I could hear the tinny waver in Aditi Sharma’s voice as she tried to remain stoic. The phone’s static added to the tension. “Katherine jumped in front of a train last night,” she said. Katherine Johnson was our mutual friend, one year older than us. I sat with the phone to my ear and fought to grasp the meaning of those words. School started the next week. Everyone was talking about Katherine. “Did you hear?” “She killed herself.” “She’s dead.” It felt like the gravity of her death was lost on the middle-schoolers.
Katherine opened my eyes to the plights of the adolescent world. I am now a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School, in Palo Alto, CA. The year Katherine passed away, four other teenagers from Gunn did so as well. Gunn High School graduate Raj Sreenivasan was a freshman when the first suicide occurred. “It was a really shocking experience,” he said. “Everyday after the news would be shared, we would be extremely somber and quiet because no one wanted to talk for the whole day. The first victim’s sister was a friend of mine, so that one affected me the most. It was definitely a hard time.”
Depression is normal at such a high-intensity school such as mine. There is a pressure to succeed and an almost hyper-enthusiasm to do well in school. As high school senior Amy Smith puts it, “[There’s] just something in the water.”
Smith has dealt with depression throughout high school and speaks about her past and continual struggle with the disease. “I see psychotherapists, a Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) group, and psychiatrists,” she said. “I stopped letting myself over-sympathize with how sad I was feeling and tried to focus on the good parts of my life. And when that only made me feel undeserving and ungrateful, I turned to self-mutilation. Then I was put on anti-depressants and that gave me the push to take initiative and help myself instead of being a dumb, depressed teenager. I felt what I felt and I felt awful, and I don’t think I elected to feel the way that I did, but I think a small part of me felt some satisfaction in my suffering.
When I shut that small part of me up, I was able to start helping myself.” Smith has struggled to move past her feelings. For her, depression isn’t fleeting; it doesn’t come or go. She has had to live with it and will continue to do so.
Although suicide is the third leading cause of death for American teenagers, it is the first for South Asian teenagers, according to mannhouston.com, a mental health awareness website.
The added burden that South Asian teenagers carry is the model minority aspect of the culture. As per the National Alliance on Medical Illness (NAMI), society has cast a “model” stereotype of a highly successful and well-educated person for the “Asian” role. That puts greater stress on us South Asian teenagers to live up to expectations.
Psychologist Shubha Herlekar counsels many South Asian teenagers at her practice in Palo Alto, CA. She believes that immigration and cultural loss influence South Asian depression. “I find that the losses from immigration and from the teen’s parents and grandparents affect the teen,” she said. “There’s the pressure of living up to the role. The teenager has to count in the wishes (experience) of the parents.” In other words, there are residual losses from immigration, the stresses of and accounting for the parents’ assimilation.
Upon further research, I discovered that Indian-Americans were not the only race facing cultural loss. A study conducted by the University of California, Davis found that immigration increased the risks of depression in first generation immigrants in Mexico. Another study focused on second-generation Italian Americans in Connecticut during the late 1930s, when hostility towards Italy was on the rise. Many children were loyal to both the Italian identity and the American one. Because of the contradicting identities, many Italian Americans became apathetic.
South Asian Men
Depression in men is especially under-recognized. Herlekar says that in her practice, an equal number of men and women come to her for help. But men don’t have the same amount of freedom to speak about their feelings as women do. “For a young woman, it’s more acceptable to show these feelings of sadness and it’s ok to talk about it,” she said. “For males, even if they are more agitated, it’s not acceptable to reveal. Males are suffering in a different way.”
Washington University student Anand Mehta comments on this aspect. “When things are going wrong with my life, I don’t like to tell people,” he said. “I want people to see me in the best light. I’m pretty self-conscious. There’s that vulnerability that comes out when you’re depressed. For girls, it’s easier to pour your emotions out. There’s a stigma on guys who have depression. There’s the ‘tough guy’ and ‘manning up’ [stereotypes]. We have to be strong enough to keep it together.”
