Yasmeen Ahmed was a young child when her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but she remembers it clearly. In the Hamtramck Bangladeshi community where she grew up, “mental health was such a stigma,” she recalled. “My dad studied medicine but was still in denial his son was mentally ill.”
Her mom, however, felt differently. Though she initially struggled to find treatment options for her son close to home in the late ‘90s, she was able to sign the family up for mental health workshops within driving distance.
“She made sure I, as a 5-year-old, understood his diagnosis while still maintaining a ‘normal’ childhood,” Ahmed said. “She gave me the space to figure out how I can contribute towards helping my brother.”
Her family learned to manage their emotions, in part through self-expression. Now, Ahmed, an aspiring art therapist, has a customized gift wrapping company called With Adhor (meaning “wrapped with love” in Bangla). And she hopes people begin thinking about mental health like physical health — but said that for her community, the stigma around the former persists.
For members of Detroit’s Bangladeshi, and Bengali, communities — people who share the same ethnicity and are from India or Bangladesh — even talking about mental health can be a challenge.
Practitioners and patients alike told Detour that it is often a taboo topic, stemming from cultural norms to keep personal problems within the family. Anxiety, depression and PTSD are often kept quiet and untreated due to fear of harassment and isolation across the community, as well as personal feelings of guilt and shame. A lack of therapists familiar with their culture makes it harder still to find help when people do go looking — but a number of women are working to break through that stigma and connect communities to the mental health support they need.
Fears of backlash from friends and family
When Sumana Yasmin (not her real name) wanted to speak with a counselor, she searched outside of her immediate area for privacy. She was referred to counseling by a visiting nurse after having her fourth child. The counselor came to her home once a week.
“I lived with in-laws. I was the eldest daughter. I had aging parents. I have children in different age ranges. I had a childhood trauma that was left unspoken,” she said. “I overly stress too much. I don’t know how to say no,” she said.
Through therapy, she learned to manage her anxiety, create healthy boundaries and not feel guilty for resting as the primary caretaker. “I got lucky my therapist understands my Islamic culture and the culture of codependency between in-laws.”
“There is no shame in getting help and healed. We all have things we don’t talk about to our families… but the longer they are repressed and buried the more we are dying inside,” she said.
Asian Americans were less likely than any other racial group to report an unmet need for mental health services, according to a report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration covering the years 2008-2012.
Obstacles to helpful therapy vary — older generations may face language barriers, or have difficulty finding someone who understands cultural norms, while younger generations are often concerned about sensitivity and privacy, explained forensic social worker Fatematuz Chamak.
“The hardest part about being a Bengali person seeking counseling can be just the fear of backlash you may hear from your family and community,” she said.
Chamak, who lives in New York City, works with Bengali women who have experienced violence through her works at the Family & Immigration Unit of Bronx Legal Services and the nonprofit Bronx Immigration Partnership. She provides short-term counseling while they navigate legal cases, sometimes due to leaving abusers, which jeopardizes their legal status.
“The Bangladeshi community is a diverse recent immigrant community that is full of innovators and activists, especially women, but it can also be a toxic, repressive community that requires a lot of space for healing,” due to toxic masculinity and patriarchy, Chamak said.
The older women she serves often experience “intergenerational trauma from war, immigration, colonization, coupled with the stress of poverty, depression, anxiety and cycles of abuse.”
“Oftentimes when someone expresses they want to go to counseling, they are told their trauma is minimal and that perhaps the experiences of their parents were worse,” she added.
Younger women may be more comfortable seeking treatment, but can still face challenges receiving it.
Kaniz Chowdhury, a Wayne State University student, struggled to get physical and mental health treatment when she was a teen experiencing heavy periods.
“Many of these concerns were brushed off because periods are considered taboo in my community,” she said. “I took the birth control route at the age of 16 and was told that I should be fine now that my period is ‘regular.’”
