In recognition of South Asian Heritage Month, we are excited to be working with the South Asian community to spread awareness around the topic of South Asian Mental Health and feature South Asian mental health professionals doing important work & helping others on their healing journey.

Meet Akshita Vaidyanathan.

Akshita (they/them, she/her) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker – Associate working as a mental health therapist in Washington. They are queer, South Indian, polyamorous and a immigrant to the US. Akshita works from an anti-oppression, harm reduction lens and primarily works with people of colour – specializing in working with folks that are queer/trans and navigating intersecting marginalized identities. We had the pleasure and honour of interviewing Akshita and getting to know about their personal and professional journey! 

What inspired you to enter the field of mental health? 

This is such a hard question to answer, because the reasons have changed so much over the years. I think I’ve always been interested in psychology and the human condition, which was the initial draw. I’ve been doing mental health related work since about 2015, during that time I was involved in activism/advocacy for survivors of sexual violence and that led me to explore the pathway to becoming a professional counselor because I wanted to continue supporting survivors. 

Although that is something that I still focus on, it’s also changed and broadened since then. There are so few therapists that hold the same intersecting marginalized identities that I do, and I know how frustrating it can be working with clinicians who do not understand your lived experience. So a huge reason I am a therapist today is so that I can use my skills to support and hold space for the other queer and trans individuals in my community. It feels like an honor & privilege to support other QT-BIPOC folks, many of whom are South Asian on their healing journey. 

Are there any interesting theories or studies on culture or gender & sexuality that have helped you in your personal or professional journey?  

Hmm, that’s such an interesting question and I definitely want to seek out more information on the topic. One thing that comes to mind is a training I attended last year called “Gender as Trauma”, it was led by Alex Iantaffi (they/them) who themselves is a counselor and Somatic Experiencing practitioner. They talk about how the concept and social constructions of gender are traumatizing for EVERYONE in different ways, not just trans and gender-nonconforming folks. They’ve written a book on it that is still on my to-read list called “Gender Trauma”. 

Rather than engaging in theories or studies around gender/sexuality, I love engaging in media (books, movies, tv-shows) that highlight lived experience (fiction/non-fiction) of queer and trans folks. Some of my favorites from this year: 

– All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

– Light From Uncommon Stars Ryka Aoki

– A few essays from Good Girls Marry Doctors collected by Piyali Bhattacharya 

– A Marriage of A Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu 

– Joyland (movie) 


Pride in Chennai, India in 2018. The Tamil quote reads "Can love be shackled?" and it's a quote from a 2nd Century Tamil Poet named Thiruvalluvar, and was the slogan for Chennai Rainbow Pride for many years.

What’s something you want other queer/trans South Asian people to know, who might be struggling with their mental health? 

The biggest thing I want y’all to know is that you are not alone, and that your gender & sexual identity don’t have to be at odds with your culture. It is such a common experience for South Asian folks to feel like their queerness is irreconcilable with their ethnic and cultural identity. This does not have to be true! Queer and trans people have existed forever — we exist today, and we have always existed. Colonization did a great job at erasing these histories, but if you look for these stories, you will find them. 

Also — you’re not alone. Queer and trans South Asians exist everywhere and you can find your community if you look for them. I find that community has been so important in my own journey of reconciling my queerness with my Tamilian identity. If you’re having a hard time knowing where to look – Desi Rainbow Parents hosts monthly support groups for QT South Asian folks, and even offers groups for parents.

Is there anything you want others to know about South Asian mental health, specifically around the queer experience? 

Although queer and trans visibility is on the rise these days, we still live in an extremely homophobic and transphobic society. We internalize the messages we learn about queerness and transness being “wrong” and “sinful” and can be really hard on ourselves because of these messages that we’ve internalized.  I want folks who are struggling with their mental health because of their gender/sexual identity to know that regardless of what people say to you, how you think and feel about yourself is what matters at the end of the day. How can you figure out how to be kinder to yourself? How can you find communities of people that will accept you the way that you are? Remember, you don’t owe anyone “coming out” if it’s not going to be safe for you to do so. Your relationship with yourself matters most. 

Do you have any tips for those in the South Asian community who are unable to access professional help right now?

I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ll say it again. Seek out other queer/trans South Asian folks, whether it’s online or in-person. Find your community. If folks are seeking professional support, obviously the Asian Mental Health Collective is a great resource, so is South Asian Therapists as well as the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network. Desi Rainbow Parents is also a great resource for groups & for friends/family members of QT-South Asians. 

In celebration of Pride Month and to celebrate our Asian queer, trans, non-binary and genderqueer friends and allies – we reached out to our Asian Mental Health Professionals community to give them a space to spread light on the important work they do.

Meet Christophe Ngo, M.A. LMFT.

Christophe was born in America. His parents came here during the Vietnam War and settled in Orange County and lived there most his life. The struggle with his identity in regard to culture, values, morals, spirituality, sexuality, and ethics seemed to always clash with one another.

Navigating through that was stressful and complicated, many times he was lost in the process or was tempted by the emotional and intellectual “comfort” of things. This lead me to become a therapist, as he had questions and inner conflicts that nobody seemed to understand.

​Read more about Christophe’s experience as a South East Asian bisexual therapist and the expertise and experiences he brings to his work. 

1. What inspired you to enter the field of mental health? Are there any experiences from your personal journey that help guide you in your professional work? 

Interesting story actually! In community college, I fell asleep in one of my communication classes one day and after class I went up to apologize to her and said I was tired that’s why I fell asleep.  She said “no you’re not, you’re depressed”. That was the first time I felt someone noticed me and validated my feelings without even realizing it, and to this day I still attribute her to saving my life. I have had many experiences growing up with immigrant parents and being the first generation born in America, and I fully understand the confusion of not feeling like I belong anywhere.  It has helped me grow as an individual through my accomplishes and mistakes.

 2. Do you work with LGBTQ+ Asian folks? Tell us about your practice. 

LGTBQ+ Asian clients take up around half of my caseload, there are not many bisexual South Easts Asian male therapists surprisingly. 