Mehta believes that this is one of the reasons why there is such a difference between an Indian-American and any other race. “As an Indian, it’s tougher to approach your parents about [depression] because they haven’t grown up in this culture,” he said. “There are a lot of cultural differences. While an American kid might be able to approach their parents, we can’t say a lot of things.”
Sexuality and Dating
There is a different cultural interpretation of sexuality among South Asians. Herlekar explains: “What’s expected of a South Asian is different from that of an American, especially when it comes to sexuality and dating. What’s expected of a ‘proper’ good daughter or son is different.”
South Asian teens rarely have the support of their parents and have to resort to hiding their relationships, heaping this stress on top of others. There is a pressure to not pursue relationships or to pursue “appropriate” ones. New York high school student Nikita Singh speaks about dating: “My parents would never in a million years let me be in any sort of relationship with a guy,” she said. “I have several Indian American friends who are in relationships and have to keep it secret from their parents. Our parents didn’t grow up in an American society. Their values for young people are still pretty ingrained in their own experiences growing up in India.”
I don’t speak to my parents about dating. I don’t know if it’s because of a stereotype I am forced to hold, but there’s a wall solidly built between us. When I was in the ninth grade, my sister had a boyfriend. I remember keeping her secret and helping her sneak around our parents until one big blow up when my parents found out. Of course, they soon reconciled their different cultural ideologies and have figured out how to compromise. But I remember being sad and unhappy at the time.
The Stigma of Depression
According to Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), one in five Americans goes through depression at some point in their life. Sadly, studies show that Asian Americans are less willing to use mental health services. NAMI states that only 27 percent of depressed Asian Americans get help, and even then, it’s only when they are in crisis mode.
Discussing the tainted reputation of therapy, Herlekar says that “the more people who go in and don’t stigmatize therapy, the easier it’s going to be,” adding, “I think people are very scared to talk about [depression]. It puts an added pressure to keep up a certain kind of experience.”
Reflecting on her own experiences, UCLA college student Sneha Patel feels that “We [teenagers]don’t have a lot of self confidence at this age. There’s a lot of pressure to be a certain way.” She finds it hard to speak to anyone when she is feeling sad. “I feel like it shows weakness, like you can’t handle life. I’m never comfortable, especially with my parents. I feel like that’s disappointing them in some way.”
Singh has similar feelings. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m Indian, but I find it difficult to open my emotions to other people.” She continues by saying “It makes me feel vulnerable. I do feel that most Indians hesitate to show weakness in the same way that Americans do. I think that an American is more likely to be open about how they feel about a situation whereas an Indian is more likely to keep it to themselves, especially when it’s something that makes them look weak.”
Singh finds that her own behavior with her friends changes depending on her moods. “When I’m really upset, I’ll draw back and I won’t let it out. I’ll keep it all inside. The reserved-ness, I think, stems from a fundamental part of my culture.”
On being asked how the situation could improve in the community, Herlekar says, “[We need] to have the grandparents’ and parents’ anxiety and depression addressed more. Dealing with stress is a learned pattern of behavior in the family especially when the mother or father is overwhelmed. If parents don’t recognize their own depression, the teenager thinks that they are going to let their family down [with their own depression].”
Herlekar also has these helpful suggestions when it comes to coping with depression or help a friend cope with depression. “Take a quick walk with your friend, or talk to a couple of people, friends,” she said. “If you can tell that something’s going on, the key thing is to encourage them to get to somebody who can help. Teenagers carry so much of the burden for each other and it’s not fair.”
In my own case, I rarely tell anyone when I’m sad; mostly because I’m afraid to complain when I am aware of worse situations. How much weight do my privileged problems hold when they’re compared to child hunger and poverty and death? Everyone goes through depression. My triggers can be as meaningless as a Facebook post or a remark one of my friends jokingly makes. When I feel my last straw breaking, I disconnect. I learn a song on the guitar or sing or dance. These are my coping mechanisms. These are the ways I keep moving forward.
Names have been changed to protect the subjects’ identity.
Kavya Padmanabhan is a rising senior at Henry M. Gunn High School. This article was written while she interned at India Currents this summer.