Time to Open Up

Why we need to normalize talking about mental health

Sweta Vikram

Look at the world around you. People don’t know what’s going to happen today, forget a week from now. The pandemic has shaken us to the core, and the lack of control over our lives has been a frightening experience.

Between deaths, job losses, ailments cropping up, relationships dissolving, we have been in a heightened state for over a year now. In Ayurveda speak, we are in a state of extreme Vata imbalance.

Have you ever wondered just how much impact your state of mind has on your health? According to Ayurveda, the mind has a very powerful influence on our overall health and well-being. While Asia is in lockdown and the United States is reopening, stress (albeit different ones) exists in all the spaces. I have colleagues in NYC stressed about their pandemic weight gain, being in crowded spaces, and juggling work with childcare in the post lockdown world. In Asia, one is stressed about people in your personal circle dying and the fight for oxygen cylinders.

What does stress do? It impacts our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It manifests differently in people, but it can show up when you are least expecting it. When I shared on social media that I was launching a course on “How to manage pandemic stress with Ayurveda,” people from different ethnicities, races, communities, and geographic locations reached out and said that the course was needed right now.

I observed that Caucasians were more open to conversations around mental health, sharing personal experiences, and talking about how stress was impacting their personal and professional lives. People of color were more reticent. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this May I reached out to two Asian women who work in the space of mental health. I asked these two experts their opinion on the importance of mental health, why some communities are more open to seeking help than others, and when people should talk to a mental health practitioner.

Diana Liao
Diana Liao addresses the stigma Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have when dealing with mental health issues. Pic courtesy Diana Liao

I spoke with Diana Liao, a licensed mental health counselor and speaker in NYC, specializes in helping millennials in NY navigate challenges related to life transitions, identity, self-worth, relationships, and career.

“I’m particularly passionate about working with diverse populations, including the Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian communities,” she says. “I’m especially attuned to issues of belonging, marginalization, and other complexities that arise from living in the US as a minority.”

In addition to being a therapist, Liao also speaks and leads interactive healing circles on mental health, and runs a website, Bridges Mental Health, which is a mental health resource for the APISA community in the NYC-area.

“Stigma around mental health is particularly pronounced in the Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American communities due to deeply-held values around achievement and perseverance, family obligations, and shame in admitting weakness,” Liao tells us. “In fact, research has shown that Asian Americans are three times less likely than their white counterparts to seek therapy. To compound the issue, when Asian Americans do seek therapy, they often report feeling invalidated by therapists that are unable to relate to their experiences.”

When I ask Liao how can ignoring mental health impact our daily lives, she says, “Ignoring your distress in the short term may feel like an effective coping strategy, but over the long term these suppressed emotions can manifest in other ways like losing your temper with a loved one, overworking, ruminating about worst case scenarios, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, physical pains, and exhaustion.”

She further adds that, “By the time some clients reach out to me, they’re typically in significant distress and really struggling.”

I want you to pause, breathe, and re-read what she suggests because it can be a game changer:

“I want to emphasize that you don’t have to wait to meet a checklist of “serious enough” symptoms before you ask for help. Therapy can be valuable for anyone and we all deserve to have someone help us navigate our lives more easily.”

Gayatri Aptekar
Gayatri Aptekar looks at the individual's need for emotional regulation. Pic courtesy Gayatri Aptekar

When I speak with Gayatri Swapnil Aptekar, who is a therapist, emotional wholeness coach, and mental space psychologist in Mumbai, India, I am bowled over by her vulnerability and candor.

She confesses, “I grew up in an environment with emotionally unavailable parents and experienced physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. This unprocessed childhood trauma leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms in teenage and adulthood like self-harm, suicidal tendencies, sleep issues and frequent emotional outbursts. For years I felt ashamed about my behaviors until I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my thirties.”

Aptekar learned about brain health through psychology and various other healing modalities.

“The challenges that I faced to regulate my emotions made me study emotions and become a therapist who specializes in working with emotional regulation,” she says.

Aptekar reminds us, “Ignoring mental health can affect our brain health severely, leading to insomnia, migraine, chronic fatigue, poor performance, creative blocks, weight issues, indigestion, panic attacks and also challenges like clinical depression, anxiety and psychosomatic diseases.”

She says there are many situations in which one should reach out to a mental health practitioner.

“When there’s a transition in your life like a change in city or country, new job or new designation, marriage or divorce or a death of someone or a pet, it is useful to consult a professional,” Aptekar says. “If you have experienced any kind of trauma in your childhood or growing up years, it is advisable to reach out to a mental health practitioner to gain new perspectives, learn tools to process and resolve emotions.”

You have read what the experts have to say! May is mental health awareness month, but we need to take care of our mental well-being throughout the year! If we can normalize talking about high blood pressure and diabetes, why do we ignore any mental health issues or any diseases of the brain? There is no shame in taking care of YOU, which means your whole mind and body.

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” ~ Fred Rogers