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  • Writer's pictureNeil Parekh

Representation Matters for the South Asian Community

Updated: Apr 23

Representation matters. When I saw Indira’s post on the documentary she’s making about her mother’s depression, I saw myself. Obviously, not my self, but my community. I immediately thought of older female relatives, the aunties in the community. I thought of several who had lost their husbands years ago (like Indira’s mom). How many people do I know are suffering or have suffered from depression?

If I were to put my mind to it, there are several people in my family’s circle of friends and extended family who have suffered from varying degrees of anxiety and depression over the years. For some it was more than anxiety and depression, there was serious mental illness. Some were able to get the help they needed. Some never did.


I disscussed these issues and more on a new show that I launched with Dawn Helmrich, “Shining Light on Shadows: A Candid Conversation About Mental Health.” Indira Somani was our guest. She's working on a documentary about her mother's 20-year struggle with depression and her own role as one of her mother's caregivers. You can watch the recording on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram and my website.


I was surprised by the number of organizations working in this space. There are several focusing on young people, confirming my hope that today’s teenagers and young adults might have a different experience than Gen Xers like me or Boomers like my parents.

In general, mental health challenges are underreported in the South Asian community. That’s not surprising for an immigrant community. Even when these types of symptoms are acknowledged, there is less of a likelihood that someone will seek help.

I was disappointed in the lack of real data, however. There are a few data points out there, but not nearly enough. It’s disheartening.

Here is one of the few reliable data points I did find:

1 in 5 South Asians report experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetime” in a study cited by the South Asian Public Health Association.

Although there are several studies about mental health in the Asian American community, most of them do not present disaggregated data. (1)

As I was doing my research, I found a few instances where South Asian and Southeast Asian were used interchangeably (they’re not the same) and one website that just misread a study altogether, substituting South Asian for Asian American. There is also some data about heavy drinking among South Asian men, but there’s no context to compare it to other populations.

I hope I’m wrong. I really do hope I’m wrong. If there’s better data out there, I hope someone can correct me. Admittedly, I didn’t do a comprehensive review. But, if this is what I came across after putting in some time, imagine what a casual observer would find after a quick search?  

With any luck, projects like Indira’s film, our show and the handful of organizations addressing this issue may make things better. Might.

(1) If only the data in the studies referenced below had a large enough sample size to disaggregate South Asians…“Although utilization rates among SAs in the U.S. are lacking, several sources indicate that Asian Americans, especially those that are foreign-born, underutilize mental health services to a greater extent than the general U.S. population.60,61 Among a sample of Asian Americans diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, only 40% of U.S.-born and 23% of foreign-born subjects reported using mental health services.61 Furthermore, among a nationally representative sample with probable DSM-IV diagnoses, 34.1% of Asian Americans sought care within a 12-month period compared to 41.1% of the general population.” (Source: Mental Health and Stress among South Asians)


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