5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Discover the South Asian women who are challenging stigmas and fostering transformative conversations around mental health.

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

"I had my first suicide attempt when I was 13"

Mental health remains an often-neglected thread, particularly within South Asian communities.

Shrouded in centuries-old stigmas, discussions about mental well-being have faced formidable barriers, resulting in silence and misconceptions.

The lack of open conversations that still exist today around this topic leads to drastic, and sometimes, irreversible consequences.

However, amidst this historical backdrop of false narratives, a cohort of remarkable South Asian women emerge.

These trailblazers are challenging norms and spearheading a transformative dialogue on mental health.

As we delve into the narratives of these women, we unravel their personal journeys and the broader struggle against the deep-seated stigma that has plagued South Asian societies.

Amelia Noor-Oshiro

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Amelia Noor-Oshiro, a Muslim woman, educator, activist and survivor of suicide, employs her advocacy efforts to utilise science and research in assisting those grappling with suicidal thoughts.

In her Brief But Spectacular take, Noor-Oshiro sheds light on cross-cultural suicide prevention research.

She has actively opened up about her own struggles, highlighting how she suffered from suicidal thoughts during school.

After the birth of her first daughter, Amelia committed her first suicide attempt, which ultimately led to multiple hospitalisations.

Speaking on this matter whilst emphasising the mental health stigma in South Asian culture, she told PBS:

“It was quite confusing to kind of conceptualise suicide.

“It almost seemed like a foreign concept, almost as if, you know, Muslims aren’t impacted by suicide, so why discuss it?

“I didn’t actually speak up necessarily about my mental health to my mum.”

“It’s as if you would be offending the culture almost.

“It would be considered sort of a direct attack to how much effort she has put into taking care of me.”

However, Amelia quickly realised that she couldn’t be the only one struggling.

Compelled to share her own story as a survivor, and understanding the need to break the silence scientifically, Amelia embarked on research that would pave the way for political representation.

Explaining more on this, she revealed to PBS:

“If we can get epidemiological evidence of how much we are suffering as a Muslim community, then we can get political representation.

“So in my mind, scientific representation equals political representation.”

So, Amelia fosters change through awareness and statistics.

She believes that presenting the hard facts of this issue means that true change can ignite.

This commitment fuels her work as a scholar-activist, aiming to contribute to the betterment of mental health representation and support within her own community.

Tanya Marwaha

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Meet Tanya Marwaha, a dedicated advocate for mental health and the founder of Championing Youth Minds, a local youth mental health charity.

Tanya’s journey in this field is rooted in her personal experiences as a young person from an ethnic minority background living with disabilities.

Talking to The Argus, Tanya detailed the fragility of her younger self and the battles she faced:

“I had my first suicide attempt when I was 13 and now I am about to turn 22.

“It has been a long journey but I want to share my experiences to help people.

“I have always struggled and I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 16 which gave me some answers.

“It has been a journey dealing with suicidal thoughts, for me it has been about finding hope and using those reasons to keep going.”

In March 2021, she took her commitment to mental well-being to the next level by establishing Championing Youth Minds.

This charity serves as a platform for young people to support one another in their daily mental health journeys.

Coming from a South Asian background, Tanya brings unique insights into navigating mental health in a community where stigma is often rooted in religion and culture.

Living with non-visible disabilities, Tanya is keenly aware of the lack of societal awareness regarding the intricate connection between physical and mental health.

Her perspective underscores the importance of recognising how these aspects intertwine and impact one another.

Passionate about preventative mental health support, Tanya firmly believes in the power of education.

She advocates for teaching young people about mental health from an early age, equipping them with tools to care for their mental well-being.

In Tanya, we find a compassionate and insightful advocate who is actively contributing to reshaping the narrative around mental health, particularly for young people.

Pooja Mehta

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Pooja Mehta’s life story is a testament to resilience, advocacy, and the pursuit of meaningful change.

Born to immigrant parents who arrived in the United States from India in 1991, Pooja grew up navigating the intricate balance of her identity as a third-culture kid.

The delicate dance between her “South Asian” and “American” roots has been a profound journey, marked by challenges and triumphs.

Diagnosed with schizoid anxiety and generalised depression at the age of 15, she grappled with societal misconceptions about mental health within her community.

Via her website, Pooja explains:

“When I got my diagnosis, it came with a lot of feelings.

“The one that overpowered the rest? Loneliness.

“I felt like I was the only one dealing with this, that my parents and I were alone in figuring out how to navigate this system, simply because no one around me spoke openly about this.

“My advocacy work is heavily driven by my desire that nobody should ever feel that way.”

Pooja’s transformation into a mental health advocate began at the age of 19, fuelled by a desire to challenge prevailing narratives around mental illness.