My practice specializes in trauma in which I use ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy) as my main trauma modality and Identity in regard to personal, cultural, and sexual. I also work with Bipolar, neurodivergent, and ADHD. I try to be the therapist that I needed when I was going through tough times; the kind of therapist I would want to see. I understand the yearning to feel heard and more importantly to be seen as a person who is more than just their personal struggles. You can learn more about my practice, BeachCAT Counselling, on my website

3. Do you have any tips for those who are unable to access identity-affirming therapy? 

There are a lot of resources you can find through Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok, but I must caution about who is giving out this information and where they are getting this information from, just because of someone’s personal experience or their interpretation does not mean it will resonate with you. It can be a great start in the right direction.

4. What’s something you want young queer, trans, NB/GNC Asian youth reading to know about queer relationships and queerness?

When you change others will change around you, whether their change is good or bad is not up to you. Understand, and take ownership of what are your expectations and the expectation of others, we easily get confused and believe we are at fault for not meeting up to people’s expectations, and we tend to internalize them as our own. 

5. Are there any readings, resources, activists or organizations that you want to recommend?

“The Body Keeps Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, “The  Courage to be Disliked” and “The Courage to be Happy” by Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga are 3 books I highly recommend in general and is website that provides affordable therapy.

6. Would you like to share anything else that these questions may have missed? 

 Just like courage cannot exist without fear, growth cannot exist without discomfort. Therapy is like a road trip. Sometimes you go forward, backward, or sideways, but how fast you wanna go is up to you.

Click the link below to learn more
about Christophe’s practice as a therapist!

Click here

In celebration of Pride Month and to celebrate our Asian queer, trans, non-binary and genderqueer friends and allies – we reached out to our Asian Mental Health Professionals community to give them a space to spread light on the important work they do.

Meet Sharlene Justo. 

Sharlene Justo is a queer Khmer-Filipinx gender fluid Associate therapist at Alvarado Family Therapy (San Diego, CA) and Lecturer at San Diego State University. She has a spectrum of experiences working with K-12 schools, community mental health, and transitional age youth. As a first generation student and child of refugees/immigrants, she holds a kaleidoscope perspective for clients to feel radically seen and empowered to trailblaze pathways that honor their authentic selves.

Read more about Sharlene’s background, experiences, and philiosophies they bring to their work as an Associate Therapist.  

Image of Sharlene Justo (she/they/he), APCC.

1. What inspired you to enter the field of mental health? 

The lack of culturally responsive mental health care for my family along with my innate existential introspection directed me to create pathways for my loved ones and community. I witnessed my Yeay (grandmother in Khmer), who raised me and survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, be pathologized through Western medicine and discouraged by cultural stigma. I questioned what quality of life my grandmother would have if she was resourced with service providers who looked like her and bridged psychoeducation to my family. I dreamed of what collective healing can look like and what liberation is waiting to be experienced when we have someone who can actually mirror their reality.

2. Are there any interesting queer theories or practices that have helped you in your personal or professional journey?

While queer folx are constantly defining their blueprint, the Cass Identity Model of Identity Development can be a reference to the discovery and fluidity of one’s definition and embodiment of queerness. Our identity formation can feel like a never ending metamorphosis towards our authentic selves.


Each day we gather many messages on what parts of us are safe to exist or express. This model can provide verbiage to different stages we ebb and flow through with hopes to reach self-acceptance and wholeness. It has resourced me to support my clients and myself in extending self-compassion and embracing the process of becoming our truest selves.

Cass Identity Model of Identity Development

3. What’s something you want young queer, trans, NB/GNC Asian youth reading to know about queer relationships and queerness?

Queerness is magical. The ability to connect and express ourselves is an ultra superpower. It invites us to hold oneself and others in curiosity towards truth. It allows us to experience and offer transformative love. It is a liberation from constructs we all desire to break free from. It can feel like a double edged sword when we live in a world that demonizes and alienates us. Our ancestors and deities were queer and celebrated queerness. Living your truth is a connection to your own and ancestors’ divinity.

Queer relationships in all capacities of friendship, romance, familial, and mentorship are portals to seeing ourselves and experiencing love. Our inherent queer beings are not meant to fit the binary of heteropatriarchal structures and constructs of love; specifically, the intimacy and devotion shared in queer friendships. Our friends become family in the queer experience. They are the ones who witness us in each season of life, comfort us in dark times, and celebrate each growth. Society tells us the ultimate love is found in the “one” through romantic pursuits but I would highlight that friendships hold the love we seek to find in romance and life long partners. Friends are lovers, lovers are friends. We cross and blur the lines of intimacy across many love languages: platonic cuddles during a movie, love letters of admiration, wiping your tears after a cry, and thoughtful gifts that embrace details of who you are. What would life look like if we accepted ourselves to be in love with our friends? to cherish platonic intimacy? to pour into our friendships that pour into ourselves?

4.  Do you have any tips for those who are unable to access identity-affirming therapy? 

Community care is the collective’s greatest access identity-affirming healing and life line as it reminds us that safety and belonging exists. It is cultivated in many spaces like: discord group chats, peer support services, art shows, your local pride center, queer neighborhoods, and LGBTQ+ owned businesses. We express community care when we give empowerment to dance like nobody’s watching, share resources and support for basic needs, and give space for our narratives of truth. Community and chosen loved ones have the ability to offer corrective healing experiences that we may never be able to receive from oppressive systems and our biological loved ones. Seek out spaces that align with who you are (values, interests, inspirations/admirations); there lies the potential for you to be seen and free.

5.  Are there any readings, resources, activists or organizations that you want to shout out?

  • Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne marie brown
  • The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory & Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health by Zena Sharman
  • Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonamy by Jessica Fern
  • Daring to Love: Move Beyond Fear of Intimacy, Embrace Vulnerability, and Create Lasting Connection by Tamsen Firestone & Robert Firestone
  • Activists: bellhooks, Audre Lorde, Alok V Menon, & Bretman Rock

Click the link below to learn more about Sharlene's work as a therapist at Alvarado Family Therapy!

