I remember the first time I felt depressed and didn’t know how to voice it. I was 10-years-old and being bullied.
Despite growing up in a predominately South Asian neighbourhood, I was one of the only girls with a long braid. I was awkward and shy, always had my nose in a book and I had zero athletic prowess.
On top of that, I wore glasses and extremely uncool clothes. I remember this stage in my life, this grade in particular was the most depressing for me.
I cried often, had no real friends, I felt down most of the time and I wondered if anyone would notice if one day I just disappeared.
I had no idea how to talk about this because as a South Asian kid, no one talked about these sorts of feelings. My parents, like many parents, didn't have the awareness or the language to approach mental health and discuss depression, bullying and the trials of being a kid who was different.
Fast forward 18 years later to when I was pregnant with my daughter, I once again found myself feeling incredibly sad.
It was near the end of my pregnancy. I ended up leaving work sooner than anticipated and found myself struggling to cope. When you’re not working you realize how many hours there are in a day and your mind has every opportunity to wander.
I found myself feeling sad and lethargic, partially from pregnancy but also because I was about to go through this huge life transition and it felt strange to say that I was anxious and sad. No one talks about feeling sad while pregnant, and we are only now talking more openly about postpartum depression.
I didn’t have the language then to explain how I was feeling, and both cultural and societal norms weighed heavy on me.
What would people think? How would I discuss this with my family? The very thought made me cringe.
Looking back on these moments now, I think about how suffocated I felt due to cultural expectations and norms that encourage silence about issues like these. Growing up I was taught that if you have a roof over your head and food on the table, there is nothing to be sad or upset about.
Because of this, I felt that being depressed reflected poorly on my family. I couldn’t make sense of my internal struggle because I was so worried about what everyone would think, how this would reflect on my family and the stigma that would follow me later.
We’ve likely all heard the condescending conversations that take place when someone is struggling with their mental health.
"How can she possibly be depressed? Have you seen her house? Her husband makes so much money. Her parents are so nice. I hear she has a good job"
Depression is often examined in terms of the external accolades. If one has money, a big house and nice parents, there is no need to be sad because there is nothing to be sad about.
A 2010 study conducted by Time to Change found that the South Asian community “ had a distinct experience compared to members of other communities” when it came to mental health (Bilkhu, 2016). The study found that “ mental health was rarely discussed because of the risk it posed to a family's reputation and status” (Bilkhu, 2016). It is common in South Asian communities for mental illness to be seen as a deterrent to marriage.
As a result, many families feel pressured to hide when someone they love is struggling. This in turn, perpetuates a cycle of shame and secrecy making the individual who is struggling feel even more alone.
When we think of the way that depression is discussed in South Asian families it’s no wonder that we don’t openly discuss mental health, our personal struggles and the impact it has on our individual lives.
Depression in the South Asian community is often seen as a wayward weed on someone’s immaculate lawn. It does not belong among such beauty.
It has no place here. If you’re brown you can’t possibly be depressed.
Additionally, it can be hard to identify something we have never discussed openly in our families and that lacks a direct translation in the Punjabi language. With our parents' generation one of the difficulties with understanding and accepting depression is that we don’t have a name for depression in Punjabi.
How do you explain to your parents who don’t speak English that you are depressed? How do you differentiate depression from a bad day? How do you explain the soul crushing sadness and what it feels like to question your worth and your very existence?
Even when we take on the Western name we stop short of accepting it as our own because to take ownership would be akin to admitting guilt; that it too affects us. Not only that but a lack of understanding of what depression actually is means that there is stigma attached to the diagnoses.
When I think of the people in my life who have struggled with depression I think of how isolated and alone they have felt. A lack of language to discuss your feelings as well as a lack of awareness among family means that the depressed person often feels that they are alone. How do you help your family understand how you got here? How do they in turn help you feel less alone?
Often, when we discuss depression and mental health we give it another name; "stress," "burnout," a "difficult time" to alleviate responsibility and shame.
We as a community are uncomfortable with approaching depression as a mental health condition and instead find ways to explain away the pain. One of the many barriers to taking ownership and sitting with our depression or that of someone else’s, is the stigma around having depression.
When someone is struggling with depression, people are forced to think about what it means not just for the person suffering but for the family as a whole. The diagnosis of depression is seen as a reflection of the family, and if depression is seen as a weakness or a failure in the person then it is also a weakness and failure in the family as well.
There is a strong belief that success and depression don’t go together and that collective familial happiness and individual depression cannot possibly co-exist.
We forget that when we take someone’s individual struggle and try to make sense of it through a collective lens we invalidate that person’s specific experience and in turn increase feelings of isolation.
The late bell hooks said “If I do not speak in a language that can be understood there is little chance for a dialogue.” If we fail to understand depression, its symptoms and its potential causes we cannot start the dialogue that is needed within the community.
The narrative that we are South Asian and can’t be depressed, or are not allowed in fact to be depressed can be suffocating. It’s time to break this narrative, and openly discuss the fact that we can own our South Asian identity, love our parents and families—and still be depressed.
Depression is a feeling and like all feelings it needs it’s space to be understood, accepted and treated with tender hands and kindness.
If you or someone you know is struggling please reach out:
Fraser Health crisis line: 604.951.8855 | 1.877.820.7444
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