The stigma around mental health among Indians has created a barrier for Indians looking to seek mental health care and a dearth of Indian mental health providers. According to the Indian Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India needs at least 13,000 psychiatrists, to achieve the ideal ratio based on its population size, but only has 3,500. I am an Indian-American. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in their early twenties. I loved my childhood. I was always among family and friends. My grandparents on both my mom’s and dad’s sides helped raise me.
At my second birthday party, I would not let go of my grandpa’s hand. With such a close-knit family came a strong sense of values and Indian culture. My grandparents taught me Telugu, our mother tongue. We visited our local temple on religious holidays. However, what also came with a strong Indian culture was a stigma around mental health. My parents and grandparents always encouraged me to pursue my hobbies. They talked to me when I felt flustered about something that happened at school and were constantly making me laugh. Though they cared for my mental health, we never explicitly talked about mental health issues. My high school placed a great emphasis on nurturing students holistically, which included social-emotional learning. However, whenever I brought up with my parents that we had been introduced to our new guidance counselors or had a talk about suicide prevention at school, my parents would simply nod and not probe any further. I had not known that one of my close family friends had suffered from depression until only a couple years ago.
There is a large discrepancy between Indians’ stigma around mental health and their high regard for yoga and its spiritual benefits. Yoga started in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. Now, over half of the 200 million people who practice yoga are Indians. My grandparents got me interested in yoga by taking me to a class when I visited India a couple years ago. My seventy-four-year-old grandma practices yoga for a half-an-hour every morning. Indians like my grandparents value yoga for its spiritual benefits as much as its physical benefits. Yoga is centered around one’s prana, the vital energy that pervades one’s body and surroundings. There are different types of yoga to improve different aspects of one’s spiritual well-being. For example, Hatha Yoga helps to balance the mental and vital functions in a person to help him or her attain higher states of consciousness. A yoga purification called KapalbhatiIt is said to stimulate the frontal lobes of the brain and thus improve focus. The famous yoga poses, or asanas, are intended to improve the mind-body connection. The popular meditative breathing technique called Pranayama is thought to balance and calm the body and mind.
With yoga’s purported benefits and positive reputation in India, practitioners could use it to try to break the stigma around mental health. Yoga teachers could talk about mental health or simply do mental health check-ins before practice. They could start support groups. Yoga could be introduced into mental health clinics as a preventative or coping strategy and into schools as a physical activity elective or morning routine. One reason that health interventions can fail is that they are not culturally sensitive; they introduce foreign concepts that locals do not trust or that do not suit the population’s values and lifestyle. Yoga is already entrenched Indian culture. Thus, it could serve a powerful, culturally-conscious way to open the door for conversations around mental health and help break the stigma around mental health.