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Note. Any identifying information has been changed to maintain privacy.
When hearing about the mental health struggles in the South Asian community, I think about what happens behind closed doors within the families. One of the most challenging issues that I have found involves parents who ignore, minimize, or deny their kids’ experience of mental health issues. It is troubling enough as it is when parents deny their own issues, which is in itself problematic. But when they refuse to recognize the pain that their children are going through, this can have dire consequences.
We really need your help. Our daughter tried to harm herself.
–Parent of a 15-year-old daughter
I received a call a few months ago from parents who were calling from a hospital. They wanted to make an appointment for their daughter, who had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt. They shared how their daughter took a bottle of pills and was found unconscious in her room. They rushed her to the hospital where she was evaluated and admitted for a few weeks until she could attend a step-down intensive outpatient program. The parents were in shock, and the father reported to me that his daughter had stated that she was depressed, but they thought it was a phase that would go away. He admitted to me that they didn’t take it as seriously as they should have. They wanted to see if I could treat their daughter for aftercare. In this situation, the parents had no choice but to get her help, given the urgency of the issues that had surfaced; yet, this is not always the case.
Sometimes, individuals suffer in silence, with symptoms manifesting physically such as stomachaches or other pains, hypersomnia or insomnia, withdrawal, or appetite loss. Parents who are not clued into the pulse of the situation or who do not buy into mental health may tend to minimize what their son or daughter is going through. They may see it as purely physical, such as the need for more rest, sleep, food, or spiritual or physical activity. While these are all helpful contributors to well-being, depression or anxiety disorders are not often so simply resolved. Such suggestions from parents result in a sense of loneliness for the child or teen and a loss of trust in the family.
Rekha, 18, who suffered from depression, shared that her mother was supportive of her getting help. However, both Rekha and her mother had agreed not to share this with her father, out of fear of his reaction. When they did finally get her the help she needed, her father right out refused to attend the sessions and her mother joined half-heartedly. What made things difficult was that her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, was a big factor in her depression.
I had a panic attack at work and realized I needed to get help.
—Neelank, a 25-year-old man
Neelank talked of how he often felt stressed and anxious at home growing up. He reported that this would result in irritability and tension between himself and his parents. To make matters worse, his parents would also make him feel bad about his academic performance or about his mood. He often felt alone and unable to talk with his parents who would tell him to work harder, eat better, or sleep earlier. He was also conflicted about the career path as his parents insisted that he get into business though he wanted to pursue theater and comedy. This led to him feeling that he lacked control in his own life. Following his parents’ advice, Neelank worked on his business career into college until he had a panic attack during his first job at a bank. This resulted in him quitting the job, going on unemployment, and initiating therapy. It was in therapy that he was able to share his story about his anxiety. He realized that he had never received support from his parents on these feelings. Therapy helped him engage with them in a healthier way, and they, too, began to understand his feelings and his true dreams.
In this situation, Neelank’s parents didn’t understand that he was dealing with anxiety about himself and his future. They assumed he just was not doing enough for himself and just being disrespectful to them. In fact, he was wondering how to please them and make them proud of him, and he felt guilty about his own interests and pursuits.
Finally, in rare cases, a loved one succeeds in taking their own life, leaving families devastated while trying to put pieces of the puzzle together as best they can. Sometimes the parents have offered help, and other times they have not. While mental health professionals are trained to assess risk and protective factors involved, suicide remains a mysterious phenomenon. But the hope is that by offering support, communication, and professional help, such dire circumstances can be mitigated.
Tips for Parents
Unfortunately, in all these examples, mental health issues were neglected, denied, or minimized leading to feelings of mistrust, internalization, and repression. However, thankfully, there are ways to help prevent these situations that include support and acceptance. Here are a few tips for parents:
- Observe. Observe your own internal dialogue around mental health stigma. What are your biases? Where do they come from? How do they interfere with your own life?
- Learn. Educate yourself on mental health and what it looks like and how it feels.
- Listen. Take the time to listen to your son/daughter share their feelings of distress or physical ailments that may include anxious or depressive thoughts. It is important to allow them a chance to voice their issues without fear of your reactions. Give them time and space to share.
- Support. Show them your support through your kind and helpful words. “I hear you saying this…” “We are here for you.” “It’s OK to feel not OK.” Watch out for accusatory or judgmental statements or questions. Help them get the professional help they may need.
- Keep up to date. Try to stay involved in your child’s or teen’s care with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and other health care professionals.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.