How social media is providing a safe space for South Asians facing mental health challenges

Issues such as family pressure and interference, skin colour and Toxic masculinity are all being acknowledged and discussed

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Social media has thrown up a brand of Insta-therapy that offers advice and tips on mental health and well-being, be it coping with the pandemic or inculcating mindfulness. Although they are not a substitute for professional help, these social media platforms aim to generate a dialogue on, and break the stigma surrounding mental health, and some of the accounts are even run by certified professionals.

A niche that has grown in popularity are therapists catering to the South Asian diaspora, which faces its own challenges that may not always benefit from traditional psychotherapy.

Where traditional psychotherapy fails

Dr Tina Mistry, a clinical psychologist who lives in Birmingham, started @brownpsychologist on Instagram two years ago to raise awareness on cultural nuances in the South Asian community, which includes people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

There is a fear of being judged, resulting in guilt, people-pleasing tendencies and sacrificing happiness

“Psychology as a profession and treatment stems from Eurocentric research and understanding. It is underpinned from Greek philosophy and doesn’t really take into account issues of the South Asian diaspora,” says Mistry. “Even to make sense of their distress, traditional practice uses a model that is predominately for white people and their culture. Having worked in a culturally diverse city for nearly a decade, I noticed inadequate or inefficient mental health services for South Asians.”

For example, a therapist might not understand the depth of duty a South Asian feels towards family, and why it is difficult to create boundaries or walk away from a toxic relationship. With Brown Psychologist, Mistry aims to amplify talk of, and decolonise mental health.

Instagram has helped to lessen the stigma around therapy. By opening a dialogue on issues faced by a particular community, it also validates their experiences.

With immense pressure to find a job, Taimour Fazlani, who lives in London, finished university earlier than his peers. A drastic change in lifestyle – getting up at 5am, spending nine hours at work and being isolated from family – took a toll on him. Fazlani experienced bouts of anxiety and depression for two years, which left him unable to hold down a full-time job.

There is the notion that as the man of the family, one should not show emotion or be vulnerable

“Mental health is not talked about openly. With a lack of education and awareness on my part, I attributed my condition to a physical problem … maybe, it’s a pinched nerve, I told myself,” he says.

Upon visiting a general practitioner, Fazlani was prescribed anti­depressants. “It felt like: ‘Here, now off you go.’ Why was I prescribed antidepressants without a therapist consultation?

I feel the service sector has failed us – it is not designed, nor is it nuanced enough, to serve the South Asian community," he says.

In 2014, Fazlani wrote about his mental health experience and, overnight, the article went viral. It resonated with the South Asian community and people told him that it was an important and much-needed conversation.

Creating a safe space to express

In 2018, Fazlani started Expert by Experience, an online and offline platform that looks at mental health in South Asian communities from an intersectional and critical lens.

Fazlani addresses several facets of mental health particular to men like him. "There is the notion that as the man of the family, one should not show emotion or be vulnerable." He suggests finding a safe space where you can share, emote and express. In the absence of such a space, he advises reaching out to friends to see if they want to create a space with you.

Fazlani also addresses toxic masculinity, a set of beliefs that are destructive in nature. "They play out in ways like: 'Men don't cook or do household chores; that is a woman's job', or treating women as disposable."

Fazlani further suggests questioning your beliefs. "Why do you believe what you believe? Challenge the way you see yourself and your relationships. Educate yourself. When mental health starts to deteriorate, it doesn't only affect men but the wider community, as seen by the gender-based violence of recent times," he says.

Collectivist versus individualist societies

"Being British-Asian myself, I understand the cultural pressures of a collectivist society," says Mamta Saha, a psychologist who splits her time living in London and Dubai.

Ask yourself what is important to you as an individual, not your aunty or [others] in society

Societal expectations in the UAE and South Asia are very different compared to an individualist society like the West.”

On her Instagram account @saha_mamta, she shares tips on navigating issues that crop up in collectivist societies, such as prying into another's life or passing judgment on skin colour

In South Asian culture, it is common to receive derogatory comments around skin colour and marriage, and unsolicited advice related to it.

“It’s frustrating for women because they feel demoralised,” Saha says. “Stand up to it in a way that doesn’t comprise who you are. Say ‘I don’t like that you said that, it upsets me’, or ‘Can you please stop talking about my colour?’.”

Identity crisis

In her practice – particularly with South Asian clients – Saha also notices a lack of anchoring and a confused sense of identity. “It’s a feeling of not belonging anywhere or being caught up in two different worlds.”

Diaspora communities tend to feel rejected at home and not acclimatised enough to fit into another country, which adds to the challenges of navigating a new culture without disregarding your own values and familial expectations.

"I advise clients to strip away from society, culture, climate and circumstance, and ask themselves: 'What is important to me as an individual? Not my family, not my auntie or uncle, not what society or culture dictates.'

"When you come back to the things you value, it can be very liberating and can help you feel connected to yourself – wherever you are, whether you are accepted or not – and therefore, more confident.”

Generational trauma and cultural shaming

Dr Pavna K Sodhi, a psychotherapist in Ontario, runs the Instagram account @sunotherapy (suno is Hindi for listen), which offers culturally responsive psychotherapy. In a field dominated by western ideologies, Suno Therapy aspires to provide a welcoming and safe space that resonates with clients and their narratives.

“Some of the themes that emerge in my work with South Asians include generational trauma, intergenerational conflict and cultural shaming,” says Sodhi.

Generational trauma is felt when a previously experienced event has an impact on the current generation. Sodhi cites the 1947 Partition of India as an example of a historical event that can lead to a variety of trauma-related responses. "I continue to see its effects by way of post-traumatic stress disorder that is passed down to individuals by their parents. It plays out in behaviours like hyper-vigilance, fear of the future, physical and emotional abuse, low self-confidence and a constant need for external validation."

Sodhi suggests attending therapy to learn strategies to deconstruct and break generational trauma cycles. “This process empowers individuals to express their feelings, and have their voice heard in a validating and safe space.

“One can start the healing process by unpacking cultural and historical layers embedded within trauma-related symptoms,” she says.

Cultural shaming includes being reprimanded for not conforming to a set of cultural norms and thus, being deemed as bringing dishonour or disgrace to one’s family or the community. This could mean disapproval of a choice of partner or career.

There is a fear of being judged and patronised by family or community members, resulting in guilt, people-pleasing tendencies and sacrificing inner happiness,” says Sodhi.

To mitigate this shame, she advises people to embrace cultural pride and live authentically in both their worlds. "Appreciate diversity and inclusivity, and be culturally aware."

Above all, say the experts, seek out the support groups available to you, be they face-to-face sessions with a specialist who understands your needs or a like-minded community on social media.