“How a Culture of Impossibly High Standards Denied My Mental Health Struggles”
“Growing up, the stigma associated with academic inferiority was huge. I liked writing; my parents were good at math and science and refused to acknowledge my struggles in those subjects. The world assumed I was lazy, and told me as much. In reality, I had ADHD.”
In the summer of 2019, I was sent to cover a town hall with Democratic Presidential candidates for a local newspaper. When asked about health care, Senator Elizabeth Warren said something that struck me: “When you go to an emergency room with a broken leg, you are treated right away. If you show up with a mental health problem, they tell you to seek counseling.”
Whether I think it’s actually possible for a politician to increase access to mental health care is a different story, but her statement sung to me. Physical health seems prioritized over mental health in this country — perhaps because it’s more visible and not stigmatized. Unfortunately, in my own South Asian family, the stigma surrounding mental health struggles is prevalent — and I should know. I’m on the autism spectrum and also live with ADHD – inattentive type.
In India, where my parents come from, physical health is an acceptable problem and something to discuss with a doctor. It’s also a comfortable topic to discuss with family members. Mental health is different. It’s something to keep to yourself; to deny. Unless it is severely limiting or life-threatening, you’re meant to carry on like it doesn’t exist.
As a journalist, I’ve worked for two minority community publications. Each May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve covered a slew of events that address the mental health stigma in the African-American and Hispanic communities, causing me to ponder whether mental health is taboo in all communities of color. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that I was a shy, anxious child growing up and I often wondered if something was wrong with me. When I brought these concerns to my parents, they dismissed them as something I could fix myself. This led me to an intense, introspective journey of self-discovery when I got older.
Where I Come From
In America, people of Asian descent have long been stereotyped as overachievers, both academically and professionally. I remember feeling lonely as a child because everyone in my family was either an engineer or a. doctor, and I wanted to write. I grew up in a White suburb where I was usually the only Indian student in my grade every year. I wonder now if teachers perhaps overlooked my struggles because they had so few Indian students and therefore never met one with any disorders. I certainly felt pressure to live the model minority stereotype either way.
My parents immigrated to the United States after they married. My father earned his Ph.D. in engineering, and my mother, her master’s degree. I heard more than once the story of how my father’s co-worker referred to him as a genius. Growing up, both parents were successful academically, but my father wasn’t satisfied unless he was in first place or at the top of his class. He expected the same of me.
My dislike of math and science started in third grade. There were constant arguments about how I needed those skills — strong subjects for both my parents — to survive in the world. Not excelling was not an option since my family could provide all the help I needed.
Thanks to my father’s job, my mother didn’t need to contribute financially to the family income. Instead, she stayed home to care for my autistic brother and me. Both parents nagged me to do homework and taught me the value of hard work. Despite my struggles with ADHD, I graduated from high school with a 3.33 GPA — and went on to college where I worked hard to earn a 3.0 GPA — but I felt anxious and exhausted a lot. Sometimes I still do.
Expectations and Pressure
In parent-teacher conferences from grade school through high school, I was criticized year after year for not following instructions, being messy/disorganized, and missing assignments. There were complaints throughout the school year, too, which always triggered a war at home.
My fourth-grade teacher sent me for a hearing test because she had to repeat instructions several times for my benefit and I took longer than my classmates to transition to other subjects. Later that year, my mother decided it was time for me to become more independent and seek math help at school, instead of working with her or my dad at home. This made my problems worse and I was sent to summer school to catch up.
When a classmate asked if I should be a grade ahead because of my early September birthday, my mother instructed me how to answer. She explained that I am born a week before the school cutoff, and that’s how I should answer that question to avoid anyone thinking I was ever held back a grade.
In middle school, I had to drop an elective for an extra study hall to keep up with homework. That same year, I brought home my first “C” in math, even though I’d received higher marks in earlier grading periods. This “see-saw” performance cost me a placement in advanced math in the next school year; my parents were devastated.
Where grades were concerned, “straight As” were expected. Since that wasn’t happening, I was instructed by my parents to lie to any relatives or family friends. They should be told I earned only As at school. If my father was forced to tell this lie, he’d shame me for that as well.
Once middle school ended, my parents eased up on their “straight A” requirements. Receiving half As and half Bs would be acceptable (and I managed to do that!), but if I received all As I could choose the next family vacation.
Why Not Me?
When I finally shared these struggles with the therapist who diagnosed me with ADHD and high-functioning autism at the age of 25, she said the signs were glaringly obvious. I agreed. Why then, did it take so long for me to receive a diagnosis?
I always thought it had to do with me being a shy and quiet child rather than a squeaky wheel who disrupted the class. Not long ago, an acquaintance of mine, who is married to a Pakistani-American man, pointed out that my ethnicity might have also been a factor. Her husband, too, was overlooked and diagnosed late despite having similar struggles.
What I’ve come to realize is that, in my family, admitting a diagnosis means you’re admitting defeat — and that means missed opportunities. Ironically, I believe the lack of diagnosis made me miss support services that could have boosted my grades and increased my opportunities.
My brother was diagnosed with ASD early in his life. He benefitted from psychiatric medication, Applied Behavioral Therapy, sound therapy, and special education support all by the age of 5. My parents could have provided me with the same services as my brother, but I was seen as a child intelligent enough to rise to the top of her class, just too lazy to actually do so.
Everything Happens for a Reason
Being diagnosed was a game-changer for me and I credit it with success in my young adult life. I earned a 3.4 GPA and a technical diploma at a community college which was much higher than my undergraduate GPA when I had no diagnosis or medicine. On the job, my boss was blown out of the water with the speed and quality of my work and said he “could barely keep up with me.” People outside those circles have also commented on how much more alert and social I’ve become. I credit many of these positive changes to the Wellbutrin.
Yearly physical exams are recommended in the United States, but not in India. There, physicians are highly respected, but psychologists are not. I’m grateful I was raised here, as I don’t think I would have been able to find quality therapy in India.
When I told my parents I was considering ADHD medication, they pushed back, arguing I would become tolerant and need it for the rest of my life. They said I should work on my issues on my own. When I pointed out that my brother takes medicine, they said that he gets physically aggressive without it – validating his needs, but not mine.
Last summer, I shared my secret Wellbutrin use with a cousin following a conversation about mental health stigma in our Indian culture. When his wife left the room, I whispered to him that my parents don’t know about the medicine. He told me I’m smart enough to know if I need it and advised me to avoid the headache and keep the information to myself. To this day I’ve taken that advice.
How My Struggle Became My Fight
Over the years, I’ve thought about my struggle and lack of diagnosis a lot. What if I had been diagnosed in childhood? Maybe my family would have been more forgiving of my quirks and behaviors. Maybe my parents would not have had to work so hard to make me study or do chores.
But in the final analysis, I believe everything happens for a reason and good things have come out of my struggle.
Maybe my late diagnosis is the reason that mental health became my passion; my fight. The reason why I believe early diagnosis is everything in physical and mental health. The reason why I feel there should be no shame in admitting you receive therapy, take medication, or benefit from both. And, lastly, the reason why I’ve learned to trust my instincts regarding my health.
No one’s health concerns should be swept under the rug — in any culture.
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