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South Asian American Children: Mental Health Challenges

More than 3.4 million South Asians* live in the United States, many of them professionals who entered the U.S. following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This first generation achieved the “American dream” as a result of education, and their children benefited from their parents’ privilege. Despite the success, South Asians and their children may experience a variety of psychological challenges due to immigration and assimilation issues, as well as developmental, social and cultural issues.

Some of the challenges that South Asian children struggle with include: conflicts about biculturalism, feeling ”different,” restrictions on autonomy and socialization by parents, high parental expectations of achievement, and an undue amount of guilt due to parental immigration issues. These dynamics can impact South Asian children and contribute to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and inter-generational conflicts.

South Asians children and teens may hold worries to themselves so as not to burden their parents, especially relating to achieving high grades, class participation, socializing with peers or reaching out to teachers. This can contribute to physical symptoms, such as frequent headaches and fatigue. Diagnosis and treatment of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses can be complicated by communication difficulties and culture-related conflicts. If depression is not properly treated, it can increase the risk of suicide, a leading cause of death among youth and young adults.

Parents and caregivers can address these mental health issues by tackling the stigma of mental illness and cultural barriers, learning about mental issues, encouraging open conversation about any problems or concerns. Parents can also seek culturally sensitive psychotherapists, if needed, who integrate evidence-based therapies and incorporate principles and techniques of developmental, psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapies as well as mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

Some community-based organizations offer mental health services and support targeted to Asian populations, including referrals, workshops, and assessment and treatment. Examples include Narika, in Berkeley, Calif.; Raksha, in Atlanta; Asian Community Mental Health Services, in Oakland, Calif.; and South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) in Queens, New York. Also, group interventions, family interventions and information and support from organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) can help a great deal. With proper treatment, most emotional and behavioral difficulties can be treated or controlled.

*South Asia comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Reference: Salman Akhtar, M.D., Immigration and Accuturation, Mourning, Adaptation and the Next Generation; Aaronson, 2011

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