- It is sad that the backlash from a small but vocal segment of South Asian mental health professionals to HAF’s involvement in health department’s suicide prevention PSA has overshadowed any talk about its contents.
In 2021, over 12 million Americans seriously contemplated suicide – in prior years I was one of them. The CDC further estimated that 3.5 million Americans planned, 1.7 million attempted, and almost 50,000 people committed suicide. Some of the closest, most frequently interacted with, and most admired people in my life have been somewhere along that path, including the last stop. Most of the time, I had no idea. For over 20 years, I’ve failed on not one, but multiple occasions.
While American suicide is disproportionally white and male, everyone I’ve lost (or almost lost) has happened to be Asian American — but in particular, many were Hindu Americans. This, however, isn’t to downplay the struggles of people of other backgrounds. It’s to highlight how suicide transcends religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, including those we assume are doing well.
So, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked my employer, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), to join a multifaith effort to amplify the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in our communities, I insisted on participating. Despite the emotional risks — after all I’ve been through how could I not?
When I needed help, I belonged to a community almost three times smaller than exists today. Despite an abundance of opportunity and support, I was also someone particularly at risk for suicidal ideation at a time when not even half of Americans would’ve considered me acceptable. As a result, I felt I couldn’t expect even well-intentioned or professionally trained resources to speak to my particular set of challenges.
The issue wasn’t merely cultural stigma around seeking mental health support, it was the fear of potential humiliation or even severe ramifications involved in disclosing problems considered especially shameful. That is why I, along with others I’ve known, even had difficulties opening up to practitioners from our community. After all, there was a not insignificant probability of them already being connected to a family member, aunt, or uncle.
Nevertheless, taking that leap of faith into getting help when needed is still paying dividends today.
Of course, it didn’t hurt to have the economic access, cultural assimilation, and education necessary to navigate myself to resources capable of addressing an unusual set of needs. I received excellent care from a variety of providers, even though some initially doubted experiences that didn’t align with assumptions prevalent at the time. Once I opened up to South Asian providers, I quickly discovered the benefits of culturally competent care.
The South Asian American community today is far larger, more diverse, and more deeply connected to its origin countries. Indians seem to be much more comfortable discussing topics like mental health or sexuality openly. Despite the benefits of increased numbers and connectivity, there are side effects. In particular, the impact of Indian social dynamics and political polarization are no longer confined to India, and have the potential to severely undermine our community’s ability to offer support here in the United States.
For example, the backlash following our PSA from a small but extremely vocal segment of South Asian mental health professionals over HAF’s involvement quickly overshadowed any talk about its contents. According to them, the more pressing issue was their allegation that HAF is a far-right, extremist organization serving as an American proxy of the Sangh Parivar, a group of organizations that includes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.
As such, they argued not only was it unacceptable for HAF to partner with HHS, but the PSA itself constituted harm against South Asians due to its opposition to SB403. None proposed any viable alternatives that, when relevant, would have been available to represent and center a Hindu American perspective in a faith-based PSA on suicide. The message I got was it was better to do nothing than do anything with HAF.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time divisions have gotten in the way of service. I’m not here to rehash HAF’s 20-year record as a non-partisan, 501(3)c nonprofit organization with publicly available financials and content. Whatever one believes about HAF, its perspectives on issues in the United States and India are hardly fringe — they are shared by millions of Indian and Hindu Americans.
Like other organizations active in the South Asian community, we are free to express our opinions, support or oppose legislation, work with government agencies, or stand up for our constitutional rights — and none of those things are acts of oppression or violence. We can serve the greater good without making it conditional on cutting off opponents. Our door has always been open to dialogue. And yes, that includes California State Senator Aisha Wahab.
Of course, a significant number of South Asians, including Indian-origin Hindus, are deeply troubled by the direction they believe India is taking under Narendra Modi. Many of them, including mental health and advocacy professionals, also believe they must use their positions and skills to confront oppression wherever they deem it to exist. Growing numbers of Hindu Americans are discovering that for some activists, that includes their own families.
However, when mental health professionals, amongst colleagues, insinuate that large numbers of Hindu Americans are the equivalents of Nazis or other far right extremists, I question if their work aligns with the severity of such claims. If there are indeed ‘Hindutva extremists’ who pose a comparable threat, then it raises a critical question: what role as professionals are they playing in developing evidence-based mental health and social interventions to deradicalize these ‘Hindutva extremists’ specifically?
Closer to home, by dismissing the entirety of a suicide hotline PSA solely on the basis of one Hindu organization involved, what message are they sending Hindus not predisposed to trust them? Considering that almost 50% of Indian Americans support Modi (32% of them strongly), is there a public interest in mental health and advocacy professionals being capable of gaining the trust of individuals from all cohorts of “South Asian” — including and especially those with risk factors?
Whatever the case, mental healthcare professionals can and absolutely must serve South Asians of diverse lived experiences ethically, compassionately, and effectively. Care must never be made to seem contingent on having any particular beliefs, affiliations, or allegiances. Their work is critical — they can not only save lives, but also equip us to overcome crises and heal divisions.
But if they decide to elevate political purity over engaging Hindu Americans as they are, individuals who need help will pay the price, not HAF, and certainly not the BJP. If polarization extends into mental healthcare and social advocacy, we risk creating more barriers to care, and less trust between communities and care providers. Ironically, that could drive us further into alienation and retrenchment, and away from the healing most would agree we desperately need.
How about taking another path, one where we work together on ensuring anyone contemplating suicide knows they can dial 988, and seek help when needed?
Raj Rao is a Managing Director at the Hindu American Foundation. Prior to that, he worked for over a decade in business development and project management roles in the American and Chinese technology ecosystems.