She was later diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PCOS, a hormonal disorder that explained some of Chowdhury’s long-term health issues. Though she sought out counseling and was able to access it through a free Wayne State service, program limits and financial barriers meant she was unable to continue therapy.
Searching for a therapist who understands your culture
Fatema Haque, president of Rising Voices, a nonprofit that aims to increase civic participation of Asian Americans in Michigan, didn’t know much about mental health growing up. In her mid-20s, reading self-help books like Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life” prompted her to reflect and start counseling.
When Haque, also an academic program manager and adjunct lecturer at the University of Michigan, began looking for a therapist, she worried about microaggressions. “I was actively seeking out BIPOC women or nonbinary therapists. I felt worried about having to explain my culture to the point where an outsider looking in might be gawking… perpetuating internalized white supremacy.”
In the metro Detroit area, Bangladeshi therapists likely number in the single digits. According to the American Psychological Association’s analysis of 2015 Census data, 5% of psychologists are Asian, while 86% are white, underscoring the need — identified by everyone interviewed for this story — for more therapists with cultural competency and who speak Bangla.
Haque found a white therapist, who specialized in trauma and “affirmed diversity.” “Good therapists are guides, people who ask questions, help you reflect and move you along,” she said.
Maleehah Azom, who recently earned her master’s in psychology and began working as a therapist in metro Detroit, was inspired to enter the field due to her own experience of needing someone to speak to in a nonjudgmental space and “rearrange and reframe the negative self-talk.”
“We’ve suffered in silence for long enough,” she said. “Growing up in an immigrant household, I fought a lot with my identity; as a Muslim, a daughter, a friend, etc. My duties to my religion and my family caused a lot of inner turmoil and I did not have someone that I could speak to about these things.”
Azom noted one reason Bangla-speaking therapists are crucial for navigating the stigma of therapy: they can help patients understand how their privacy will be protected.
“I think the lack of trust comes more from our own experiences with Bengalis in our communities that have left us feeling judged or misunderstood. Trust comes with time,” she said.
Breaking down mental health stigma
In the last few years, mental health professionals and advocates have been working to meet the need for more mental health education, collective community healing efforts and resources that can be accessed outside a therapist’s office.
In October 2019, the Bangladeshi Americans for Social Empowerment (BASE) held its first all-women mental health seminar at the Hamtramck Public Library to break the stigma of therapy through storytelling, attracting 50 attendees. Last summer, Rising Voices held a sexual violence healing webinar (moderated by Haque) pivoting Bangladeshi women’s voices to the forefront. It was one of the first gatherings of its kind for Detroit’s Bangladeshi and Bengali communities. Rising Voices is hosting a virtual AAPI Community Healing Space on May 22, and other events throughout AAPI Heritage Month.
Social media has also helped people connect, find services and break down some of that stigma. New York-based Bengali Mental Health Movement uses their Instagram account, @bengalimentalhealthmvmnt, to share a growing directory of Bangla-speaking therapists, translated guides on mental health topics, and personal stories that speak to the nuances Bangladeshis face like transgenerational trauma and intersectional identities when seeking counseling.
Reyasmin K. Rahman, a dental hygienist in metro Detroit, created the Instagram account @reysjournal for Bangaldeshi women to anonymously share their stories of heartbreak, sexual assault, domestic violence, abortion and more — all topics they cannot speak about publicly for fear of family dishonor, harassment, shame or isolation.
“I hope my page plays the role of being the voice for the unheard,” Rahman said. “My goal is to lift the weight off and help the ones who have shared their stories heal… and get some clarity knowing they are not alone.”
This article was produced in partnership with the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
Nargis Hakim Rahman is an award-winning Bangladeshi American Muslim writer. She previously worked as the Civic Reporter at 101.9 WDET with the Documenters program to increase civic engagement. Rahman graduated from Wayne State University, where she was a part of the Journalism Institute of Media Diversity. Find her on Twitter: @nargisthewriter