they also communicate directly with insurances and caregivers.
The South Asian community is flush with resources, formally and informally, for SAT preparation and college admission counseling to elite schools. And yet, few resources exist for mental or emotional health, and are rarely discussed or highlighted. The impact falls not just on students and young adults, but also on vulnerable demographics like postpartum mothers or seniors.
A Son’s Legacy
Through the On My Mind foundation, Smita wants the community to realize this. Recognizing and acknowledging that mental health exists is the first step leading to mobilization and resource allocation.
“We partner with therapists to provide and pay for the first ten therapy sessions for any enrolled high school or college student (13-24 years) experiencing mental health struggles,” says Smita. “The youth who are going through depression or anxiety are unfortunately many times not even aware of the severity of their mental health condition.”
“We want to empower students and their parents to seek resources to prevent self-harm and be happy and successful beyond their high school and college years into adulthood.”