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How Shared Experience Transformed My Understanding of Mental Health Care

Mental health in South Asian households is a topic that is often glossed over, if not ignored as irrelevant. When someone from the South Asian community shares that they want to engage with mental services for their wellbeing, they are frequently having to navigate narratives that tell them that they are ‘going crazy’ or ‘you look fine, why do you need help?’ Unfortunately, these narratives worsen the stigma surrounding mental health in our communities. 

There are various reasons why members of the South Asian community reject mental health as an important aspect of health and wellbeing. Some include:

      • lack of education or awareness,

      • lack of trust in the mental health community and professionals, and exposure to misinformation 

      • conflicting cultural values around seeking help, 

      • denial,

      • fear of judgment, vulnerability 

     • wanting to avoid feelings of shame connected to acknowledging mental health struggles 

Even with education, it can be very difficult to unlearn negative attitudes towards receiving help for mental health and form healthy beliefs around receiving care. But what if I told you that there’s a piece of the puzzle that we’ve overlooked? Something that could help progress the conversation of mental health in South Asian communities or even just help with getting the conversation started. 

Recently, I had a conversation with a South Asian friend who’s currently completing her Honors in Psychology, about her experience switching to an Indian therapist. She described how much more productive her therapy sessions were in comparison to her previous sessions with a therapist who come from a similar cultural background. My friend mentioned how smoothly the sessions ran as she didn’t have to spend time giving additional context to issues she was facing related to her traditional Indian family. The advice and solutions provided were realistic and practical because her therapist understood the complexities surrounding her culture. This made me wonder about the power of shared experience in a mental health setting. 

What is shared experience and how does it apply to mental health?

Shared experiences in mental health can be viewed from two different perspectives. Let’s call the first one, patient-to-patient. If you were to Google ‘shared experiences in mental health,’ the information you’d see loading on your screen would focus on the value and importance of sharing your mental health journey with others. Without a doubt, sharing your experience with mental health requires a lot of courage, but it also helps encourage others to share their journeys and know that they are not alone. For example, it might be the validation someone needed to seek the help they always needed or wanted, but were too hesitant to begin. 

The second perspective looks at the power of shared experience from a healthcare worker (HCW) to patient. This perspective explores how sharing experiences, such as culture, with your healthcare professional, can change the quality of the interaction and care provided to you as a patient. This perspective can be leveraged to encourage people to seek mental health support as shared experiences can give us a sense of comfort and strength to the HCW-to-patient connection. At the same time, it can deter some people from engaging with mental health support because of this shared link, creating feelings of judgment and shame. So let’s explore this perspective more to better understand the potential power of shared experiences in mental health. 

Benefits of shared experiences in mental health

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve repeatedly been made aware of the importance of social connection for our psychological well being. But how does connection help in a mental health setting? The simple answer is that connection fosters a greater sense of empathy and trust between the HCW and client, whilst deepening the understanding of the issue and underlying triggers, which ultimately results in better-tailored solutions and advice. 

As part of writing this piece, I interviewed my friend to learn more about her experience of switching to a psychologist who shared the same cultural background. She gave an example of having a significant disagreement with her family, to which her first psychologist had suggested moving out as a solution. When she mentioned the same scenario to her Indian psychologist, my friend expressed how her new psychologist understood that moving out wasn’t an option for my friend, due to her cultural values. My friend mentioned how she had to spend time explaining to her previous psychologist why moving out wasn’t an option and would worsen the situation. From my interview with my friend, I realised shared experiences enable us to become more aware and mindful of our responses to complex situations. For example, thanks to her understanding of Indian culture, the new psychologist asked thoughtful and relevant questions, which encouraged my friend to engage more deeply with her experiences and by doing so, she was able to better articulate her thoughts and feelings. 

I also interviewed an Australian South Asian Center member, Maneesha Singh, who works at Mind Australia. Mind Australia is a community-managed mental health service that supports clients through recovery and care. My discussion with Maneesha and my friend highlighted the common thread of using shared experiences to create a sense of familiarity and safety. This is especially relevant in South Asian cultures, where mental health is a taboo topic. 