Follow Sharlene's journey on Instagram using the link below!

Have you ever struggled with navigating your queer identity while also navigating your Asian identity? Have you tried to access therapy or other mental health support and felt it wasn’t affirming of your unique identities?

This month, we chat Sara Stanizai – a licensed therapist, clinical supervisor, and the owner of Prospect Therapy, a queer- and trans-affirming therapy practice based in Long Beach, CA, with a special focus on serving first-generation American and immigrant communities.

A queer first-gen herself, Sara’s clinical and professional work focuses on serving the Afghan diaspora, specifically, fellow Afghan-American women, and bicultural communities in general. In addition to running her group practice, she is on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Bisexual Task Force, a 501c3 organization that champions education, advocacy and visibility for the bi+ communities of greater Los Angeles. 

Check out the work that Sara does with Prospect Therapy here!

Sara, LMFT and founder of Prospect Therapy

Tell me about your practice! What does it mean to be an affirming therapist? What’s it like to work with LGBTQ+ Asian clients?

Sara: We are a queer and trans affirming practice with a focus on first-gen and immigrant communities. All of our therapists bring lived experience and high quality clinical training to our work. Lived experience in short means we share many identities and experiences with the people we serve. We believe that clinical training and lived experience are both important in our work – neither is the “full story.”

An affirming therapist makes sure to check our assumptions, examine our own biases, understand where our own beliefs come from, and keep educating ourselves. Simply because we are “familiar with” a presenting issue or type of person doesn’t mean we know this person’s destination! I like to say an affirming therapist uses our knowledge as a foundation but helps our client build the house on top of it

It’s great working with the intersection of queer + Asian/PoC clients because we constantly hear that this is often one of the first times someone has been able to bring their whole self to therapy and really get to work through things. Even if those things are not what brought them to therapy, at least they don’t have to leave part of themself at the door.

What does it mean or look like when therapists bring lived experience and/or integrate feminist theory into their practice?

Sara: We embrace feminist therapy – which is not just “therapy for women”. It is a framework that takes systems into account. So that if you are experiencing distress, it’s not simply because you need to “shift your perspective.” Feminist therapy recognizes that we all exist within patriarchal and white-centered systems, and that would naturally result in distress for people not at the top.

What’s something you would want to share with young LGBTQ+ Asian folks?

Sara: Your identity is valid even if you don’t have a heartwarming coming-out-to-your-family story. Your experience is still valid even if you don’t share the information with your family. “Coming out” is not a deciding factor and is often imposed on people who are not interested or able to share things about ourselves.

Chosen family is a real thing and finding people who treat you the way you deserve, with respect, understanding and compassion is not limited by conventional standards.

Any tips for those who are unable to access identity-affirming therapy?

Sara: Find your people! We are everywhere. It does not have to be limited to official providers just like it doesn’t need to be your caregivers or siblings. There are peer-led groups, online forums, gaming communities, queer coffee shops or bars (if that’s your thing), and other groups that have nothing to do with being queer that you can join.

Also don’t feel bad for needing or wanting recognition or validation. We all need that when we are figuring ourselves out. If we don’t get that – if others don’t reflect us back to ourselves, it can be hard to know what’s what. Once you get enough of that, you’ll know who you are even if no one is there to validate you. It’s like trying to get dressed in the dark – we need some sort of confirmation that we’re doing it right. That our signal is being received. Once we get comfortable with that, then we don’t need the mirror after all. 😊 But everyone needs it at first, so don’t feel bad for that!

What do you want to say to those navigating coming out to their family as an Asian queer person?

Find an ally, a role model, or a buffer for tense family situations. If you have someone to whom you can vent about it afterward, that can make all the difference and help you feel less alone.

If you are the first or only in your family that you know of, take heart in knowing that you are being there for your future family members who will be able to look to you for support.

And finally if you tell everyone but your family, or no one at all, you’re still who you say you are.

Check out Prospect Therapy as well as the Los Angeles Bi Task Force which Sara is on the board of!

In celebration of Pride Month and to celebrate our Asian queer, trans, non-binary and genderqueer friends and allies – we spoke with various advocates in the Asian Mental Health Collective community to spread light on the important work they do.

Meet Dr. Noel Ramirez, Founder and Director of Mango Tree Counseling & Consulting. They are an AAPI mental health resource center in the Philadelphia Metro Area and provide psychotherapy, group education, and consulting to AAPI communities. All of Mango Tree’s therapists identify as AAPI and have varying lived experiences that inform their frame and clinical practice. They also host Mental Wellness Seminars on the 2nd Thursdays of the month, 8pm EST where we go over topics and frameworks on mental health.

Read more about Dr. Ramirez’s background, what readings and resources he recommends, and what he would tell young LGBTQ+ Asian folks today.

Tell us about your practice and what it’s like to work with LGBTQ+ Asian folks!

I have been very fortunate to have been in close proximity to queer AAPI identity my whole life. My uncle lived with us for many years and was gay. He died from AIDS-related complications when I was young. But in those formative years, I remember witnessing both the pain and resilience of filipinx communities trying their best to understand and love through stigma and cultural difference. His life and death had a profound effect on me and my family’s ability to love and care unconditionally.

I grew up in Jersey City, NJ. It was very queer and very asian-American. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to find community in my adolescence and to have that be a part of my development as a person, professional, and clinician. From eating at the Philippine Bread House, being a part of a Filipino-youth programming/organizing in high school to a dancer at a queer Asian night club, to organizing with other Queer AAPI folx in Philly and now running an AAPI mental health group practice, community has always been very important to my work and life.

It is a great privilege to be in a place of service for my community. For me, the intersection of AAPI and Queer identity lives in the search and pursuit of a sense of home, and this is both felt in mild and intense ways. Therapy is a place, where I hope that folx can find a sense of home within their bodies, minds, and hearts. Being a witness to that process is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Are there interesting queer theories or practice that help you personally or in your work?

