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New Beginnings – Thinking about the Mind

February 8, 2024


Mental health issues in the South Asian community are often approached from a position of fear, enabled by various factors including stigma and shame. Mental health issues carry a sense of shame, resulting in limited conversation about the issues, which further isolates the individual and limits access to supports. This can lead to the problem becoming a crisis, impacting the individual and the family involved. The need to view mental health as a part of one’s overall wellbeing, no different from a physical health issue, would result in a proactive approach in understanding, recognising, and dealing with issues if needed.

This article will explore the pressure of success on one’s mental health in our community.

The recipe for success, in our community, is often viewed as meeting and exceeding expectations of oneself and those who matter to them. In a world where there is so much competition, we are all a part of a rat-race. If felt from all angles, the pressure to succeed – in schools, on media, at work, as well as the home – can become counterproductive.

Whilst this pressure is pervasive throughout our culture, it is worth considering the ways in which it manifests within Tamil diaspora and affects mental wellbeing.

There are 3 levels at which we tend to gauge individual success: self, family, and the community.

Within these levels, there are also multiple types of success such as academic, material, monetary, reputational and comparative success.

Academic success is seen to be key in our community. Not only does this kind of achievement provide a person with a great sense of accomplishment and identity, but it is also commonly associated with job security, leading to stable income – from which a person may achieve other successes. The need to succeed is passed down from one generation to the next, knowingly and unknowingly. In the case where a parent (or both parents) maybe high-achieving people, there is an urge on their children to maintain this level of achievement. Parents often take pride in the collective familial success, which in itself is a form of success in the eyes of the society. The same can be said for families where the parents may not have had many opportunities– the pressure is still placed on their children, since they want them to have a better life.

Academic achievements and milestones being attributed to individual success is one thing, but they are quite often used to compare an individual in a way which is counterproductive. For example, when a child comes back to a parent with “hey amma/Appa, I got 89% on the English exam!”, they may often be met with “Oh, ok – where is the remaining 11%?”, or better yet “Kumar uncle’s son got 95%, how come you weren’t able to?”. This kind of feedback, a less obvious form of pressure, can make a child believe that they are not enough as they are unable to attain their parents’ validation. In turn, this can cause further stress and anxiety leading to issues with self-worth. Following on from this, children may feel immense pressure to perform consistently at a high level and continue to work hard until they burnout, or conversely become highly worried about failing that they may stop trying. This form of comparison translates into adulthood for many, where their career milestones and lifestyle choices are compared with others within the community. Everything from a person’s profession, their salary, their material wealth, up until their marital status is up for commentary and comparison. The scrutiny most often comes from the self, and the closest and loudest critics.

Every person who crosses the sea, especially from a war-torn country, must rebuild their life offshore. Rebuilding not only means re-rooting themselves in a new environment, but rising from despairs, coming to terms with their new life, and being the best versions of themself in a more opportune place. This takes a lot of grit, willpower and reflects resilience – a fire in the belly, blazing strong.

When a person comes from a place of having to fight for mere necessities, immense pressure which forces them to keep achieving and outdoing themselves, to keep surviving. For those who previously have lived in circumstances which were extreme, this may be the only way to combat scarcity of resources, instability, and insecurity.

Some pressure, or positive pressure can be useful. Research suggests that parents being involved in their children’s learning and being supportive of their success generally results in promoting better holistic outcomes for the children. A constant drive and motivation externally as well as internally may serve in the best interests of an individual. However, despite this, even the best intentions can have negative mental health consequences, as challenges are relative. What one person perceives as a struggle or challenge, will not be the same for other people.

All individuals are built differently, and growth varies for everyone. Everyone’s level of tolerance and resilience are also different from one another.

The graph below depicts the expectation, at all levels (self, family, and society), which growth should occur.

Growth is good however it may not always be linear and smooth. There can be pauses or downfalls along the way, and that is perfectly normal, like the image of the graph shown below:

Expectations to perform or present a certain way can lead to unfavourable outcomes, especially if a person’s tolerance to pressure is low. Our bodies produce a hormone known as Cortisol, which is released in our blood stream when we are under stress. We may not know that we are stressed, because we learn to override the feeling. However, the body is still reacting and causing physical consequences of stress. This can lead to symptoms such as high blood pressure, headaches, muscle weakness, other ailments. It can also lead to mental health impacts such as palpitations, sleeplessness, overthinking, and constant dread. This is why it is important to consider the invisible aspects of mental health.

With competing priorities in our busy lives, tending to our mental wellbeing becomes a privilege. The sacrifices which our older generations have made, allow us the privilege of time and awareness to focus on mental health, and enable us to discover healthier ways of coping through accessing professional resources. Our community has always shown to be resilient and highly adaptable to new conditions despite the various challenges of being migrants and children of migrants. Given which, we would only benefit from the uniting of older and younger generations to explore positive mental health culture together, leading to better holistic health outcomes. Amongst all the competition in this world, the biggest success would be to have a healthy and happy life. As suggested by Tamil saint and poet Vallalaar, “உள்ளம் பெருங்கோயில் ஊனுடம்பு ஆலயம், the mind is a temple, and the body a sanctuary.

For more information on mental health with a cultural lens, please visit Materials can be found on our social media platforms using the handle @thadamofficial.

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If you believe that you may be affected by a mental health issue, please speak to your local GP to gain tailored advice and resources suited to your needs.