'Discussing Mental Health Is A Sign Of Strength': Breaking The Silence In South Asian Communities

We speak to psychologist Anushka Phal about continuing the conversation beyond RU? OK Day.

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Mental health in South Asian communities has long been an issue that’s traditionally swept under the rug. However, not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not prevalent in our networks. From cultural stigmas to a lack of awareness and limited access to culturally competent services, there are a plethora of reasons that mental health is a difficult topic to tackle for many in South Asian communities, which makes the need to talk about it more imperative than ever. 

By speaking to many other South Asians in our network, we’ve seen that even expressing that one needs help can often feel like a struggle. Mustering up the willingness or courage to ask for help in dire situations is often as excruciatingly painful as the depression that has already consumed our lives.

But how do we get here? How do more of us as South Asian people get to the point where we feel comfortable asking for help? How can we also be of greater support to those around us who may need help? This RU OK? Day, we spoke to Anushka Phal, psychologist and founder of Umeed Psychology, a psychology private practice and social enterprise in Victoria which aims to provide accessible, culturally informed mental health care.

“It's important to acknowledge that in numerous South Asian cultures, there has historically existed a prevailing silence concerning mental health matters. This silence has often been driven by apprehensions related to shame, stigma, and a lack of comprehension regarding mental health,” said Phal. 

She explained that by normalising conversations about mental health, we can break the silence, enforcing the idea that “discussing mental health issues is a sign of strength, not weakness”. 

“In South Asian communities, there is often a strong emphasis on resilience and endurance. It's crucial to reframe the narrative to show that seeking help or talking about mental health challenges requires courage and self-awareness. It takes strength to acknowledge one's struggles and actively work towards well-being.”

As a child of South Asian immigrants, I’ve often heard the phrase from elders in our community that depression “didn’t exist back in our day” and that “you youngsters are soft”. Phal said hearing “dismissive attitudes” from older generations can understandably make it challenging for young South Asians to have open and honest conversations about mental health. 

“To address these situations, it's essential to educate ourselves about mental health and its prevalence, approaching the conversation with cultural sensitivity. Sharing personal stories, actively listening to older family members, and involving trusted mediators when needed can help bridge the generation gap and foster understanding,” she said.

“We can also use cultural references and patience to gradually shift attitudes towards mental health, leading by example and getting involved in mental health advocacy within our community.”

Seeking professional help for mental health can feel just as daunting as speaking to family and friends, but Phal encourages reaching out to “someone you trust”. 

“A crucial starting point for addressing mental health challenges is self-awareness,” said Phal. “This involves recognising when something doesn't feel right and being willing to seek help when necessary.

“Equally important is reaching out to someone you trust—a friend, family member, partner, or colleague—and sharing your feelings and struggles with them. This can offer emotional support and alleviate the sense of isolation that often accompanies mental health difficulties. Additionally, consider consulting a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or counsellor, who can provide a thorough assessment and guide you through suitable treatment options.”

Phal believes that access to culturally competent services is incredibly important in assisting diverse communities. 

“In Australia, where the mental healthcare system is predominantly based on a Eurocentric perspective, South Asian Australians often encounter challenges in accessing mental health services that are attuned to their cultural needs. Finding mental health professionals who truly comprehend their cultural context and can offer effective care can be a daunting task,” she said.

However, it’s important to remember that you can see more than one mental health professional until you find one that you truly connect with, especially if having a cultural understanding is important to you. 

“When seeking a psychologist you can genuinely connect with, consider several key factors,” said Phal.

“Look for a psychologist who demonstrates cultural competency and understands your cultural beliefs and values. Language proficiency is essential for effective communication, and finding a psychologist experienced with diverse clients can be invaluable.

“Seek a psychologist who respects and validates your cultural identity, and is open to tailoring their treatment approach to meet your cultural needs. Additionally, shared values, positive references, and a comfortable therapeutic style should align with your preferences. Ultimately, trust your instincts and prioritise your comfort and trust in the therapeutic relationship. It may take some time and consultations to find the right psychologist, but it's a vital step in your mental health journey.”

Change may take time, but by approaching these discussions with empathy and a commitment to breaking down barriers, we can promote more open-mindedness and support for mental health within our families and communities – Anushka Phal

When it comes to offering support to those around you, Phal suggests simple yet meaningful actions that symbolise “an act of compassion and solidarity”. 

“Be an attentive listener, offering them a safe space to express their feelings without judgement. Show empathy and validate their emotions, letting them know it's okay to feel the way they do,” she explained. 

“Respect their boundaries and privacy while gently encouraging them to open up when they're ready. Provide practical help with daily tasks or childcare, and share information about available mental health resources and services. Regularly check in on them, offer consistent support, and avoid stigmatising language. Encourage self-care and patience in their recovery journey, and be vigilant for any signs of crisis. Your understanding, patience, and advocacy can be a crucial source of comfort and assistance during their challenging times.”

We may be embedded in a community that has traditionally shunned vulnerability and deemed depression and anxiety as nothing more than a curse or an illusion. In order for more of us to find the courage to ask for help, cultural perspectives of mental health issues need to critically change. Phal assures that by having open conversations, not just on RU OK? Day, but ongoingly, we can help initiate change. 

“Change may take time, but by approaching these discussions with empathy and a commitment to breaking down barriers, we can promote more open-mindedness and support for mental health within our families and communities.” 

Check out some great mental health resources below:

If you or someone you know needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14