The Desi Condition Podcast: Mental Health for the South Asian Community
Updated: May 30, 2021
Is mental health talked about in your family, or is it swept under the rug?
The Desi Condition is a mental health podcast that seeks to fill the gap in our emotional education by exploring the aspirations, conflict and emotionality of the Desi and human condition through the eyes of history, sociology, and personal accounts. The podcast starts from the root of the issues, then travels up and outwards, exploring how Desi history and sociology often serve to exacerbate mental health conditions, jeopardize wellness, and delay progress and treatment. This framework enables the creators to observe the development process of emotional crises common amongst first- and second-generation Desis, while encouraging people to speak openly about their personal stories.
An engineer and designer by training and educator by profession, New York native Tanushree created The Desi Condition to empower Desis everywhere to speak up.
She chats with Shreya Sridharan, a Pardesi content creator, candidly exploring her journey with TDC and what makes the Desi experience with mental health unique.
Can you tell us about yourself and why you started The Desi Condition?
"My name is Tanushree and I started The Desi Condition, which is a podcast but has turned into a platform with a little bit more than podcasting, such as blogging and features. The point of the podcast is to explore Desi mental health and the reason it came about is that I have chronic depression or persistent depressive disorder and it is something I’ve dealt with my whole life, but I didn’t really acknowledge or understand what it was until a few years ago.
I was working through those emotions and certain life events at the time, and I realized that some of it had to do with being Desi and the fact that it was so highly stigmatized to even have any mental health disorders.
As a consequence, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it or turn to anyone and all of those things together led me to find my own voice. I realized that a lot of other people go through similar experiences.
I wanted to do something about the stigmatization of mental health; I’ve always wanted to do something about it but wasn’t sure what form it would take. I never thought of myself as a public speaker but once I wanted to speak about this stigmatization and started finding my voice, podcasting came naturally from that. I think that if you want to talk about de-stigmatization, you have to talk about culture and that’s why I chose to focus on South Asian culture. What I call ‘The Desi Condition’ is kind of what made me feel like I had to be very quiet, and I know that there are tons of people who can relate to that."
Can you tell us more about your framework or model to approach mental health?
"Our model is based more heavily on personal accounts and I call it "scenario mapping." What we’ll do is find someone with a unique issue that they are going through or have witnessed. For example, I recently had a guest on the show, who has done a lot of work with women in domestic violence situations. She therefore has a unique take because a lot of her clients are South Asian. She is Pakistani and speaks Hindi and Urdu so she gave us a good, well-rounded view on the unique domestic violence issues that not just women, but men too might face in the US as immigrants.
We then try to scenario map different situations and I’ll try to understand why they had that issue in the first place. Last season, we had a guest who has an eating disorder in her past and we talked about not just what eating disorders are but why they can be amplified by certain South Asian attitudes towards weight, weight-shaming and food in general. That’s what I mean when I say scenario mapping and we also talk about how to get out of it in a way that honours you as an individual but also the culture."
You spoke a little bit about how mental health is stigmatized in the Desi community. What else do you think is unique about mental health within a South Asian context?
"The ‘Desi Condition’ of it. There is so much generational and institutionalised trauma – it is perpetuated, whether through generations or social structures or lack of access to mental health facilities.
We also do face unique troubles. I am Bengali and both sides of my family have a lot of trauma from Bangladeshi independence. The same applies for India as well – scars from colonization continue to affect generations of immigrants. A lot of us came over here to the US, going through immigration and having certain pressures onto us, regarding financial stability and as a consequence, career stability. We’re expected to be doctors, lawyers and engineers and that’s tough, as a first-generation kid to have to hold up the whole family’s expectations. All of these things do give us certain mental health issues that are unique to our community."
What issues regarding access to mental health services do you think South Asians face?
I think it is really tough – "Even if you find a therapist, they might not be a culturally sensitive one. I hear a lot of people talk about how they spent a lot of time explaining why something bothers them or why it annoys their parents that they want to move out.
A part of the goal with TDC is to build a community. I think that you [should] find people to support you outside systems, besides just therapy – I would never say that your entire support system should be your therapist."
