- The opposition of some Asian American and South Asian American psychologists to the PSA issued by the Department of Health in partnership with Hindu American Foundation has devastating implications.
“I didn’t know you lost your uncle. I lost mine too.”
“Was surprised and then bummed to see you in that video. Sorry to know that happened. Same with my cousin.”
“You knew of people [who took their life] years ago to just last week?? You ok? That kind of news is a lot.”
Since I posted the Public Service Announcement (PSA) that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) commissioned in partnership with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), I’ve had so many friends and family reach out to start important conversations. It has been truly heartbreaking, even if it’s unsurprising given the statistics on prevalence, to grapple with how the epidemic of suicide has touched nearly everyone I know.
It’s impossible to capture in a three-minute video every nuance of suicide in the Hindu American community — whether it’s the layers of stigma, multi-generational struggles to access needed mental healthcare, or even the various spiritual practices within Hinduism that support mental health. However, HHS recognized that even a short message tailored to individual communities, be they Black, Muslim, Hindu, and others, plays an important role in helping diverse communities feel comfortable accessing a resource that has historically been underutilized.
The message that 988 is a resource that can help, and specifically can help Hindu Americans experiencing thoughts of death, shines through brightly enough with a message to have the power to save lives. PSAs operate on one simple principle — the wider the message spreads, the more chance there is that people who need the resource will know that it exists at the moment they most need it.
It is this reason that made it so devastating when I found that some Asian American and South Asian American psychologists, who should know the critical impact that eyes on the PSA can wield, conveyed vehement resistance to sharing this video.
“I was concerned to see the HAF or Hindu American Foundation prominently featured in the second video.”
“I think, it’s not so much as to what are the potential implications of a HAF-sponsored video for people who resonate with the mission of HAF, but more what might it signal to people who are marginalized within the South Asian diaspora to see a video sponsored by HAF?”
The vocal critics’ actually argued that more harm would be done to those who oppose the Foundation’s work by just seeing the PSA than would be done to Hindu Americans deprived of this unique and valuable resource. To be very clear, the risk in not sharing the PSA in spite of the ability to do so, is that people will die by suicide, so holding this risk as lesser than the supposed harm done by HAF’s name is very serious.
If HAF actually was a terror or fascist organization as they allege, I could appreciate this response. However, HAF’s positions are largely consistent with mainstream Indian and Hindu Americans. It benefits from the support of thousands of Hindu Americans across the country, and while its detractors would like to say that each of these supporters has somehow been duped, the fact is that HAF is the only Hindu American advocacy organization that works to do things like pass bills to see Diwali recognized as a holiday, to help couples connect with priests for their same-sex marriage ceremonies, and to correct textbooks that would have taught students that Hindu scriptures include spells and charms. The broad support it has earned from the community brings into question both what is gained by incorrectly and unfairly painting it as if it is extremist, and what is lost by appreciating what the majority of Hindu Americans need and believe.
Like all organizations, HAF can and should be open to criticism of its work so it can grow. However, the lack of engagement with how dangerous and problematic statements such as “What is it that they [Hindus] do except make scriptures that enslave our people”; “Every act of Hindu scripture has done nothing but bring violence and pain”; “There is a spiritual foundation for slavery in [Hindu] texts”, “arguing to salvage Hinduism is dominant caste rhetoric” and “Hindus are the sick people of India”?” are, while criticizing only HAF, lead to questions about what the impact of such one-sided vigilance will be, on the Hindu community. Understanding that Hindu Americans will oppose this type of hateful, anti-Hindu rhetoric, is important to being able to work with them. So too is honest, non-polarized assessment critical to our credibility as mental health professionals to build the trust necessary for our community to overcome the cultural obstacles that prevent people from accessing care.
Mental health professionals above all must offer non-judgmental, safe spaces for clients. This isn’t up for debate. These are basic professional ethical standards. This latest encounter on the listserv was not the first time I found that the most vocal participants were advocating for the community to take political stances grounded in intense prejudices and misinformation. And while the vocal critics insisted that their “vigilant opposition” to HAF wouldn’t detract from their ability to work with Hindu American clients, I don’t see how this can be the case. Accepting rhetoric that helping clients “unlearn caste supremacy” requires demonizing Hinduism and insists that justice in the world cannot be realized without annihilating these clients’ faith, is antithetical to allowing them to open up and flourish in a therapeutic space. It’s simply not possible.
Professional organizations used to define their work as enabling their members to do their work more effectively — to share resources, to support one another in growth, to advocate for the needs of the professionals they represented. There was an understanding that we held great diversity, which holds great potential for strife, so the unifying thread of our professional identity and our professional ethics and responsibility had to be the thing we focused on. When professional bodies such as these have sought to extend beyond their intended scope to address so-called systemic injustice, their intentions can and have led them to unwittingly become agents of marginalization themselves. In spaces for mental health professionals in particular, who are professionally and ethically obligated to put aside their personal beliefs and biases in order to serve their clients, it is very damaging to redefine the scope of work in a way that inherently challenges the nonjudgmental stance they must imbibe. Here, the inability to take in a nuanced view of an organization that does represent its community will inevitably hinder the ability to be nonjudgmental and must be reflected upon.
So I am here, asking my mental health practitioner colleagues to help me save lives, and for deep reflection on the resistance to sharing a resource that would not exist without the Hindu American Foundation in spite of its potential to save lives. To combat purported violence by deplatforming a resource, while failing to unpack the violence some of its detractors adopt, must be understood. We all have our beliefs, and we have our fears for what will happen if we don’t fight injustice tooth and nail. When these beliefs prevent us from getting a message out to a large, yet underserved community of people, we must reflect on whether such conduct is acceptable to our profession.
To my fellow Hindu Americans wondering what all of this means for their journey in accessing mental health care — know that this experience doesn’t diminish the scores of practitioners who are capable of holding safe and nonjudgmental spaces to help you access the best version of yourself. Trust your gut as you work through potential providers, and know there are therapists like me committed to helping you navigate this space in any capacity we can.
Dr. Kavita Pallod Sekhsaria is a member of the National Leadership Team for the Hindu American Foundation. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and invested in using her practice, KPS Psychotherapy, to fight the stigma against seeking mental health in the Hindu Indian American community.