Despite the stigma in her community, she found the courage to speak openly about her personal experiences, including suicide attempts and loss.

Her revelation at college sparked a powerful response, leading her to establish Duke’s NAMI on Campus program, providing a platform for open conversations and support.

Grounded in grassroots advocacy, Pooja recognised the systemic challenges facing those in need and pursued a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a focus on Health Policy at Columbia.

Tragically, Pooja faced the devastating loss of her brother Raj to suicide in March 2020.

In the wake of this profound grief, she has emerged as a beacon of hope, fostering connections among young adults grappling with the death of a loved one.

Pooja’s journey is an inspiring narrative of personal resilience evolving into impactful advocacy.

Through her work, she strives to amplify the specific needs of the South Asian community in mental health conversations.

Tanushree Sengupta

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Tanushree Sengupta is a dedicated mental health advocate and the visionary behind The Desi Condition podcast.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, New York, Tanushree’s earliest memories are tinged with anxiety and depression, emotions that would persist throughout her life.

As a first-generation child of immigrants, success was often equated with hard work and sacrifice rather than personal fulfilment.

The pressures to excel academically were intense, overshadowing her emotional needs.

In her formative years, Tanushree grappled with familial and societal preconceptions about mental health.

Conversations surrounding therapy were stigmatised, leaving individuals like Tanushree to navigate their mental health struggles alone.

Her parents, while caring deeply, were unfamiliar with how to address emotional needs directly.

Talking about these incidents, she said to the Zoe Report:

“My first memory of experiencing anxiety and depression can be traced back to September of 1996 when I began my first day of kindergarten.

“In the first month, I periodically ran out of the classroom in the middle of the day, as if trying to escape something.

“I spent hours staring idly out the window of the classroom. I had lost all interest in reading, my favourite pastime.

“As with all life changes, I learned to adjust to school.

“But these behaviours persisted throughout the years: lack of motivation in all aspects of my interpersonal and educational life, low self-esteem, and a constant, inexplicable, dull emotional ache.

“Many years later, I learned in therapy that these were potentially early warning signs of depression.”

Tanushree’s journey took a pivotal turn when she discovered therapy during her college years, recognizing its power.

However, she understood that barriers to mental health services were widespread, especially within the South Asian community.

Driven by a passion to destigmatise mental health in the South Asian diaspora, Tanushree created The Desi Condition.

Here, she explores and scenario-maps the unique mental health and wellness journeys of South Asians, embracing open conversations.

Beyond her podcast, Tanushree’s background in mechanical engineering and industrial design adds a unique dimension to her advocacy work.

By day, she channels her creativity and expertise as a high school math teacher and robotics club advisor, inspiring the next generation in STEM fields.

Shreya Patel

5 South Asian Women Breaking the Taboo around Mental Health

Shreya Patel is a multifaceted force to be reckoned with – model, actress, filmmaker and mental health activist.

Her journey as an advocate stems from personal trauma, an experience that fuelled her unwavering commitment to improving the welfare of others.

Shreya’s foray into the world of film began with a post-graduate degree in Documentary and Film in 2015.

Her burning desire to amplify the voices of the voiceless led her to create a groundbreaking student documentary, Girl Up, exposing the little-known practice of domestic human trafficking in Canada.

Shreya’s dedication to raising awareness about this issue led to community viewing sessions across Canada.

Her impact extended to the Toronto International Film Festival, where Girl Up was featured at the Civic Action Summit.

The film sparked conversations on combating human trafficking, engaging civic leaders, national security experts, elected officials, business executives, and community advocates.

Beyond her film achievements, Shreya took on the role of a face for a national mental health campaign for Bell Let’s Talk in 2018.

Her influence, particularly on fellow South Asians, marked a pivotal moment in her career.

Recognised by Global Affairs Canada in 2019, Shreya collaborated with organisations to create safe, non-judgmental spaces for discussions on mental health.

Expressing a profound need to share her knowledge and experience, she became a Kid’s Help Line Phone Text Responder, offering immediate support to child victims.

Honoured as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, Shreya has been recognised for her impactful contributions, including the Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award.

These South Asian women are not just figures; they are architects of change.

Their endeavours transcend individual narratives, becoming a collective force challenging the status quo.

In celebrating these women, we acknowledge not only their triumphs but also the broader societal shift they symbolise.

The work of breaking down mental health stigma within South Asian communities is a journey marked by courage, understanding, and constant motivation for change.

These women stand at the forefront of a movement that calls for empathy, awareness, and an embrace of mental health.

If you are or know anyone struggling with mental health issues, seek some support. You are not alone: 

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Instagram.

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