Supporting Mental Health Needs of Growing South Asian Population

PRMS Gives a Hoot!

The South Asian Mental Health Initiative and Network (SAMHIN) – a New Jersey-based group working to address the mental health needs of the region’s burgeoning South Asian community and to combat the stigma of mental illness particularly prevalent among this population – is just a year old, but its initiatives have made it a recent recipient of PRMS support.

Founded by a practicing psychiatrist, the non-profit’s mission is to find meaningful and practical solutions to barriers that prevent South Asians from accessing quality mental healthcare. In addition to events, programs and educational literature, the group has a growing directory of providers familiar with cultural and religious issues and stresses related to immigration and raising bicultural families.

Today, more than 3.4 million South Asians – people with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives – live in the U.S. As one of SAHMIN’s founding supporters, PRMS recently made a donation to continue to grow the worthy initiative.

“PRMS was one of the first non-South Asian organizations that jumped at the idea of helping us and contributing to our group, and we are so excited and very grateful to PRMS for supporting us,” said SAMHIN’s founder and president, Dr. Vasudev N. Makhija, MD, DFAPA, who is past president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association and chairs the association’s Council on Member Services.

Dr. Makhija grew up in Mumbai, India, and moved to the U.S. in his early 20s. Over the years, he said he has witnessed the South Asian community in Central New Jersey grow significantly, but culturally competent services have not kept up.

To help address the problem, Dr. Makhija became involved with existing programs and helped create others, including the Jana Raksha Community Care Program at the Arsha Bodha Center in Somerset, N.J., where he’s clinical supervisor. That program helps members of the Hindu community coping with physical or emotional distress caused by illness, life events or family situations. Caregivers provide one-on-one support and referrals to community-based services.

The South Asian population is diverse, vibrant, and multifaceted with a variety of languages, religions and customs. “Historically, religious beliefs, social stigma, and family expectations have prevented South Asians from asking for professional help for mental health issues,” Dr. Makhija said.

And yet research shows that Asian Americans exhibit large numbers of depressive symptoms, especially when compounded with things like stress. Suicide is the fifth-leading cause of death among Asian Americans, as compared to the ninth leading among non-Hispanic white Americans. For women aged 15 to 24, Asian American females have the highest suicide rates among all racial and ethnic groups.

Dr. Makhija said a key roadblock is the problem of finding cultural competent mental health providers – particularly those that speak Indian languages such as Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Konkani, Sindhi and Punjabi and are familiar with subtle cultural nuances of different regions.

Religious beliefs also often pose barriers: “There’s a tendency to blame mental health issues on destiny or karma or to say that you should leave it to God and everything will be fine, and this results in treatment delays for years if not decades, with sometimes disastrous results like suicide or advanced addiction,” Dr. Makhija noted.

Many South Asians are also reluctant to spend money to invest in their own mental health. “They can often spend $2,000 on a one-year-old’s birthday party in the blink of an eye, but when it comes to spending $200 for a mental health evaluation, they say,   ‘Oh, no. We will think about it.’ ” Dr. Makhija observed.

In its first year, SAMHIN and its advisory board and volunteers have tallied an impressive list of projects that includes a searchable database of South Asian mental healthcare providers, social services, and mental health resources. The group also has developed educational handouts and participated in nearly 20 events, including workshops, TV and radio shows, and health camps. SAMHIN also recently launched an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting specifically tailored for South Asians and hopes soon to develop a suicide survivor support group.

Stephen Sills, PRMS Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, said “PRMS applauds the work SAMHIN is doing to make mental health access available to a diverse group of people. The commitment SAMHIN and others in the behavioral healthcare community are doing to educate and engage various communities to promote mental health literacy should be applauded.”

For now, SAMHIN is focused only on New Jersey, but Dr. Makhija hopes to eventually expand across the U.S. For more information on SAMHIN, please contact Dr. Makhija at vnmakhija@gmail.com or visit www.samhin.org.

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