Karma to Hindus and Buddhists is defined in the dictionary as, “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.”
So, when a person of South Asian descent or their family member receives a diagnosis of a mental illness, some see it as, “What did I do in a past life that made my child or my sister this way?”
It’s an uphill battle for Sayali Amarapurkar and Kamala Puram. These Edina moms are on a mission to eliminate stigma around mental health issues in the South Asian community through the work of their nonprofit organization, AshaUSA.
Amarapurkar says, “I have struggled with depression since my teenage years and that’s why I really wanted to do something with mental health. It’s a big stigma in our community to talk about mental illnesses or even stress. Our aim is to create awareness and talk about certain issues.”
Amarapurkar and Puram moved to the U.S. in the 1980s and met while doing charity work at another organization. Puram founded AshaUSA five years ago and asked Amarapurkar to join her. The organization aims to bridge the gap in cultural understanding between people who move here from South Asia—India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal—and Americans.
Part of their work is an initiative called Mental Health Matters. AshaUSA hosts panel discussions about parenting and how difficult it is for a child to grow up between two cultures: the culture of their parents and the one they live on a day-to-day basis at school. Another arm of the initiative is a movie night where short films about anxiety and depression are screened.
It’s all part of sparking conversations about mental health. Puram said the issue isn’t talked about much in India.
“There’s a lot of denial and limited understanding of mental health issues and a lot of taboo with it. Because of that, the whole thing gets put under the rug,” she says. “People want to talk about good things, but they don’t want to talk about problems.”
Another issue is finding the right help.
“People want to know if there are any South Asian mental health providers because they feel that when they go to American mental health providers they spend more than half of their time explaining the culture,” Amarapurkar says.
AshaUSA is working on a list of mental health and health care providers who are of South Asian origin or who cater to the South Asian community.
In addition to mental health, AshaUSA has programs for South Asian families to learn about parenting and life in America. They also offer South Asian cultural education to businesses and school districts.
“When we came here we went to school, got assimilated. We went through that process slowly,” Puram says. “Many people now arrive on Friday and go to work on Monday.”
This sparked AshaUSA’s latest research project: cultural integration in the workplace. They surveyed the South Asian diaspora, met with community leaders, employers and consultants. They then developed a plan for companies to understand South Asian culture and recent immigrants to understand American culture. The goal is to visit with interested companies and implement integration programs.
Amarapurkar has seen the influx of immigrants firsthand in Edina.
“This change has happened rapidly in the last seven to eight years, Amarapurkar says. AshaUSA is here to foster understanding. “We have this content. We are making attempts. We have programs,” Amarapurkar says. “We are willing to give our time and expertise.”