There are many – the work of Shawn Ginwright in creating healing-centered engagement has been at the forefront of my work. Ginwright challenges trauma-informed models to work in a collective, to focus on resilience vs suppression of trauma symptoms, to acknowledge and embrace the political nature of healing (vs treatment), and also emphasizes the importance of intersubjectivity.

I think working within my community also requires a great sense and appreciation for intersubjective and relational models – acknowledging the mutual impact of working with a clinician that may share a socio-cultural identity with the client. And as well, an awareness of critical consciousness and post-colonialism. Many of us experience a sense of intergenerational trauma from global and collective trauma. We are also descendent of folx who have been able to survive and find agency through those traumas – the acknowledgment and awareness of that meta-narrative are critical to the work.

Are there any readings, resources, activists or organizations that you want to shout out?

I’m a steering committee member to Philadelphia Asian and Queer (PAQ: and have been active with NQAPIA and Asian Mental Health Collective.

Readings and Resources:

What’s something you want young queer, trans, NB/GNC Asian youth reading to know?

Therapy is not the only pathway to healing, though it’s very important! I want to encourage folx to find community and collectives that seek to love, honor, and respect who you are as a person. Community saved my life as a young person and there is something incredibly powerful to feel both seen and honored by a peer and an elder.

You are a descendent of communities that are looking to find you, to honor you, to love you, and to know you. You are descendent of voyagers, who are driven by so many beautiful things and have endured great pains and have uncanny resilience. You are enough.

You can check out Mango Tree Counselling & Consulting on their website here or on Instagram at

Our thoughts have the power to either uplift us or upend our inner lives, says Joan Lee, who wrestled with two schizophrenic episodes and major depressive disorder in her late 20s. Positive self-talk, along with psychiatric and psychological treatment, was one critical tool that helped Joan walk through these trying times.

While hunkering down during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chicago-based professional translated her experiences into a mini-guide entitled How We Talk To Ourselves. She collaborated with New York City-based artist Connie Van on the book. 

Tell us more about your journey with mental health.

I’m a Korean-American, born and raised in Chicago, and I basically grew up with the same “golden child script” as many Asian Americans. I studied well and was super achievement-oriented. It felt like everything was always going on that well-trodden path – study engineering, go into consulting, go to business school, then move to New York.

And I did live in New York for a couple of years. And while I was at the so-called height of my career, just as I felt like I had built up something me and my parents could be proud of, I actually experienced a paranoid schizophrenic episode. That happened in 2014 and brought me back to Chicago without a job, unemployed. I started to become isolated from everyone.

Just to share a bit about the condition – people with schizophrenia sometimes have auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and sometimes they’d have paranoid thoughts, like thoughts that people were going to hurt them. 

Somehow, I managed to weasel myself out of my particular brand of schizophrenia, and I rejoined the workforce back in 2016. I was pretty stable for a year or so, and then I decided to get back on that “path”, do what my friends were doing, and try to keep living that dream. I went to San Francisco to get a job, but there I experienced another schizophrenic episode again. 

So, round two, another year down the drain – or at least that was how I felt. 

As a hangover from all that has happened, I later developed social anxiety and major depressive disorder. To be honest, of all the mental health challenges I’d been confronted with, depression was the most difficult, because it’s sort of like a pain that sits in your chest and immobilises you. It can be accompanied by perpetual negative thoughts, you devalue yourself and you’re on guard against others. You constantly anticipate negative outcomes from other people and your situation. 

And one of the things that kicked off my recovery from depression was positive self-talk.

And that was what started the book?

I wrote the book as a quarantine project (during the Covid-19 crisis) and then I found Connie, my illustrator, through a friend of a friend. So we decided to launch it as a fundraiser, but it’s going to be free for students or anyone unemployed. We have also gotten in touch with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asian Mental Health Collective, and other organizations. 

There’s always value hearing from someone who has walked the path you’re wrestling through right now, lived the experience and shown that it is survivable. So I hope this can be a helpful resource to others.

How do you believe yourself, though, when you try talking to yourself positively?

So I was in a funk when I started thinking very negatively about myself, others, and my situation. But what positive self-talk can help you do – even if you don’t believe it at first – is to transform your core beliefs. It tells you “I am worthy of good things,” “I am worthy of love,” “I am loved,” and stuff like that.

As you increase your extent of positive self-talk, you’ll notice that because you’re trying to give yourself a boost, your attitude changes a little bit. It might be imperceptible, but you’ll get positive reinforcement from others that will kind of bring you back up as well. 

A lot of people don’t want to change until things get so bad – and I was like this myself. There were a couple of months when I was just in bed and couldn’t do anything, and I told myself this is bad, this isn’t how my brain used to work. And I wanted to fix it in a constructive way.

Life comes with a lot of challenges, you know. There’s always going to be the possibility of disappointment, and if you don’t know how to talk to yourself, it can be very painful.

Did you get support from your network of friends and family?

Some people’s initial reactions were quite hurtful to me, actually. Some started to shy away, not wanting to talk or spend too much time with me. There were others who stuck by me, but I knew it was difficult for them too. It affected their social capital and all that.

It’s interesting to see how people sometimes decide to shy away from someone with a mental condition, at precisely a time when the support can be very helpful, even necessary, for the sufferer. Some people have subconscious biases or think it’s “unlucky” to be associated with someone who is mentally unwell. Some even think it’s contagious, etc. 

Based on your observations and personal experiences over the years, how have people’s mindsets around mental health changed?

So I think mental health is pretty “trendy” right now, and it’s a good thing. People are thinking about how they can accept and evaluate themselves and others, and that’s good. But for the older generation, it still is quite a “taboo” issue to talk about. A lot of people wouldn’t like to go into too much detail when sharing about their struggles with mental health.

The younger generation may be kind of familiar with talking about emotional health, especially with the pandemic and everything, but they are just getting started.

Do you think there is a cultural aspect as well? Some people say that Asian cultures tend to stigmatize mental health.

My parents understand now because they were forced to live it (with me). They had a hard time and may have seen me as “defective” for a while, as someone who went from golden child to black sheep. I was the person that they were like, you know, so disappointed and heartbroken over for a while. I didn’t trust them either, at that time. We had a lot of hard moments. But they stood by me, and through the slow healing process, we’re now a lot closer than we ever have been.

