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Conversations: APIDA students share experiences with mental health stigma

Melinda Dang, a third-year in public health, grew up in Cleveland and experienced bullying due to her race. Since then, she has tried to break the stigma against mental health in the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community. Credit: Michael Lee | Outreach and Engagement Editor

Growing up in Cleveland, Melinda Dang experienced bullying due to her race and her friends used her to cheat on homework assignments.

When she reached the seventh grade, she became suicidal. A friend at the time even told her to go through with it.

But it was only when she got to Ohio State that she was diagnosed with depression, the summer after her first year.

“My mom doesn’t really acknowledge it, she doesn’t think that’s a real thing,” Dang, a third-year in public health, said. “But this is a real diagnosis, it’s on paper too.”

On April 11, The Lantern obtained internal emails from Ohio State’s Counseling and Consultation Service and reported that the office gave preferential treatment to students who showed up with a parent or a professor.

But for people in some communities, like the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community, there’s not only a stigma with not being able to talk about mental health with their parents and family, but also with not seeking mental health services.

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Ohio State students from the APIDA community spoke about their experiences dealing with mental health growing up, as well as breaking the stigma in the community.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than other Americans but are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.

“I was like breaking down in the doctor’s office for no reason,” Dang said. “She encouraged me to seek counseling, and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’ But I was like it just kind of feels bad or shameful to seek counseling.”

Nealofar Madani, a second-year in public health, said she sees a reason for people in the APIDA community not seeking mental health services is because in their families, oftentimes getting this kind of help is seen as a weakness.

“Whenever I’ve talked to my family about therapy they’re like, ‘Why do you need that, what’s wrong with you,’ instead of asking what happened to you,” she said.

Madani said mental health was never directly talked about in her family, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t an issue. Madani said she saw that with her dad, being vulnerable and emotional was also seen as a weakness.

Even so, when she came to Ohio State, she learned more about mental health and how it’s played a role in her life.

“I’ve seen that no, vulnerability is strength, because it takes true strength to be vulnerable and show your emotions,” Madani said. “It’s not being weak at all, it’s being human.”

Nealofar Madani, a second-year in public health, is the events director of the Pan-Asian Mental Wellness Association. Credit: Michael Lee | Outreach and Engagement Editor

For Apoorva Vallampati, a third-year in neuroscience, she said she felt like those growing up in the Asian community are taught to have a discomfort about talking about mental health, and that it’s more accepted than having an open dialogue about it.

Vallampati said that growing up, she never considered her mental health issues as actual issues but knew that they did affect her in her daily life and were taking a mental toll on her.

“If I brought it up to like my mom or my dad, or close family friends, a lot of them, even the medical professionals, would say, ‘This is a part of growing up, you are under so much pressure at school and extracurriculars, and stuff like that, I really do think this is going blow over,’” she said. “That was kind of related to a lot of the anxiety I experienced as a kid.”

As she grew older, Vallampati said she had to find her own ways to deal with anxiety. Although her family had the financial access to medical services, she was still a minor, so she felt like her parents would find out if she ever talked to a doctor about her problems.

She said talking to her friends and mentors from back home in Cleveland was her way of coping, but it ended up only being a temporary fix, especially when she came to Ohio State.

“I had some friends here but my family was hours away, and I kind of immediately fell into this depressive spiral,” Vallampati said.

While she doesn’t want to make generalizations for the whole APIDA community, Madani said from her own perspective, the stigma surrounding mental health in the community has been a common theme — regardless of ethnicity — because of how the community views itself as a whole.

“From my personal experience, the APIDA community holds themselves to a very high standard and aims for perfection,” Madani said. “So there’s not a lot of room for error and that cannot be healthy sometimes because then it doesn’t create space to process emotions, whether they’re good or bad.”

For Dang, it also has to do with how she feels like many of the people in the community were taught growing up on how to deal with mental health problems.

“We’re just taught, ‘Oh, just keep working hard, things will get better, if you keep working hard your mental health might get better,” she said. “My mom is like, ‘Just eat fruits and vegetables, get better sleep,’ like this basic self care stuff should help you with your mental illness. But even if I do that, there’s more to it than just eating well and stuff like that.”

“Everyone is going through something … When we open up and we’re vulnerable, it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, and it creates a space for connection.”—Nealofar Madani, a second-year in public health and events director of the Pan-Asian Mental Wellness Association

So to help open up discussion about mental health in the APIDA community, Madani and Vallampati are now officers in the Pan-Asian Mental Wellness Association, a student organization that tries to create a community to overcome and bring an awareness to the mental health stigma.

“It provides a safe space to have these difficult conversations and just to gather around and create a sense of community and just take a break from classes, relax and enjoy each other’s company,” Madani, events director of PMWA, said.

It’s spaces like PMWA that Madani said the community needs to continue to create for each other, where they can have conversations about their own mental health.

But while Vallampati, outreach chair of PMWA, said that the stigma in the community, at least at Ohio State, is improving — with more and more students being willing to share their stories — there’s still work to be done.

She said that the organization had panel where students spoke about mental health in the APIDA community. While they said it wasn’t as bad as it used to be, they still saw traditional views that APIDA students were raised on still existing, for example, toxic masculinity.

“We have young Asian people and young Pacific Islanders on campus that are students and we still hear things like ‘You’re being a pussy, just get over it,’ or, ‘You need to man up,’” Vallampati said. “So we still hear that stuff and on one hand, we realize we’re doing a good job: people are speaking up, people are providing more resources for people to get help. But then it’s a little bit disheartening because we hear that and see that.”

Dang she said she feels like the stigma surrounding the APIDA community will be here for a while because of the older generations, she still encourages students to surround themselves with positive and supportive people, engage in conversations about mental health and find other ways to improve their health and other aspects of their lives.

For Madani, she just wants students in the APIDA community to know one thing: that they’re not alone.

“Everyone is going through something,” she said. “When we open up and we’re vulnerable, it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, and it creates a space for connection.”

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