Posted on July 20, 2020 at 6:32 pm

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Interview With Theresa Thomas: A Pioneer for South Asian Mental Health Advocacy

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Theresa Thomas

At the forefront for change, Theresa Thomas, a South Asian American is determined to make her mark in destigmatizing the mental health narrative for South Asians. Her Instagram page, TherapyfortheBrownSoul, serves as an outlet for Theresa to express the message she wants her South Asian audience to cherish. Her work on social media doesn’t stop on Instagram, she is also an ambassador for MannMukti, a non- profit organization pushing through barriers of the mental health taboo amongst the South Asian community. 

 

We had a discussion with Theresa Thomas, to talk about a matter that for too long has been given the cold shoulder. She talks about why South Asians need to be a part of the fight against the mental health taint in our society. 

via Theresa Thomas
  1. I have had the opportunity to look at your Instagram page, TherapyfortheBrownSoul, and I am so intrigued by your initiative to shed light on the lack of attention to mental health resources for the South Asian community. Growing up, and being part of a South Asian family, I’m sure you experienced moments where you identified where the lack of attention in the mental health department was in a South Asian household. What moment in your life did you identify your role in destigmatizing the mental health narrative for South Asians?

“I feel like throughout my life, I’ve always struggled with my mental health. I’ve never really
known the language or had the words to know what mental health was. I didn’t even know
that was a concept, because it was never really talked about. I remember struggling in high
school when it came to like family expectations in like what I had to do, all this pressure, and I
remember feeling so depressed, and my friend actually recommended going to therapy, but I
didn’t want to believe it, I didn’t want to believe that I had to go to therapy, I thought I was
okay, I’m just having a moment, or I’m just feeling anxious and sad at the moment. But, I didn’t
know I was actually depressed, I replied to her saying, no, I’m not actually depressed, I was in
denial for a long time. And I just feel like we don’t have conversations about it, even in my
friend groups, and even in my South Asian friend groups. I grew up like I’m a Christian, as an
Indian Christian, and so I basically grew up in the church and I didn’t hear conversations about
mental health in the Church either whether it be from the priest or people in the parish or teens
,and there was no safe space for me to talk about what I’ve been through, and a lot of people
feel like they don’t have a safe space to talk about it, and honestly I felt like I was the only one
going through these things, And then in college, I started taking psychology courses, and then I
realized you know I’m really into psychology and learning about the mind and behavior, and I
took this counseling course, my professor was really the catalyst, who encouraged me to go
get professional help, and after going to therapy, you know I just realized, you know, that like
my parents, they just don’t get it, they don’t get the struggle, and they dont get, they don’t get
the struggle,you can have depression, and you can have anxiety, and you can have all these
things that you’re going through, and like i just felt like on social media there wasn’t really a
space to talk about and spread awareness. There were still a lot of misconceptions that people
still have about mental health in our community, so I wanted to talk about my experience, to
destigmatize it and help others feel validated and less alone.”

 

  1. As we just passed June, also known as, Pride Month, as an Asian American, I have grown up noticing how the support of the LGBTQ+ community is silenced among South Asian American households. Talking about the matter, and having open conversations is looked down upon, because for so long, and even in the present, South Asian families, for some godforsaken reason have relied on the story that “Indian people can’t be gay”, and “That only exists in Bollywood, or Tollywood comedies, and that’s not real!” How would you apply that same unjust reasoning South Asian families use to avoid the LGBTQ+ talk, with the mental health discussion? Why does the lack of LGBTQ+ conversation in Indian families affect teens in South Asian households? 

 

“Yeah and I feel like there are a lot of similarities there, in that they’re both stigmatized,
they’re both really swept under the rug, especially with LGBTQ, and having that
conversation with your parents about either topics is considered taboo still, There’s
also a lot of cultural implications as well, in terms of, get married and have kids, and if
you’re a girl you’re expected to be with a guy, and if you’re a guy you’re expected to be
with a girl, so there a lot of cultural and societal expectations on how your life should
look like, and who you should get married to. Also, colonialism has also impacted this
as well. I feel like there’s not enough visibility of Desi queer people in our
communities, and I feel like once people start opening up and talking to their parents
about it, and people start posting on social media, there’s the representation, they’re
able to be like, ‘Oh you know I’m gay.” And that kind of ties into the mental health
aspect of like there are other people out there going through the same thing as me.
And with LGBTQ and mental health, they kind of an overlap, the LGBTQ community is
twice as likely to have a mental health condition so their mental health is affected
because there’s a sense of isolation and not wanting to open up to parents about it,
and wondering if they’ll understand, and the thought of worse come to worse, will they
disown you for being who you are, and it’s just a part of your identity. Teens get
affected because it’s not normalized, and people are more likely to grow up being
homophobic because they learned it from their parents, and they pick up on these
ideologies and behaviors from a young age because of the conditioning, so having
that conversation with your parents and being, more open really, helps them
understand. I feel like if you are part of LGBTQ and you don’t talk about it it just
makes you isolated and alone. Internalized homophobia is huge in our community,
due to the fact that our parents don’t talk about it, and if you see something on TV
they’ll tell us to close your eyes or they’ll just change the channel!”