But then I do remember people around me, including those at church talking behind my back. Even my mom would tell me how they’d refer to me as “the crazy one”. I remember desperately wanting friendships but not quite finding them. I would say that these experiences could be true outside the Asian cultures as well, though.

Where are you now in this healing journey? Do you have plans for the future?

I don’t identify with schizophrenia anymore. I haven’t had any episode since, like, October of 2018.

I started a non-profit a couple of months ago, providing virtual SAT prep for students in the Chicagoland area. And I’d like for that to grow into a sustainable non-profit. We crowdfunded this year, but I hope we can get grants going forward, to do that for a larger group of students.

After tumbling from this “normal path” and being way off course from where I thought I would be, I have kind of reframed everything. I am very fulfilled in my current job in the healthcare technology sector, but what’s more important for me now is to learn as much as I can. I don’t know if I’ll be in a position where I can help fix anything related to healthcare, but that is kind of in the back of my mind. 

Have you ever felt like what is normal to you is way outside of what is normal for the people around you? At times like that, having a friend who has gone where you’ve gone, and whom you can share with and listen to, is like a balm to the soul. 

Tanushree, founder and host of The Desi Condition podcast
Tanushree, founder and host of The Desi Condition podcast

Tell us how The Desi Condition started and why you felt there was a need for it.

Tanushree: I grew up in Queens, New York. I was born and raised here. I have always had ADHD, depression, and these were things that went undiagnosed until well into my adulthood. I realised that all of this stuff went unnoticed because they were often brushed aside,like, you know, “Oh, she’s just shy,” or “She’s kind of quiet,” but that’s not what was happening. 

It’s not that I blame my family; I think they just didn’t quite know how to identify what was going on. And that was what inspired me to want to normalise conversations around mental health. 

The Desi Condition started about a year ago. Once I decided that we wanted to talk about de-stigmatisation of mental health, I knew we had to be talking about culture. I realised there was a need for people to be talking about mental health and what is it about Desi culture that kind of exacerbates certain attitudes toward mental health.

Can you share more about how your culture may have affected your own mental health?

Tanushree: I think there was a fair bit of pressure to live up to the “immigrant dream.” And if I’m being honest, I think there is a lot of sexism in Asian culture, so that definitely contributed to it. I had a lot of anxiety as a kid, a lot of emotional problems. 

In Desi culture, people kind of just sweep that kind of stuff under the rug, because they themselves were never really exposed to that back in their home countries. So when they see it happening here, they are just kind of like, it’s not a big deal, it’s a “mood.” A “mood” is very different from a mental health condition, but that is what it gets written off as; like it’s just temporary, and not real, you know?

Why did you pick the podcast platform?

Tanushree: I guess there were a couple other ways I could have done this, like writing or making videos. I know that I’m too lazy to make videos. I did consider writing, but I know that I don’t necessarily have the discipline to write once a week or a few times a week.

I like listening to podcasts; I like the audio medium and I enjoy listening to audiobooks. And podcasting just felt like a good way to interview other people and to have them own my show, speaking in their own voice. And I really like that.

You’ve pulled off three seasons so far – kudos to that! What’s been the most-talked-about topics when it comes to Desi culture and mental health?

Tanushree: One thing that comes up a lot is the conditioning – which is also where the name of this podcast comes from – we receive from our society. For example, women are very much seen as martyrs, you know? So we talk about female martyrdom. 

And because Desi culture is very much influenced by the days of the British occupation, it’s also very survivalist – you tend to have a sense of distrust against people outside the family. And if you do something your family disapproves of, it’s like “dishonouring” your family. We also talk about familial pressures. We tend to live in multi-generational families, which doesn’t happen a lot in Western cultures. 

What’s one of the more memorable episodes for you?

Tanushree: I did one episode about platonic heartbreaks, like what happens when friendships end. I called in a mailbag episode, because a lot of people just submitted entries of their similar experiences. It was very vulnerable and there were a lot of people talking on it and just being really, real and raw. 

Another episode I really like was on the intersection of religion, spirituality and mental health. My guest and I discussed our experiences of how in our respective religions, people often dismiss mental health issues using religion, and they’d say things like, why don’t you just pray? And I think that resonated with a lot of people. 

What’s your vision for The Desi Condition in the coming years?

Tanushree: I want people to feel comfortable talking about mental health, and I hope that when they look at my page, they’d realise there are lots of different kinds of people talking about this stuff in an open and vulnerable way. And I hope that serves as an example that you can do that as well, whoever you are.

Ayushi Khemka and Adishi Gupta, co-founders of Mental Health Talks India

So, Mental Health Talks India. How did it all start?

Ayushi: Adishi and I have known each other for quite a long time, since 2012 when we were in college. We always wanted to set up something around mental health because we both have been living with our own mental health conditions. We have been talking for a long time about creating some advocacy and awareness in this space, which are really lacking in India.

My first experience with therapy was back in 2017. Back then I was a master’s student, researching on women studies. We saw a lot of film and documentaries with a lot of “triggering” content around sexual violence, which reminded me of my own experiences with sexual violence. But it was when I was in therapy that I started developing symptoms of depression and anxiety, as I struggled a lot with a professor’s perception and I would also say, harassment, of certain students. Later I saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed some medication for depression, which I was okay with taking but was highly stigmatised by the people around me. They used a Hindi word to describe me, which basically translated into “mad person”. So sometimes even if you don’t stigmatise yourself, the people around you and the comments they make can be like ticking time bombs, if they don’t have the right mindset about mental health.

Adishi: We felt the need to do something like MHTI because nobody around us was talking about it. It made us feel like what we’re experiencing was alien, not relatable, or it’s something that just happened to us for reasons we couldn’t understand. It became very important for us to have that space to voice our confusion, and to connect with people who may resonate with our issues and experiences. 

