A lot of us are seeking mental health support more than ever before. An important part of this demographic are South Asian Australians, and we have our unique experiences, challenges and needs when accessing mental health help.
Thanks to an encouraging shift in the public discourse and increased governmental support, more South Asian Australians are accessing therapy and counselling. Our increased mental wellbeing literacy, recognition of the impacts of trauma, and other personal factors are also accelerating the demand for support.
Before we provide some tips, one preface: a majority of our healthcare system is designed around a ‘reactive’ mindset. Our healthcare centres are designed to address problems - for example, think of emergency departments. This affects how we view healthcare as well. We go to the doctor when we feel sick, or visit the hospital when an emergency happens. Aside from investing in health insurance, trying to eat, sleep and exercise well, there’s very few proactive steps we take to help ensure our health is maintained.
Accessing mental health help can be considered a kind of insurance policy, one where we are aiming to help not only address issues, but build and reinforce resilience and prepare ourselves for future challenges.
That being said, how might you look for and access support that feels right for you? Here are some of our tips and thoughts.
You have unique cultural considerations
It can be challenging especially living as a South Asian in a country where mental health information/resources are available and encouraged, but our families/loved ones aren’t necessarily on-board with the idea of seeking counselling or help. South Asian communities across the board, for example in Canada and England, have a fairly poor track record of being able to seek and engage with resources around mental health, wellbeing, handling emotions and effectively dealing with grief.
We could hear things like ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘just get over it’, particularly from our elders, which can be harmful and counterproductive in effect, even with the best of intentions.
It’s important to remember that this can come from long-standing ideas of shame, worrying about reputation, and pressure to conform to ‘normal’ routes of success. However, they may not be an accurate representation of the situation or whether or not you are deserving and entitled to support for mental wellbeing challenges you might face. The NSW state government found in their Mental Health Literacy Project that Indian women, for example, have fears around their marriage eligibility because of mental health issues as well.
These are unique barriers that have to be kept in mind when you are looking at your options. Not all the options available will properly realise or take into account these barriers and experiences. This may be for a number of reasons including:
Mental health supports often being centred on western notions of wellbeing with cultural identity and diverse experiences not being duly considered
The research and evidence from which information and treatments are drawn not being diverse or inclusive enough in their process
Other barriers to entry like the notion that you often have to be quite verbal and open about your experiences right off the bat to warrant appropriate attention or socio-economic barriers.
It can help to check with your service provider if they have culturally diverse counselors, therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists on board before you begin, if that is what you feel comfortable with.
We know that people also talk about wanting to see someone outside of their cultural background as a means of not having to deal with the biases or judgements that might come from someone with the same or similar background. This is despite many of us having grown up in societies with a keen focus on physical health (Ie. eating well, or exercising regularly) but less of a focus on emotional wellbeing (Ie. talking about feelings, seeking help for mental health challenges etc.) You need to do what is right for you - that is integral to ensuring that you can make the most of your help-seeking experience.
Know that you are not alone
When we don’t talk about mental health and wellbeing more broadly and openly in the community, it’s easy to feel like you are the only one going through what you are. But rest assured, you are not alone. We are starting to learn how common mental health concerns and adversity is in our communities so you are entirely valid in wanting to seek help to take steps toward better outcomes for yourself and those you love.
“For me, coming from a conservative, South-Indian background meant feeling like my family (and at times, my friends) did not understand my experiences. But working in the field opened my eyes to just how many people experience these things and feel like they have to hide them to save face and feeling shame. The first step toward feeling better was allowing myself to actually feel what I was feeling and validating my own experiences...realising that I am not alone in the struggle.” - Niharika Hiremath
Don’t be discouraged by the high costs of accessing mental health services in person
With a rise in the demand for services (predominantly because of the rise in literacy and better understanding of many of these issues), the price which consumers are required to pay has also increased exponentially.
Even those services that are designed for specific, underrepresented communities have incredibly long waiting lists and hence present cost barriers in alternative ways.
However, there are a number of ways in which you can try to bridge those waiting periods or navigate unaffordable mental health support costs.
The Australian government has made available 20 subsidised psychologist sessions for those who can access Medicare. If you fall into this group, you could access this through booking an appointment directly, or via your GP (either your regular one or another based on how comfortable you are). These sessions aren't just for mental ‘illness’ per say, and those eligible are encouraged to access them if you are experiencing troubles but have not been formally diagnosed.
Educating yourself is one of the most important first steps in learning about mental wellbeing. Gaining an understanding of what you are going through helps to put it into context - it means rather than judging yourself, or others, you can extend self-compassion which can help put you on a better path. When you start to learn that the adverse things you are experiencing may not all be directly in your control, this can lift the pressure.
There’s a lot of jargon and terminology which is used in articles or videos, and learning the definitions as you go will be helpful. It is important to do this in a way that doesn't self-diagnose however. How mental health challenges present for everyone is different and although educating yourself is important, you also have to be aware of not self-diagnosing without the presence of a mental health professional.
