Behind the mic: How Bottled Up is tackling generational ideology on men’s mental health

A silent but harrowing mental health crisis exists among South Asian communities. 

South Asians are now experiencing heightened rates of mental health disorders, sometimes even higher than their peers. Research also indicates that culturally-linked stigma around mental health, which is deeply prevalent in South Asian communities, often impedes health-seeking behaviour. It is common for symptoms to be trivialised and conversations to be brushed underneath the rug to maintain a facade of a picture-perfect family, with "log kya kahenge?" (what will people say?) becoming a signature phrase in households across borders.  

Chances are if you’re South Asian, you’ve also heard the phrase “mard ko dard nahi hota” (men don’t feel pain). The phrase is the regressive typecast of the leading man - one who doesn’t cry or feel pain because pain shows shades of vulnerability and weakness and doesn’t reflect his strength to “just get on with it”. The countless problematic notions that have long existed in our culture and through their ubiquitous and unapologetic influences, from Bollywood plots to generational moulds, are still being subconsciously communicated to millions of South Asian young boys and girls around the world. They also continue to emanate a state of conflict, self-doubt, or a disconnected battle around mental health in our community. And it is safe to say they undeniably birth puzzlement around masculinity and what attributes, or lack thereof, make a "real man".

What we now know is that these conventions have twisted into thinly veiled critiques of our culture, where the lack of space for men to display emotions and get ill, physically or mentally, makes it more challenging for them to reach out, connect and get the help they need. With the pandemic, there now exists an amplified need for conversations and actions around mental health awareness, specifically in migrant and youth communities. Lack of awareness, support or cultural beliefs around mental illness, including fears of stigma and social isolation, can prevent young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds from accessing either preventative help or support in the early stages of mental ill-health. We need our communities to be more aware and willing to converse on mental health and we need more resources from our community to connect the missing link and bridge the generational gap.

And so, in comes Bottled Up - after perceiving the need for educational and accessible resources and not finding enough, Melbourne-based friends Mayank Sohani and Sunny Bahuguna built a purposeful platform through their podcast ‘Bottled Up’ to initiate conversations on mental health and masculinity.  

“Mental health is very intersectional – it has social, cultural, medical and so many different aspects to it. With COVID, mental health was becoming a part of everyone’s conversations, and we thought what we need to do is just get a mic and start speaking. It aligned well with the vision to de-stigmatizing mental health and create conversations with the hope that it would inspire other people to open up about their own mental health issues,“ Mayank Sohani tells SAARI Collective.

“Conversations on mental health in South Asian communities are basically non-existent. I don’t think I spoke about mental health my entire childhood; it wasn’t a part of the vernacular at all which I think feeds into the problem. Growing up, it was hard for me to explain or understand what was happening to me because I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to understand what was going on. I didn’t have the tools so I thought if we, through Bottled Up, could introduce the vernacular and explain it in the present context of our culture, it will potentially help people manage their mental health issues and equip them going forward, particularly within Southeast Asian households.” 

 

With over 35 episodes and some prominent guests, including model and actor Nick Bracks, AFL footballers Lin Jong and Tom Boyd and anti-violence campaigner Tarang Chawla, Mayank and Sunny produce new episodes wherein they create a safe space to converse with other men and invite them to share their journeys navigating mental health, masculinity and wellness. 

“One of our driving reasons behind doing a podcast is that anyone can just plug in their headphones and listen whenever they want. You can plug in your headphones and don't necessarily have to tell anyone around you that you're listening to a mental health podcast. The accessibility of podcasting helps reach everyone and tackles the stigma around mental health,“ reflects Sunny. 

'Traditional masculinity' and mental health

For him, masculinity and mental health often left him feeling conflicted. He reflects that it took dismantling the stereotype of an “alpha male” and inviting more vulnerable reflections for him to realise the significance of having mental health awareness.

“I think one thing is like vulnerability creates more possibility and invites honest conversations. There is this stereotype that you need to be stoic and to be strong, you need to ignore your feelings which feeds into the whole narrative of being “the man of the house” and in charge. But I think that puts pressure on not only the man but on everyone in his life. 

“Despite Bottled Up’s focus on men’s mental health, both Mayank and I have had women reach out to us and say they actually took something away [from Bottled Up]. We saw for ourselves how conversing on mental health opens up dialogues and support systems for not only the listener, but for their partners and families as well.”

And they’re right. Growing up as a daughter and sister in a South Asian family, there existed a very palpable blueprint on which I saw the men in my community function. Vulnerability was often read as a weakness and there weren’t many, if any, resources and avenues for young boys and men to reach out and seek help without facing the associated social stigmas. Sunny thinks of Bottled Up almost as “capacity building in its own right, as it’s pushing the needle in the right direction of creating dialogue and inviting more people to have those conversations”. 

“Coming from South Asian backgrounds, all of us noticed that our grandparents and parents haven’t learned about mental health in the same capacity our generation has so it makes sense why it wasn’t a part of the vernacular for us. It is also hard for the older generation to now have conversations on these topics as well because they haven’t had the space to do it before. And we’re not experts, nor is Bottled Up professional advice – it’s a space through which we’re hoping to educate and equip people.”

 

Words matter: the importance of language 

“Language is very important to express and invite people to open up,” adds Mayank. Research shows socialisation has a lot to do with the average male’s reluctance to seek out a mental health professional. As highlighted by Intermountain Clinic, for most men, mental health topics equate to talking about feelings which is a stereotypically female thing to do. Men are socialised to avoid discussing “girly” feelings, and are tagged with demeaning labels for any behavior that doesn’t qualify as “tough” or “strong”. Due to this culture, men often lack the language to express themselves and seek help, which plays a role in further amplifying the situation.  

“Our language choices have a strong influence on how we view mental health. Through action and creating respectful conversations, people can create safe spaces in their social bubbles. We hope our conversations can be considered examples and help others open up to their friends and family. When one person decides to create a space, it impacts so many more.” 

Looking forward, Sunny and Mayank are enthusiastic about the conversations and understanding that Bottled Up is helping create and stay hopeful about the trajectory of mental health awareness in South Asian communities. The pandemic has undeniably accelerated conversations on mental health and with resources and platforms, such as Bottled Up, people are learning to equip themselves with the language and understanding to express themselves and to ask for help.

“I'm still learning a ton of different things and with the help of increased tools and language within the mental health space, we see more content and more awareness coming out, which makes room for more people to express themselves,” reflects Sunny.

“I think for all of us, mental health is definitely something we know is crucial because it's very much on top of our minds now with the pandemic. We should build on it and possibly pass on our learning to the next generation. There are reasons to be hopeful!,” says Mayank. 


You can stream Bottled Up on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. If you’re keen to come on board as a guest or want to reach out, you can contact them via Facebook, Instagram or email.


Where to get help? Click here to visit SAARI's map of South Asian psychologists in Australia


If you need someone to talk to, call:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36

Headspace on 1800 650 890

QLife on 1800 184 527


Pranjali Sehgal is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is a member of SAARI's Editorial Team and can be contacted via email. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Instagram.