With respect to my own mental health issues, I really don’t know where to start! I remember as a teenager, often crying myself to sleep and I didn’t know why I was feeling this way. School was also an unpleasant experience because of a lot of bullying, and I was always a very reserved child. The year 2015 was when I finally could not look away from the fact that I was not okay, because I was suicidal all the time. It took me around two years from that time to actually go and seek help – I first stepped into a therapist’s office, also in 2017. It’s been three years of seeking therapy, I don’t have an official diagnosis but I still do struggle with suicidal ideation and am trying to deal with that.

What is the current conversation around mental health in India?

Adishi: A lot of it is still very much focused on how mental health is individualised, but our outlook is completely not that way. Many still make it out to be a “personal failure”, in the sense that like, if you are struggling, it’s because you did not do something right. Or you are not thinking positively. Or you are not being grateful enough about life. But it’s not as simple as that.

Ayushi: So at MHTI, we want to discuss mental health through lived experiences and also with a social lens, looking at how our social and environmental factors influence mental health. There are so many factors at play in the Indian culture, such as class, gender, sexuality, religion. In particular, religion is really dominant in India. A lot of people are religious and there is this belief that if you are dealing with some mental health issues, you might have become “possessed” or something. And that your religious identity is going through a crisis, or people just attach some religious element to it. Some people believe you can get it “fixed” by going to a priest who will conduct some rituals. 

Is there stigma around talking about mental health?

Adishi: Definitely. For example, if we want to talk to our family members about what we’re going through, the attempt could snowball into a conversation about how there is something deeply wrong with you. On the face of it, there appears to be more initiatives coming up that seek to increase conversations about mental health. There is a lot of buzz and, to some extent, “noise” online. But in terms of whether this is translated into our conversations offline, we don’t think much has changed.

Just recently, a very famous Bollywood actor allegedly died by suicide, and the way people are talking around it, including the media, is sensationalism on another level – in a very ignorant and insensitive way. None of that gives you the impression that mental health is becoming less stigmatised. 

Ayushi: There has been a lot of news coverage on this incident. Some news channels dug up past videos of him during better times with his family, and actually had the audacity to comment that he didn’t look like someone who was suffering from depression. And that is the kind of narrative that we often encounter in India – that if a person is looking a certain way, they can’t really have a mental health issue. There are so many other examples and we could spend a whole day talking about it.

How does MHTI seek to change that narrative?

Adishi: Our work was initially just online, we dedicated our efforts to creating content around mental health awareness. We gradually also started holding physical events. For instance, we had a workshop on suicide prevention last year, and another on friendship breakups. 

We believe in the value of personal experiences, which is why we want to give a platform to people for sharing their personal experiences. We also believe in art as a medium of expression, since not everyone shares their feelings through writing or talking. 

Since we’re still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, can you talk a bit about how this is affecting people’s mental health?

Adishi: I think every day, we wake up to new ways in which the pandemic is affecting us. Initially, I think a lot of people were coping by overworking themselves and being “productive”. So there was like a “productivity high”, especially for some of us who were feeling hopeless and stuck in places that may not be the safest and such – and we almost felt the need to similarly be productive.

Ayushi: I think one positive outcome of the pandemic, for some people, is that they are pushed to keep them and their families within safer spaces. Perhaps some were even able to devote more time to their favourite hobbies. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have access to certain resources, like tech tools. For many people, homes are also not necessarily the safest places… Some people haven’t shared about their mental health issues with their families, and are now stuck with them. Also, not a lot of people have homes that are huge or where they can carve out their own space. Thus there are a lot of people who aren’t able to access therapy as well.

As we speak, India just clocked the highest number of cases in the world, giving us another world record – not in a good way. 

We do hope that MHTI can provide some respite during this time, especially for those who feel stuck in more challenging living situations.

By: Kelly Ng

Mak’s journey with depression has been ongoing for several years now. After a stint at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health in 2017, he decided to document that episode of struggling with depression in a blog. “It is my hope that the blog will help others who either know someone in depression, or is suffering from depression themselves,” he writes on the blog.

While still wrestling with the condition, Mak has invited others on a similar journey to reach out to him. “feel free to contact me, especially if you simply wish to have someone to talk to who knows the pain of depression,” he writes. He also started Depressed Dave, a series of comics inspired by his personal struggles.

Tell us more about yourself and your journey with depression.

A lot of it is documented on my website. In a nutshell, it’s been about three years since I was warded at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health for depression. I almost took my own life in August 2017. While I am better now, I do still have suicidal thoughts. But it’s better than back then in some ways.

There are some primary issues and trigger points rooted in my experiences from childhood, which have contributed to me having certain expectations of myself. I would say the strongest reason binding me to depression is this inner voice, this critic in me who is always screaming and telling me that I’m not worthy to do certain things. It’s also part of the reason I’m just doing a voice call with you and not video – I am seriously uncomfortable seeing myself.

My recovery, thus far, has been focused on trying to quell this inner critic, to repair the past damage so I can be a husband and father to my family.


What inspired you to come up with Depressed Dave Comics?

I started the comic at the end of 2017. At that time, I was already writing quite a bit about my experiences on the website. But some people like to read, others don’t. And I felt the message of mental health is not only for those who can take long posts and lengthy arguments. 

So I started drawing comics on my tablet. It wasn’t straightforward – I couldn’t draw a perfect oval initially and had to find a suitable software to do that. And then someone offered to fund me for it, so I decided to put my own skin into it.

But it really also started as an exercise to make myself feel better, to express myself, and also share with others who might be feeling this way that they are not alone.

As I went along, I realize that the stories and messages I wanted to tell fall into several categories. The first, which I started out with, were facts about medical and psychiatric treatments that were not unique to me, even things like ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).

Later on, I started embedding in my comics messages that I needed to hear myself. One of the story arcs, for instance, is when a grandfather who lost his granddaughter to suicide randomly appears in Dave’s life and tells Dave that suicide is not an option. This was something I wanted to tell myself. 

There were also other myths I wanted to debunk – like this idea that men are supposed to be “macho” and mentally/emotionally infallible. 

