'I've been thinking about coming to therapy for a long time.' 'My parents didn't want me to come.' 'Nobody else knows I'm in therapy.
These are the most common things I hear when I meet with my South Asian clients. Clients from South Asian or South Asian heritage (India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan) face several obstacles in seeking help. The very first deterrent is unfamiliarity with therapy and therapists. Many highly educated South Asians pursue careers to be engineers, doctors, and lawyers, and often there are people in the same profession in the family, who provide guidance and mentoring and are their role models. However, a search in the family tree will rarely yield a qualified psychologist or therapist. Even among friends, there will be few people working in the mental health field.
Which leads to the second deterrent in seeking therapy - the secrecy and lack of information. Several people choose to attend therapy because friends and family shared their own positive experiences of therapy. Not so with South Asian clients where attending therapy is an act done in secret lest there be judgment and stigma. Even those who have an overall positive attitude towards mental health are unlikely to share their own personal therapy experience with loved ones. Most of my South Asian clients are the first in their family to attend therapy. If they’re lucky, their parents and partners will be supportive, and encourage them to get the help they need.
However there is often a curious reaction that people can have when their loved ones choose to attend therapy (Deterrent #3). Parents and spouses will protest that the problem isn’t serious enough, that therapy isn’t needed yet, and that everyone can work together to solve the issues at hand. The motivation to avoid therapy stems from the misguided belief that seeking therapy is only for those with serious mental health issues (i.e, the ones’ hearing voices and seeing things) or that attending therapy is a sign that one is ‘mentally unstable’. These beliefs could not be further from the truth.
Attending therapy can thus become an uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and scary process, which is why seeking therapy can be a very hard decision for South Asians. Once you’ve attended a few therapy sessions, these stigmas and fears will fall away, and you can make an informed choice about how to support yourself, and how to use therapy to reach your goals.
P.S. In case you are a mental health practitioner looking to better support your South Asian clients - go ahead and listen to a podcast that I did about my therapy work here.