My heart had been racing all day. Nothing I did – taking deep breaths, going for a walk- helped. I was two months into my first year of university, and it was the first time I had left home for any period of time. I barely slept at nights - the constant dread and the thoughts racing through my mind wouldn’t let me. One rainy October night, after I’d had a particularly tearful phone call with my mom, my parents drove to campus – over 120km, an hour and a half from home – to spend three hours with me. Even though I didn’t have the words to describe what I had experienced - we didn’t talk about mental illness in my family – I now recognize the episodes as panic attacks.
In South Asian cultures, mental health – and illness – remain taboo topics. South Asian women can experience mental stresses from many areas – big moves or life changes; family pressures; marriage and children; work; cultural and religious expectations. But these stories often go unheard.
Research has shown that South Asian immigrants in Canada experience higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders than both those who are Canadian born and immigrants from elsewhere. South Asians were also less likely to have used mental health services than white people in Canada.
That’s why Lotus STEMM wanted to dedicate World Mental Health Day to talking about mental health and wellness. In particular, we wanted to understand and share the mental health experiences of south Asian women in Science, Engineering, Technology, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). To know that we are not alone.
We put a call-out on social media. Here is some of what we heard.
In South Asian cultures, women’s freedoms and prospects are tied to marriage – they are expected to marry early, soon after they finish school and start a job. For many, it can be their first chance of freedom. But for those who don’t follow a traditional schedule, the pressure of ‘rebelling’ can be high.
Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, founder of Lotus STEMM, shared how the pressure to get married intersected with worry that she is letting down her aging parents by delaying marriage:
"Coming from a traditional family, the pressure of getting married was so high that it bled into my school work. The guilt that my lack of being able to find a "life-partner" because I was "too educated" & "too opinionated", and how it affected my parents' physical health, led to the early stages of depression. I sought counselling to find a balance between what is "right" and what is "me".
The pride my parents had telling others about my achievements led to a level of debilitating perfectionism which further affected my depression, leading to more guilt for not being able to graduate and make my parents proud, let alone get married."
-Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, founder of Lotus STEMM
THE PRESSURES OF ACADEMIA
Graduate school can be a non-traditional path for a south Asian woman – it takes many years, and isn’t part of the familiar path of completing school, getting a job, then getting married.
The fear of "what's next" after PhD added to my inability to produce my thesis. After months of what I thought was procrastination and staying in bed, did I learn it was depression. I didn't think someone like me could be depressed.
-Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, founder of Lotus STEMM
I had borderline panic attacks even when stuff went well, and bad imposter syndrome that started in undergrad and continues today...my PI always called my depression “grad student angst” so it was accidentally trivialized….Grad school, for better or worse, taught me to push beyond what I can do healthily.
-Anonymous, through social media
Women can feel like they don’t belong – when the stats show that STEMM fields heavily favour men, this isn’t surprising. In 2016, only 23 per cent of women worked in a STEMM field in Canada.
As awareness of mental health grows in South Asian communities, there’s been an increase in services offered to the south Asian diaspora.
In the Greater Toronto Area, SOCH Mental Health, founded by two nurses from the Punjabi community, provides workshops geared towards south Asians on mental illness, coping from grief, and empowerment. This summer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto announced that it will be developing therapy specifically geared to south Asians, through a $1.02 million grant from Health Canada. And the Roshni Project, another funded by CAMH, aims to develop therapy geared towards young south Asian women. In British Colombia, the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA) will be training youth ambassadors, including mental health first aid. And for grad students, a new project called PhD Balance aims to empower students in their resiliency.
The conversation doesn’t end here though.
We at Lotus STEMM invite you to share your stories with us. Anonymously, if you prefer. We’d like to share some of those stories on our page.
Reach out to us with your mental health and wellness story – let’s keep the momentum going.
About the author
Priya Iyer is a public health professional, a freelance writer, and a content writer at Lotus STEMM