To seek inspiration, I would sometimes go for walks in parks – the Flower Dome is one of those places I frequented. And then if an idea came, I’d just draw and let it flow as it will.

And has the experience of illustrating and telling Dave’s stories been therapeutic?

Actually, not really. Because I have the tendency to think that I will never be good enough for myself, it has become a source of stress for me. I would set certain targets for myself, like tell myself I have to come up with ‘x’ number of comics within certain days… that hasn’t been very helpful.

But while I won’t call it therapeutic, I think drawing these comics give me purpose. There’s still a voice inside telling me that, probably nobody would care. The doubt is strong. But doing this definitely give me purpose.


What has been helpful in your journey thus far?

My wife has been a strong pillar of support. From the time she found out that I was seriously planning to take my own life, she never blamed me, and constantly offered support, but at the same time, she also gives me space.

My family members have also tried their best to understand what I’m going through and give me allowance. My doctors, therapists, friends who listen and don’t judge, even friends I’ve made online through gaming… Several of them are going through similar struggles so they understand this well. 

I am a Christian, so religion plays a big part in this as well.


Would you say there’s a stigma surrounding conversations about mental health in Singapore? 

I think as Asians, we have a stronger sense of having to follow certain societal values, like we have to respect our elders, don’t talk back to them, don’t tell them what to do… People have a certain sense of expectation of you. And I’ve had people, friends, setting certain expectations of me because I’m a husband and a father.

I have also had people who would suggest I should make certain lifestyle changes. They mean well but they don’t realize the person in front of them is already struggling. This is also why I want the comic to be out there. 

There is also this thing called smiling depression, which I think is pretty common among Asians, or Singaporeans – that they work hard to hide their emotional pain. 

But I’d say that in the region (Southeast Asia), Singapore is one of the best places in its dealing with mental health. It is probably the only country in the region that has an acute hospital with an A&E department that deals specifically with mental health.


What advice would you give to someone who is trying to walk with a friend who has depression?

There are many things you can do, but I think the most important and also most difficult ones are – Firstly, don’t give advice. Second, listen.

A common response from people who learn that I’m depressed are questions like, “Why are you angry? Why are you sad? There is nothing to be sad about…”

That makes me sad because, why are they saying that there is nothing to be angry about? When we give advice, we assume that the person we are “advising” hasn’t already thought of or tried that piece of advice before. I’d be thinking in my head, “If it were that easy, do you think I would still be here?”

Sometimes when we give advice and make it sound like there is an easy way to get out of the situation, we make the other party feel helpless and guilty.

For many people, listening is also a difficult skill. We should try to be active listeners – we can do that by asking questions to clarify, or rephrasing what we just heard. Hear them out, don’t judge, tell the depressed person who is struggling that you are there for them.

If you know there is someone who is simply willing to listen to you, you feel better as a person. You feel valid. 

One of our close friends came over to visit us the other time and brought my favourite drink. And she just sat there with us, she didn’t say much, but I was just so thankful for her being there. I was very touched and grateful. That’s what matters – to have someone who doesn’t talk you out of depression but is just there for you. 

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

By: Kelly Ng

Just 13 when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Diana Chao was desperate for someone to confide in – someone willing to understand and appreciate her mental health issues, someone who would “see (her) as a human being,” disorders included. Yet she was confronted, on one hand, by voices dismissing the legitimacy of her illness; and on the other, those anticipating her to “scream and behave in ways normal humans don’t” because of it.

She then started writing letters, addressed to no one in particular. 

Today, this personal project has grown into a global, youth-run organization seeking to de-stigmatize mental illness.


Why did you start writing letters to imaginary strangers?

At that time, my family had just moved to the United States for a few years, my parents didn’t speak English, and we were living below the poverty line. We also experienced a lot of housing stability. All that made me question my worth a lot. 

I struggled with mental health but rarely mentioned them at home. I went through a series of suicide attempts, and my little brother found me at the very last one. 

I felt I had to do something to change my life. That was when I started writing letters to strangers whom I felt could better understand my pain. There’s a saying that goes, “writing is humanity distilled into ink.”

I think putting things into handwriting forces us to take stock and reflect on certain things that have happened in our lives, and forces us to clarify our thoughts on paper. It is something tangible that we can do when we feel helpless.


How did your personal letters grow into Letters to Strangers? What is your vision for the organization?

I started Letters to Strangers in my sophomore year of high school because I was exhausted of trying to prove my humanness. I had intended it to be a student club of sorts in my school, and even remember bribing my friends with pizza so they would come for the sessions. Then more people joined and found it therapeutic, and we started an online platform. 

It is now the world’s largest youth-to-youth mental health network, with over 12 chapters across Asia. We are served  by a team of about 50 – including a few core team members who manage the logistics and finances, and regional ambassadors across the world who help ensure our programming is sensitive to cultural nuances. 

In addition to de-stigmatizing mental illness, we want to increase access to equitable treatment to mental health. Most schools in the US do not have a curriculum for mental health. Even with severe depression, 80 per cent of American youth receive no or insufficient treatment. So we’ve included a list of resources through which people can find support. We’ve also recently launched a guidebook for youths, written by 14- to 21-year-olds and reviewed by experts and medical professionals.

I know personally that when all you understand is emptiness, one letter – one human connection – can save a life. Empathy matters.


How is mental health especially difficult to talk about among the Asian community?

I think there still is a stigma around mental illness in Asian cultures that prevent people from discussing it openly. We don’t necessarily even know how to talk about it – and this has collective impact.

I think if we are able to recognize the shared pain and intergenerational trauma, we might be able to open up and be more vulnerable to one another.

Because if we don’t, the adverse impact could creep up in different ways too. 

Diana Chao, Founder of Letters to Strangers

Such as?

When I was 14, just shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I started experiencing persistent migraines. I often felt dizzy when I walked in the sun, sometimes I just couldn’t do that at all. Later an optometrist said I had uveitis, an inflammatory eye disease that can send the pressure inside an eye soaring and cause temporary blindness.