Your mental health literacy should ideally also be informed by official and credited sources, but life experience blogs and biographies can also provide a depth to your understanding. This is especially true in the case of the South Asian community, where evidence-based sources and research may not be readily or widely available. Like with any information online, it’s important to be aware of articles that do not cite evidence or link to verified sources.
Some of our favourite online resources are compiled in this toolkit by Niharika, which contains culturally-specific tips, organisations and resources too.
Informal supports are often much easier to access, and may fall closer to your comfort zone than appointments with a professional. They could also help to bridge the discomfort into professional support by providing information and practical tips. Peer support workers, for example, work in organisations as people with a first-hand experience of mental health challenges and can thus help support you to access services or resources that are going to be useful.
Informal support can be both offline; like speaking with friends or support groups and taking part in non-clinical activities such as exercising and arts & crafts; but they can also be found online.
Online, we can engage more actively on platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn groups, as well as on mental health specific forums like headspace (for youth between 12-25 years old) or Beyond Blue. These communities are often populated with helpful tips and tricks, and can be useful in navigating day to day experiences.
We find that using supports like these are a great boost and addition to professional help, but not really a replacement, and can guide you along your journey. It is also important to be cautious about accessing non mental health specific platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn for emotional support as there is also a lot of 'fake news' and dangerous information floating around which may not be conducive to a safe or pleasant experience. But as with any resources you are accessing, verifying that it is credible (e.g. websites ending in .gov or .org) and appropriate source will be a good start to keeping yourself safe.
If you are experiencing a crisis or emotional distress, helplines are available which you can call or message 24/7, such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline. Helplines are a great way to access immediate support. Some organisations even offer online live chats.
When accessing emergency services, it is important to consider, however, that many helplines may have long wait times. These waiting periods may have the potential to exacerbate what you’re already feeling, but keep in mind that it is not an indication of how worthy you are to receive help or whether or not your issue is important enough.
The reality of the situation is that unfortunately, this is still a growing field and there are not enough resources to go around. Being able to have a plan in place - having trusted people you can talk to (and ask for support when you need it) can be useful whilst waiting to access help through helplines or in-person services. A helpful safety planning app is Beyond Now which has been created by Beyond Blue.
There are also a number of apps and online presences that can help ground you and help you to focus on your breathing and other conscious, present activities to help bridge the time to accessing professional support. The integral thing is that your experience is valid and continuing to attempt accessing services despite the barriers will mean that eventually you will be heard.
Online mental health resources are a compliment, not a substitute, for an in-person experience (or professional experience over Zoom)
Online resources can be great to garner initial information, build communities and start learning about what you might be going through. But much like WebMD or 'doctoring via Google,' it has the tendency to run away with your emotions. Being picky about the resources you access (this toolkit is a great starting point!) - and ensuring that you have a robust action plan to help support yourself (or those you love) in a more sustainable, ongoing and in-person way will ensure that you stay as safe as possible.
Know your rights and possibilities when accessing services online
As the effects of the pandemic have stretched on to swallow almost all of our minds and newsfeeds, so have the impacts on our mental health. During this time, there’s been a surge in the use of online mental health services, such as the app BetterHelp, which connects the user with a licensed therapist working on a freelance basis.
Services like these ask for some deeply personal information, and can share? this information to third party providers under grey areas of legislation, so it is important to be aware of how your information could be used.
The terms and conditions sections of these apps are deliberately difficult to read, but articles like this one from Jezebel explore how BetterHelp may be selling data to companies like Facebook for advertising purposes. Your rights and responsibilities are outlined by the federal government in accordance with the Mental Health Act here.
So while we did mention that communities on Facebook and LinkedIn can be helpful in your mental health journey, we believe you’d be best placed by protecting your own information while using them. However, we also understand that it can be difficult to navigate these challenges. When accessing certain online and most in-person services, there is a level of information that does need to be shared with others but this is usually in regard to safety and you will be told how and when (i.e. if you are a threat to yourself or others) and before they share your information, so you might consider this an acceptable level of risk. At the end of the day, as long as your consent to your information being shared is well informed, the choice is yours.
If something isn’t working - that’s ok! You are not the problem
It can take several attempts or different professionals to help you find the right fit for your life. Rest assured that your experience will always be kept confidential when seeking therapists or doctors. Whilst this can be a tiring or discouraging process, it is definitely normal to not hit it off on the first go.
We also emphasize that many mental health supports (both in person and online) were designed with a specific audience in mind. Or, more often, designed without considering how a person from a diverse background might be influenced or how that information is perceived.
So, if something (an app, a theory or way of thinking) is not sitting well with you - it is not because there is something wrong with you. It’s often because the nuance that surrounds culturally diverse backgrounds and the experiences they might bring may get lost in one size fits all type of approaches/services.
Australian Human Rights Commission speech on Multiculturalism, mental health and the psychology of racism by Dr Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner
Tanaya Joshi is a regular science and culture writer at SAARI. She is a Clinical Research Assistant at the Monash Clinical Research / Metro Pain Group. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.
Niharika Hiremath is a mental health advocate and member of the National Mental Health Commission's Independent Advisory Board. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.
Contributing writer Aamisha Khanna wrote a section of this article. She is a registered counsellor and TFM Practitioner at Berry Street. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.