Maneesha mentioned how historically mindfulness and meditation were techniques used to improve mental health in South Asia. Interestingly, these practices are now being researched and used by Western medicine as remedial measures, like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for depression and Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention. However, these concepts stem from South Asian religions and practices grounded in culturally-specific traditions. The teachings of Buddhism directs its followers to achieve enlightenment, known as Sati. Hindu scriptures mention Sanatana Dharma and in Sikhism, the Gurbani mentions a ‘state of bliss’. The state of bliss refers to the concept of acknowledging your emotions and not acting on them or ignoring or resisting them during mindfulness. Maneesha discussed how we can use these familiar, interwoven concepts to create safe spaces for South Asian community members to engaged in mental health activities. 

Similarly, my friend discussed using South Asian community groups to create that sense of familiarity and culturally safe spaces to have mental health conversations. The example she mentioned is Chetna Australia, an organisation promoting mental health awareness in the Punjabi and Sikh communities. Chetna often uses ‘Cha with Chetna’ to have open discussions about mental health topics. Chetna is a great example of using cultural connections and resources our community is comfortable with to ease into conversations about the topics many feel uncomfortable about because, as we know, South Asians feel at home conversing with a warm cup of chai in their hands (talk about smooth transitions). Chetna hosts sessions on their social media where they use the Gurbani to create that sense of familiarity to spark conversation on mental health. They’ve also delivered presentations at the Gurudwara to make this taboo topic more approachable, relevant and engaging for the Punjabi community. 

Are there issues related to shared experiences in mental health? 

When exploring the other side of the coin, it’s important to recognise that there can be bias and judgment associated with shared experiences, when navigating cultural settings. This can happen from both ends of the relationship between a HCW and client. 

Recently, I switched psychologists and coincidentally I found out that my new psychologist is Indian. Even for me, as a client with a background in health services, I had reservations about her before our first session. I had an image of a typical South Asian aunty with glasses on the tip of her nose and kajal outlining her eyes judging my feelings and experiences as I sat across on a couch from her. Okay, maybe I was being a bit dramatic, but my concerns about her were real and grounded in my past experiences. At the same time, despite my concerns, I was also excited to see where this experience would lead me on my mental health care journey. I’m glad I stayed open-minded because she was the first of my three psychologists to actually take the time to explore and acknowledge the significance culture has played in my lived experience and the impact balancing two identities has had on me as an immigrant child. 

‘What will people think if they find out that I’m seeing a psychologist?,

We can often fear and feel shame toward biases and judgements we think HCWs could have of us, as their patients, because they share the same cultural background as us. For older South Asian generations, where the community’s judgment of them dictates their actions much more heavily than the younger generation, engaging in mental health services can be extremely difficult and go against deep-rooted cultural beliefs. For them engaging with someone of the same background could be even more daunting and evoke feelings of shame or embarrassment. It can also be difficult to build trust within a HCW-client relationship as thoughts like, ‘Will things I share privately about my mental health be shared in the community?’ or ‘What will people think if they find out that I’m seeing a psychologist?,’ which can act as barriers to meaningful relationships and interactions when engaging in mental health services. This can be enhanced by misinformation and/or lack of knowledge on confidentiality regulations related to healthcare intereactions. 

The way forward 

The power of shared experience can be profound if given the chance to be explored, however, the aim of this blog post isn’t to sway you towards a particular side, but rather to give you a new perspective when considering your mental wellbeing. I also wanted to share my perspective and experience having conversations about mental health, so others in our community can feel supported starting their own discussions with parents, relatives and friends, so we can all move towards a brighter future for the South Asian community.

As we work towards reducing the stigma surrounding mental health in our communities, it’s necessary to be aware of the positive and negative impact shared experiences can have on us and others, so we can overcome barriers towards better mental health outcomes. It’s also important to remember that mental health care is not ‘one size fits all,’ because each of us has unique circumstances and preferences. Your approach to mental health may change as you learn more about yourself and the world around you and that’s an important part of the journey to achieving overall wellbeing. 

Want to be part of a supportive network of Australian South Asian women and allies? Sign up here.

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