via Theresa Thomas
  1. Oftentimes in South Asian American households, we see the immigrant narrative demolish any conversation that may have to do with our inner thoughts or emotions. As thankful and important it is to talk about how hard our parents or grandparents had to work to get here (America), it can often demean the conversations that we want to have with them, about our mental health. This is because we don’t want to allow any self-pity to intrude on the conversation because we know how important it is to validate their work to get here. How would you explain the fact that a lot of South Asian Americans aren’t able to speak out about their mental health to their relatives because they don’t want to seem ungrateful for their parent’s hard work as immigrants? 

 

“Yeah I feel like there’s a lot of guilt there, and I feel like people think they can’t talk about it
because their parents have been through a lot, and they came to this country and they
worked really hard, and there’s like this guilt and even shame comes to the surface. I feel like
a lot of Indian parents feel like that too, thinking how did I let my kid feel this way, and feel
depressed, and what did I do, to have their mental health impacted and that they have to go
to therapy, and then they in turn feel guilty and shameful, and some of us feel guilty because
we think you know like we should be strong, and these are things we were told as kids, be
strong, just push through it, these are things I’ve been told by my parents, and like stop crying,
and what that actually leads to is suppressing your emotions, and that worsens it, yeah for
sure, and I feel like you can appreciate what your parents have done for you and still seek
therapy, cause it doesn’t take away from the fact that you have mental health issues and may
want to seek professional help to help cope. I feel like there needs to be a lot of empathy
there, like our parents, and like we’ll have to understand each other, on where both of us were
coming from. There is shame surrounding the topic of therapy and I feel like these services
are here for us to utilize so we can grow to be better people. I want to emphasize that we can
appreciate what our parents have done, but it doesn’t take away our personal experiences or
our trauma, and back to the understanding part, it’s important to realize that our parents are
from a different generation, and had a different upbringing with a rigid set of values and
beliefs that have passed down from their parents, it may take time for our parents to
understand.” Let’s give ourselves permission to break free from the narrative we were taught
and create our own narrative around mental health and accessing care despite what our
parents may believe.”

 

  1. Talking about the immigrant story for South Asian Americans, we all know the belief system in most South Asian families. The traditions, the morals, the ideals that we have been brought up by. Most importantly the heritage of our families and our communities that we grew up in. From my personal experience, the act of giving a “thappad” to your child for “disciplining them, was extremely common. However, when you go to your therapist and try to explain your childhood, your family’s morals, and parenting styles, they are more than often extremely confused and have a hard time being able to connect with you on the basis of your family’s heritage. This can act as a major barrier for being able to develop a mutual understanding and relationship between you and your therapist, making it difficult for S. A. A to find their right therapist, resulting in them not seeking help anymore. Could go into detail the steps needed to be taken in order for our society to not be alienated from Indian household practices, in order for more South Asians to seek help? 

 

“Yeah I think there needs to be more cultural competence, like therapists need to understand
more cultures like in the mental health space, it’s mostly a white space, there is a lack of
South Asian representation in the mental health field like the therapists supposed to help us,
don’t look like us, and then some of us wonder why should we go to therapy, if they cant
understand our customs and traditions. If you meet with a therapist, you’re allowed to ask
them questions about their clients in the past, like ask them, ‘Have you worked with someone
who looks like me?’, how do you incorporate culturally informed practice in your work, this
communication between the client and therapist is really crucial. I just feel like therapists
need to learn more about the ethnicity and ask questions regarding their culture.”

  1. As most of us are aware, career paths for most South Asian families revolve around two roads, Engineers, or doctors. This idea that your children pursuing either becoming a doctor or an engineer has managed to worm its way into the talk about what makes you successful. However, when talking about becoming a doctor, the specificities can either make or break your platform. I’m of course talking about a South Asian American child pursuing psychology. As relevant and necessary this job is, especially for the brown community, it just isn’t as common as it needs to be all because of the stigma behind it. How would you explain why it’s necessary for more South Asian Americans to pursue psychology, from your personal experience? 

