"Understanding that mental health is a journey, not an end in and of itself, is crucial in striking a balance in life and work."
From a relatively young age, mental health was something I took for granted. Within my upbringing in a South Asian home, separated from my Indian cultural roots in an overseas country far from the motherland, it was apparent that being Indian was not a choice, it was a birthright. As a result, the cultural tension between the dominant Western culture, and being South Asian, was a constant struggle.
However, it was not until later in life that I understood the importance of my upbringing, especially within the South Asian community. I realized that the same struggle to be fully accepted, to be seen as the ‘other’, to be at odds with close friends and distant relatives, was actually normal.
The concept of health requires a holistic outlook; meaning that one’s mental health carries the same, if not more, importance as its physical counterpart. Due to the fact that, despite an ongoing battle to combat the stigma that comes with mental health, there still exists a tendency to internalize our mental struggles for fear of bringing shame to our family or being regarded as “weak” by society. This holds true especially within the South Asian community and translates to all aspects of our lives, from our interpersonal relationships to the choices we make for our futures.
A South Asian colleague Laxsan, describes, “there have been very few times in my life that I have been able to tell someone that I study medicine without being hit with remarks such as “ahhh…typical” or “did your parents force you?” I realized that there exists a strong stereotype within the Asian community that we are expected to study “prestigious” courses such as medicine, law, or engineering. This always perplexed me, as I had grown up under a very supportive household where I was never expected to follow a certain path, but rather explore my own interests.”
I can resonate with Laxsan’s home vs. heart dilemma, and this actually can be a mental health struggle, which spills over from a personal issue to more of a communal pressure. To say that mental health is only experienced by a select few is quite the understatement. In fact, most people will experience mental health at some point during their life; but it is how we manage these mental health challenges that separates our experiences from others.
From a personal perspective, I realized that I was experiencing mental health challenges when I experienced an episode where I had to make a choice between choosing education over career. During that point in time, I felt pressure from my parents to accept a job in the States that I actually did not want to pursue, as well as a job that I didn’t want to walk away from. On the other hand, my internal battle with my mind and my inability to make an instantaneous decision frustrated me so deeply that it spilled into a physical outburst. I remember storming out of the room and grabbing the car keys off the coffee table, and driving for hours and hours with no end destination in sight. After finally finding a lake nearby to a private estate and sitting by a solitary hill watching the sunset, I was able to think more clearly in the stillness of the moment. I realized then that I would take my own journey to find my passion and what I was meant to do, rather than what others expected of me, and that one decision set me on a journey on which I am still on today.
Living in a community which is not necessarily representative of your culture can be difficult in the pursuit of one’s dreams and aspirations. Staying in touch with the South Asian diaspora is therefore more important than ever. Rohin, another colleague who is an aspiring architect studying in Hawai‘i, took the opportunity through the pandemic to find that “living in Hawaii, I am really cut off from my culture. Having that transition from living in Houston, surrounded by fellow Indians and people who loved the culture, to coming here and still not seeing a single Indian after being here 3 years, was shocking.” However, he was able to find his safe space within the community he was in, and to be comfortable enough in his own frame of mind to be himself.
Oftentimes, being able to find peace in the moment and accept the reality of personal situations, instead of trying to fix a mental health issue, can make the biggest difference. Understanding that mental health is a journey, not an end in and of itself, is crucial in striking a balance in life and work. I have finally reached a point where I am able to manage my relationships, work and personal life by understanding my mental health challenges, identifying triggers, and owning my differences, and being comfortable with the way things are.