I haven’t always made the best choices in my time here at UTD. Like most of us, if I could talk to myself when I was a freshman, there’s a lot of different pieces of advice I’d tell younger Fawaz. “Go to class, you fool. Stop eating Taco Bell so much. At least pretend to pay attention during lectures!” The list could go on for an eternity. But, above all, I wish that I would have told myself to take my mental health seriously. Unfortunately, we all know someone — or are that someone — who disregards their mental health, either brushing it off like I did, or worse, stigmatizing it or ignoring it completely. And I’ve learned that the issue of mental health is exacerbated within the community of people who hail from the Indian subcontinent — more popularly referred to as “Desis” — regardless if you’re an international student, or the children of immigrants like me.
College is a stressful enough experience, but even more so if you are far away from your home. The pressure to do well, maintain scholarships, meet deadlines, stay on top of finances, deal with eLearning — it all adds up. Last semester, when taking six classes, I often found myself angry, tense, overworked and very stressed out. And I’m not the only one — in an aggregation of studies done by CollegeStats.org, 80 percent of all college students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities as a student, and 50 percent of us self-diagnose our own mental health status as “below average or poor.” What’s more, 40 percent of us fail to seek help and simply ignore it, brush it off and attempt to carry on.
As for Desi-Americans like myself, we’re one of the “model minorities.” We’re “supposed” to get good grades, “supposed” to be academically successful, “supposed” to study in the ECS, NSM, BBS or JSOM schools. The expectations, whether intentional or not, from our families and cultures can seem astronomically high. I was partially victim to this. When I started at UTD, I studied computer science. It’s just what I was supposed to do. Thankfully, I learned quite quickly that CS just simply wasn’t for me, so I happily switched to political science and have never looked back. Of course, there have been significant bumps in the road from the second semester of my freshman year to my final one now. Throughout all this, I consistently and repeatedly ignored the ever-increasing amount of stress in my life, as I continued to pile responsibilities on myself. Recently, one of my friends pulled me aside, asking me why I didn’t take a break, slow down and consider seeing a therapist. I told them I simply didn’t have time, and besides, what would my parents think?
It wasn’t just one friend. It took several friends and a mentor of mine all saying that I needed to do something to finally spur me to take action. I won’t lie — I’ve only taken a baby step in terms of mental health care — but I did something. While Christmas shopping with a friend, my friend mentioned that they had an appointment with their therapist in the evening. I jokingly asked if I could tag along, and to my surprise, they said I could. I initially thought that it was a joke, but I learned that day that one can come along to a friend’s therapy session. So, I went, and it was a very positive, informational experience. This therapist told me a hearth of details about mental health and the Desi-American community. Frankly, it’s hard to accurately describe what it was like, but I went from someone who was skeptical of therapy and aloof about mental healthcare in general to almost the opposite.
We already know there is a problem with mental health in America. Unfortunately, there are not many detailed studies on mental health and attitudes towards mental health within the Desi community. The American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Health, studies from other universities and my own personal interactions with a psychologist recently all have expressed the same message — that there is an unmistakable stigma in our community and that upkeep of mental health is not a priority or is nonexistent. Findings from the APA show that while approximately 18 percent of the general population seeks mental health services, only 8.6 percent of Asian-Americans seek the same services. In pursuit of being the “model minority,” we’ve brushed aside our own emotional fitness. We also face problems such as being “fresh off the boat,” either being too Desi or not Desi enough or hiding our sexual orientations from our families. On top of that is the general dismissal of discussion about mental health concerns because it’s seen as a “taboo” subject, regardless if you’re a Desi here at UTD or anywhere else in America. Combined with the existing statistics about mental health for college students and Americans in general, you can see how this problem could be much bigger than we imagine.
Thankfully, UTD has resources for students. The Student Counseling Center offers help, guidance and a plethora of online resources to take care of one’s mental health —something I hope is emphasized more in future orientations, especially those for international students. Admittedly, it’s my own fault for not using this service when I could have. With my graduation in May rapidly approaching, I wish I had taken advantage of this sooner. What’s more important, however, is reversing the lack of conversation about this issue in the Desi-American community. Obviously, we are not a monolith. But, sadly, we are uniformly in the dark when it comes to having these conversations with our families, our friends or our communities. It’s on us to start these difficult discussions. As our campus continues to grow, the number of Comets who will need mental health services will inevitably grow as well. We need to confront this silent struggle that many of us face and disregard a fruitless quest to be the “model minority.” I only wish I had done something sooner.