I later found out from another ophthalmologist that this condition is common among people with mental illnesses, and especially among minorities. Then it clicked for me, because my episodes of temporary blindness often coincided with my psychological episodes – my body was responding to what my mind was going through.

And I think this happens often among minority communities, like Asians, because we tend to not want to speak up about mental issues. So our bodies, devoid of an outlet, find other ways to respond.  


Any ways in which you are trying to share your experiences with the Asian community?

As a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, I can relate to these experiences. I’m fluent in Mandarin, so I try to hold a lot of workshops in Mandarin. For example, I’d speak at Chinese cultural centers about recognizing signs of mental illness and seeking care.

I find that when you talk about these issues in a language the audience understands, they are really receptive to it. 


Back to Letters to Strangers – what are your hopes and dreams for the organization, moving forward?

We now have half of our chapters in the US – concentrated along both coasts – and another half across the rest of the world, mainly in Asia and Africa. We are looking at expanding and translating our content into different languages, as well as exploring more robust online platforms exchanges between chapters.

I mentioned earlier that we just launched a guidebook for youths, which we have worked on for the past years and that we believe can be a valuable resource for young people around the world. Each section covers different things and we have sourced information and stories from medical professionals, cultural leaders, spanning across 1,000 institutions.

We hope readers will resonate with some of these stories and realize that they are not alone.

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the Asian Mental Health Collective discusses another epidemic – a longstanding one that has plagued Asian communities around the world – with freelance strategy consultant DJ Chuang.

Chuang, 54, calls shame an “epidemic” that has caused people to struggle unnecessarily, taking a toll on their mental and emotional health. His weapon against the rogue? A series of podcasts featuring honest, unfiltered conversations with those who have experienced shame, titled for its raison d’être – Erasing Shame.


Who, what, why Erasing Shame?

We wanted a platform where people who have experienced shame can discuss issues that are not normally talked about in their social circles and familial contexts. For someone who is struggling with mental health and has no friends to talk to, nor money to seek a psychologist, social media might be able to reach them. 

We started with videos on Facebook Live and later got a grant from the Asian American Christian Counseling Service to convert them into a podcast. We are into our fourth season since launching in February 2018. Each season is co-hosted by myself and a mental health professional. We also often host guest speakers who have expertise in various topics or specific Asian subcultures. 

We discuss a variety of issues, ranging from trauma that refugees experience, to living bi-culturally, to singleness. Things happen pretty spontaneously, which basically involves me reaching out to people and getting them to talk on the podcast. 


What is your personal story with mental health and shame?

I was born in Taiwan, and moved to the US when I was 8. As the oldest son, I lived under the shadow of shame. My parents never gave me praise or told me they loved me, and I longed for it. It affected my emotional health. 

After graduate school, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 34. Things really bottomed out for me emotionally when I was left without a job. I fell into deep, deep depression and wrestled with suicidal thoughts. I was steeped in these negative thoughts and couldn’t get rid of them. My healing journey took about a year, but this isn’t a condition that you can fully recover from.  Just three years ago (2017), I had a psychotic episode and wound up in the psych ward for three days.

I think I had lived a less-than-optimal emotional life till then, but was never diagnosed earlier because I was too ashamed to get counselling. 

Shame, I think, is something that has been passed on across various generations, in many Asian cultures. Many of us can identify with how, when you come home from a test score of 98, only to be questioned by your parents why you didn’t get a perfect score. Or, how they would often compare us with other kids – in my case, it was with my younger brothers, and I felt like I was never good enough. 


Why is shame so entrenched in Asian cultures?

This may sound stereotypical, but Asian cultures are “shame based.” Shame has been weaponized by parents and elders in these communities, as a way of getting children to behave “properly.” It’s been passed down from one generation to another, never really talked about, but present in your everyday situations.

For example, many among us who are ethnic Chinese will identify with that time when we side-stepped the “protocols” and did not greet the elders as we were instructed by our parents, at family gatherings. I remember how I would often get a pep talk from my parents when I get home from such gatherings. It’s quite painful for me to go there… A lot of emotions were suppressed in the past.

Or when you scored less-than-perfect at a test, and parents’ respond by asking, “What’s wrong with you?” Words like that really point to, and damage, one’s identity.


And how does this relate to mental health?

When experiences and emotions of shame are entrenched over such long periods of time and one has no outlet to process it, it can be overwhelming for our mental state. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma among Asian communities with regard to seeking professional help for mental health. 

Some see diagnosis as a shameful thing. And then, there are others like my parents who shunned all doctors in general – they never even went to the dentist. On the other end, there also aren’t many resources, in terms of psychologists or psychiatrists, who can offer culturally-appropriate counsel.

That is also why I hope Erasing Shame can provide a safe and accessible platform for these conversations. It is important to get started and not just wait until we get everything together, which is also part of our Asianness – the desire to be perfect. 


What is your current relationship with your parents?

My mom is now more compassionate about my situation. She sees my conviction for mental health and also recognizes that my diagnosis is real – although it did take her three to four years to come around that understanding. Before that, she had tried to show me how I can have a “better attitude” toward life, to talk me out of it. I had to make things very concrete for her, and personally, I had to learn to understand that they wanted to help.

My dad passed away nine years ago and there were some sore points in our relationship that were, unfortunately, not reconciled before that.


Where do you see yourself in the journey to erase shame? Have you arrived?

I think this is an ongoing thing. Shame is a feeling, much like anger, happiness, or sadness. It is also not something you can totally erase. Part of the journey is realizing that you do not have to be paralyzed. 

Shame is paralyzing, it causes people to want to hide their mistakes, etc. But the whole idea behind Erasing Shame is to realize that you don’t have to run away, but you also don’t have to be paralyzed. You want to get stronger from it, so that the next time you run into it, it’s less paralyzing. 


What’s next for Erasing Shame, as in the podcast?

The baseline is to keep things going, continue the conversations, and we hope that others around the world will catch the vision for it. My ultimate hope is that eventually, these podcasts can be translated into different vernacular languages so that it will reach more people among the global Asian communities.

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

Asian Mental Health Collective