Brown Boys Turning Blue: Mental Health and Masculinity in South Asian Culture
Content warning: This article includes mention of suicide. Proceed with discretion.
As a lower ranked officer at the Ramna Police Division, Atif Mohammed rarely got a Sunday off. Many might call this overworked, but he saw it as an honest living that put food on the table and a roof over his head. Even then, policing the streets of Dhaka can demoralize the strongest of wills, so when Atif was told that he didn’t have to come in on the Sunday of next week, he was ecstatic. It seemed like the city was finally giving him a break! That next Sunday, Atif woke up early to take full advantage of his time off. He rolled his younger son and daughter out of bed to take them out for a walk, leaving a note for his wife and older son to let them know they had left the house. However, upon his return home, he found another note waiting for him.
Laying beside a lifeless body were the final words his older son would leave to the world. According to his message, he was a failure of a student at Dhaka City College with a dark complexion that left no hope for marriage. According to his father, he was a gentle, kind boy that was addicted to video games. This latter description explains the somewhat poetic last line of his note, which read “even in death, I will be hero”.
Unfortunately, on that Sunday morning Atif’s son joined a long list of suicide victims in South Asia. A fate so common for teenagers in this part of the world, the story only made news headlines because he shot himself with his father’s licensed pistol instead of the “usual” self-hanging. Such an attitude begs the question:
How did we get here?
The answer becomes clear when we take a deeper look into South Asian culture.
Among the beautiful languages, traditions, and foods that South Asia has given to the world, its largest export has been its people. According to the United Nations, three of the top six nations that send out immigrants in absolute numbers are India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is an undeniable fact that the South Asian diaspora has attempted to reach almost every crack of the world. There are even three South Asians shortlisted on the 100-person list for a one way trip to Mars!
The reason why immigration has, and always will be, an avenue of prosperity for so many in the South Asian community comes down to the cultural values that perfectly match up with what is required of an immigrant success story: the desire for an education, a relentlessly strong work ethic, mental toughness, and an adaptability to any environment. However, these traits are a double-edged sword. The qualities that grant South Asians success around the world also bring a certain pressure to uphold such qualities. When you are supposed to be part of a community that prides itself on being enduring, mentally tough, and adaptable, how could you ever not be? Fearful of ever bringing shame to the family’s reputation, many choose to instead live by avoiding this question altogether and projecting a perfect life. The result is a community of people living performatively, in which being mentally strained or powerless over your emotions, is seen as strange and unacceptable.
Now, this isn’t a critique of immigrant success stories, but a reality check. When all that people see are others getting top marks on an examination or being set for the perfect marriage, they create the illusion that nobody has any issues but them. In order to avoid any uncomfortable judgement from the community, they follow along and continue the cycle, breeding a culture of silence.
The obvious truth is that hiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. Acknowledgement is the first step in finding a solution, and that is where the South Asian community finds itself today.
It is also equally important to note that a longstanding social issue yet to be properly addressed is the unique relationship between mental health and South Asian men specifically. From a very young age, boys are taught how to deal with emotions the wrong way. Crying is weak, being afraid is unmanly, and feeling embarrassed is shameful. Across the entire spectrum of emotions, the only two real expressions of emotion that South Asian society validates are joy and anger.
This ultimately leads to a society of men who express anger when they are angry, but have been conditioned to do so when they feel sad, scared, or embarrassed as well.
At the same time, the inability to actually express or understand what you’re feeling continues to take a mental toll on these boys, both as they grow up and well into their adulthood.
We must find a way to destigmatize the idea of seeking help for mental health. The only way to do this is by opening up conversations about mental well-being and addressing its existence. While such a thing may seem small, the very act of having such a conversation in the South Asian community equates to breaking down thousands of generational walls. It is no easy task and will require patience, but is extremely necessary.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health please visit checkpoint.org for a list of local websites and emergency contact numbers within your country. If you are located in the United States and are a member of the South Asian community, you can visit samhin.org for support and resources.