 

“Yeah I think there needs to be more South Asians in the mental health space for sure,
because there are just so many people who need help with their mental health, and because
of the language barrier, for example, my mom, I’m trying to convince her to go to therapy like
it’ll be very helpful for you because she’s going through a lot of grief, so I was suggesting
utilizing therapy, and she responded, no one would understand, no one speaks my language,
and I was like well that’s true, there is lack of South indian therapists for starters. The
therapists I come across who are South Asian speak Hindi, Bangla, Urdu, but I’m from South
India, and a lot of the therapists don’t speak those languages which makes it difficult. I’m
starting to see more South Asians in this field, which is a plus. In our community, there are
cultural expectations to hold a certain degree and follow a certain path, like doctor and
engineer, and I see several people going into those fields. South Asian folks need to reflect
on why they’re going into a field, like are they doing it for them, cause it makes them happy, or
are you doing it, to please your parents, I think that’s an important conversation to have with
yourself.”

 

  1. As you’ve worked in the psychology field, I’m sure you’ve come across situations of racial bias in mental health assistance, as we’ve discussed. However, something that can often get pushed under the rug is the gender bias in mental health. In multiple situations the phrase, “Man up!”, and, “You’re a boy, boys don’t cry”, has been used to demean and desensitize the emotions of a boy, especially in South Asian American families. This type of sexism in the mental health of men can result in a lack of transparency of feelings for males, making them feel unimportant and have a lack of motivation to seek help caused by bottling up their emotions. How would you explain in further detail what we need to do in order to break down the barriers for boys in mental health? 

 

“Yeah, so I think something that’s really important is, for men to have a safe space to
talk about their feelings, which is actually something I posted on my story and asked
my audience a question, and one follower was saying, that they don’t open up,
because they don’t want to be seen as weak in front of other people, and I asked what
can we do for men to open up and be vulnerable, and a man replied saying we need a
safe space to do that like we need a safe space to feel vulnerable and not be made
fun of. The men in our community like they don’t show their feelings, they tell women
to suppress our feelings, boys hear that from a young age, like ‘You’re a big boy don’t
cry’, and they internalizes that, and that affects them later on and has an impact on the
women in their lives. Toxic masculinity can affect us women by emotional control ,
domestic violence, and misogyny. Toxic masculinity can perpetuate rape culture of
internalized misogyny that men must dominate women. More male in the mental
health space would help to increase awareness of the need for men’s mental health
and discuss the intersections of mental health, toxic masculinity and internalized
misogyny within South Asians men. We need more men especially South Asian men
in the mental health field. This can further assist men in feeling safe to be open about
their feelings. Adding on to that, the male practitioners can help dismantle toxic deep
seated behaviors and beliefs by men in our community on a macro or micro level.”

  1. 7. Growing up, I was constantly influenced by films and TV shows I would watch. Especially
    Bollywood movies. I’m sure this is true to many other South Asian Americans, as we can all identify the
    lack of representation of mental health assistance in Bollywood movies and TV as well. For example in
    the 2013 Hindi film, Raanjhanaa, both main characters attempt suicide because they can’t have each
    other, and in the film, it romanticizes the idea of suicide and how audiences need to find it romantic that
    they attempted suicide because of marriage. But never in the movie, does either character reach out for
    professional help. As fictional as this movie is, it still makes it seem okay for audiences to watch it, and
    think it’s normal for that kind of behavior, and is seen as “romantic”. What is your take on the lack of
    mental health representation in the Bollywood community?

“Yeah, I honestly feel like there’s not enough mental health representation in Bollywood at
all. I honestly liked Dear Zindagi, I feel like it really portrayed what twenty years old might be
going through, with relationships, and relationships with parents etc. I just feel like that really
helped to talk about it, and the fact that Shah Rukh Khan was doing a movie like that, I feel
like that really helps to get more of an audience because he is such a famous actor.
Although, I didn’t like the romance that was in there, cause that’s like unprofessional, and
you can’t have a relationship with your therapist or have any feelings if you have any feelings
toward them, then you should maybe find a different therapist because that will affect the
work. I think it’s a great movie, and a step in the right direction. Regarding the other movie I
think that’s kind of dangerous to show, suicide, as being romantic, it’s a very prevalent issue,
and I feel like a lot of people suffer in silence, and I feel like the more community our mental
health the more we suffer in silence and don’t talk about it. It’s detrimental to ones mental
health to display suicide as romantic it will give continue to spread misconceptions around
suicide. I would like to see more representation in Indian films as a whole.”

