At twelve years old, my grandmother married my grandfather and moved into her in-laws’ home. For the next sixty years, my grandmother labored tirelessly as a daughter-in-law, wife, and then mother of four. My grandmother always stressed the importance of education to her children, especially to my mother. As my grandfather worked as the village doctor, my mother studied diligently to follow in his lead. At twenty-four years old, my mother earned her doctorate; a year later, she married and moved to the United States. For the next thirty years, my mother overcame great obstacles as a professional and as a wife and mother in an unwelcoming country.
My grandmother and mother are strong women. I am grateful for their resilience and loyalty even in the face of adversity. I love my mother, and I love my grandmother. However, my family is not without flaws. My grandmother and mother dedicated their lives to their families and sacrificed themselves along the way. The years of unacknowledged trauma manifested as emotional and physical abuse. Neither my grandmother nor my mother processed their pasts, one a child bride and the other an immigrant. Consequently, I inherited their pain, and I am forced to reconcile with a history and culture I did not choose.
The trauma that the women in my family and I experienced represents the broader issue of intergenerational trauma in the South Asian community. Our mental health is intrinsically tied to oppressive systems. Without analyzing our struggles within a sociopolitical context, we cannot confront the roots of our trauma. Historically, British colonialism and casteism forced my people into poverty. Culturally, cisheteropatriarchy dictates women to be held to a standard of perfection and subservience. Together, these systems enable the hardships that South Asian women must endure, generation after generation. In our society, a failure to uphold the construct of a dignified, dutiful Brown woman is a failure to perform womanhood. Thus, we must suffer in silence—god forbid we speak up or step out of line. My mother and grandmother internalized these beliefs and moved forward accordingly.
The stigmatization of mental health in our community is killing us. South Asian women are the least likely to use mental health services in the United States but suicide rates amongst these women are higher than the rest of the general population. For me, the burden of my familial lineage broke me down, fragmenting my sense of worth and belonging. At my lowest, I was hesitant to reach out for help because of my family’s judgment. To this day, my mother is embarrassed by the therapists, doctors, and hospitalizations I have been through. What if others find out? What will they think of you? What will they think of us? A good Indian girl doesn’t behave like this. Why are you doing this to me? I once felt betrayed and I often still do but now, I recognize her hurtful words are a reflection of her generation’s own anxieties toward and misunderstanding of mental health.
To the South Asian community—we must prioritize our physical and mental wellness. We cannot lose more girls and women. We need to spread mental health awareness within our community and advocate for cultural competency within the American mental health system to thoroughly address this crisis. We must not stop there. We need to abolish the systems of exploitation that enable the abuses inflicted upon us. Both in our homeland and abroad, capitalism and white supremacy profit off our anguish. Does the elite not gain from the unjust practices that cause us psychological harm? Moreover, capitalist individualism only further removes us from our families and communities. We lose sight of connections and mutual aid that can lead to our collective recovery.
We deserve to heal. We deserve to live as ourselves, free of the constraints imposed on us by society. We did not choose this identity or these struggles, but we can choose to liberate ourselves. Joy is an act of resistance and we must, must resist.
For mental health resources, check out: Mental Health Resources for Asian-Pacific Islander Communities by Verywell Mind
Sai Somana (they/them) is a rising second-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying English & Comparative Literature and Political Science. As a bisexual and non-binary South Indian living in the United States, Sai’s worldview is strongly rooted in anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. They are deeply passionate about building community and fighting for liberation for all oppressed peoples. They hope to pursue a career in law and continue to engage in radical spaces around the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. They love volunteering and writing; they currently work with Food Not Bombs-Raleigh, a mutual aid collective, and Tar Heel Perspective, a leftist newsletter.