 

  1. In a lot of South Asian American households, we can all agree on the sense of community we have grown up with. Being proud of your culture and where you come from is always encouraged especially from a young age. This results in growing up around a wide range of people from your background and your culture. This reinforces the ideals of sharing everything with your community and becoming one with them, as they are the only ones who truly know what you and your family have been through. A sense of community and feeling connected with them is often considered ironic because of our lack of openness about things that relate to actual emotions and mindsets. How would you explain the sense of community in a South Asian American lifestyle and its impact on mental health amongst South Asian individuals?

“The collectivist culture is really toxic, and it has its advantages in a way because you’re able
to have access to different people in terms of networking. In regards to mental health our
community can shun people that struggle with their mental health. This does deeply impact
someone after some time, because there are people who will ask you about what you’re
doing, and you’re expected to answer these aunties’ questions about your personal life, You
don’t owe people answers about your life if you want to. I believe people need to set
boundaries on what people can know about you, and you’re allowed to like be secretive
about your life, and not tell people everything. So, it does impact you if you’re constantly
surrounded by it especially if you live in a town where people look like you. There’s all this
pressure to have done at a certain age. I feel like our culture has to be linear, it’s like, your
path has to be linear, everything has to go the way it’s planned at the right time and reach
milestones at a certain age. Yeah, like the older generation especially thinks there’s like this
trajectory on how your life needs to be, and it’s not reality for people, and there are so many
ups and downs, setbacks and hurdles that people come across.”

  1. I recently came across an article talking about a study conducted in 2017 by, The Asian American Federation about how the suicide rates amongst the US is at its highest, and it is the highest among South Asian American women from ages 15-24. This is unfortunately not surprising because of our lack of attention to mental health in South Asian communities as mentioned previously. How would you explain why we all need to pay more attention to these statistics, as we move forward? 

 

“Yeah, I think it’s really important, like the research shows, that it impacts people. 15-24.
So it definitely affects that age group, and suicide is something that’s so taboo, and even
more than depression. People think that like oh, your life is so great, why would you want
to do that, that whole question comes up of like, ‘Why did they do it?’. Like I remember,
recently, the Bollywood actor passed away, and he died by suicide, and yeah, this question
comes up, where people are like, ‘Why did he do it?’ ‘You had everything coming up for you,
why?’. The thing is we don’t really know why there are a lot of speculations of what
happened, it could be true, but we don’t really know what’s going on inside his head, and
the reason is people get to a point in their life of so much pain, it’s not because they want
to actually die, but it’s the fact that their pain is so severe, and they just want the pain to
end.” We have to reframe the question of why to ,what can we do as a collective? As we
move forward we have to be cognizant of how we treat others. We really don’t know who
is struggling. Contact people that you haven’t spoken to for a while actually call them
where you can hear their voice.I hope this has been a wake up for our community that we
need to do better as a whole.”

  1. As I was researching about your work, I came across the interesting fact that you are an ambassador for MannMukti. As I interview you today, I think it’s important that we come back to the idea that we need to continuously regard female involvement in matters that society has “given up on”. AKA, being a girl boss. And your work with destigmatizing mental health matters is essential.  Being an ambassador for that organization breaking barriers of mental health for South Asians is extremely important to regard in your path of being a girl boss, as it inserts the strong female leads needed in our world today. I just wanted to ask about your work in MannMukto and how you endure your girl boss title in that organization? 

 

“Yeah it’s very important for women and girls, to be in leadership positions and be involved in
mental health advocacy, and that’s really crucial to destigmatize mental health, which is why I
joined because I wanted to do something to help fight the stigma. As an ambassador, we
spread awareness about the campaigns via social media, and like you take part in projects,
and they have a forum where you can actually submit your personal story with mental health,
and like abuse and sexual assault. And I actually submitted a story about my mental health,
these actions will help, as we play a role behind the scenes and work on projects, and partner
up with different professionals in the field, or like different organizations, and collaborate.
There’s a lot of females in the org actually, which is great, cause I think females need to talk
more about mental health, and how it impacts them, for example the cultural expectations
placed on us women definitely growing up in the US, we have to balance both our American
and Indian identities, our bi-cultural identities these factors all affects us mentally. I would
like to see Immigrant women speak up more and take up more space in the mental health
sector because mental health impacts immigrant women as well.”

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