What about when people haven’t come to terms with the fact that they are struggling and need help? We’ve often heard that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. Within a Desi context, how do we get comfortable with asking for help?
"That’s a really good question and it’s like you said – if a person doesn’t know that they need help, they are not going to get it. But I think if you are on the fence about it – I’m going through something, but I don’t know what it is – there are certain exercises that can help.
You can try writing exercises – writing down your feelings. You should do that regardless of whether you’re going through mental health issues; it doesn’t have to be writing but some form of expression. Reflecting on life and how things change day by day can help. I think of it as tracking progress or archiving...I think beyond that, if you’re not at the point where you realize something is happening to you, then...I don’t know. Expand your network, find people who are different from you and that’s kind of the best that I can say. If you don’t know that you need some kind of intervention, then you don’t know. If you’re somebody who’s witnessing someone going through that and not knowing that they need help, you can try to do your best to influence them to open their minds to different resources and perspectives. But you might also have to keep your distance so as to not try to intervene too much – it’s not your life and they need to have the space to figure out what they need."
How can we educate ourselves and break free from existing taboos?
"I think if you’re someone who is just getting into mental health or if you know someone who is going through any mental health issues and you want to be there for them...the best thing to do is ask them questions...in a way that shows you want to know because you care. You have to be careful in the way you craft your questions and you have to center the questions around them.
With stigmatization, the problem is that people feel like they are not heard. If you can make the person, feel like they are heard, that’s a huge first step. [As a] person who is suffering through mental health issues, we hear this all the time. If we approach our parents and say we are depressed, they might say ‘Oh just drink water’ or ‘Go to sleep’ and sort of provide useless advice. You will always hear advice that’s not useful but I think that nothing anyone ever says or does to you is personal. It’s always a response to what is going on within themselves rather than a response to you – I deeply believe that. So, when someone makes a comment to you or about your mental health issues, first of all, it’s none of their business. But also, it’s not personal.
So if you can learn to change your framework or the way you think about it in your mind, I think that is also a really huge step. A third thing I want to say is community - find your support system, even if it’s just random Instagram pages that you like to follow. Make yourself feel like you’re not alone in what you’re going through – I think that’s the most important first step for people who don’t know what else to do."
Tanushree explained that she didn’t plan to section the podcast in seasons, but that it happened more organically. Originally, she had started The Desi Condition with a friend, who later left the production at the end of Season 1. Season 1, she explains, consisted of about 6 episodes of the two friends speaking on each episode and after this, she wanted to rebrand and take a more people-centered approach. After working to make Season 2 more community-centric, she began looking for a team to expand The Desi Condition and to start building a platform.
Pictured above from left to right: Ravi, Hani, Kartik, and Anu.
How were your team members brought in to TDC?
"A couple of them I met through Facebook and a couple through Instagram...The first person to join my team was my audio engineer, Ravi. I found a cover of Bulleya that he made, and I loved it so I reached out and said that he was doing a great job. He started listening to my episodes and honestly, we are just huge fans of each other so eventually, he started working for the team. He started editing the episodes, which is a huge help! A couple months later, I started putting up calls on Facebook - Karthik writes for us, Anu does communications and Hani does all things creative."
How did the expansion of TDC from a podcast to a platform really start?
"I started blogging in response to the episodes I was putting out and that was why I specifically looked for someone like Karthik as well. Another side of this is that I have a background in industrial design and I have always been inclined towards the arts – I played sitar and sang while growing up – music and art have been a big part of me. Art and mental health are so intertwined but unfortunately, we are not encouraged to pursue the arts as real career options, which is something that I did for a while. Those three things are also something I wanted to explore on the platform, so I started featuring artists and their stories in what I call a sub-brand of TDC, The Desi Collective. When I say platform, I think of it as offshoots of mental health – what are different things about mental health that we could explore, whether it’s through writing or art forms.
"The Desi Condition is about creating a sense of relatability, community, and togetherness. By listening to other people's stories, we eventually find we're all one and the same."
Once you began creating a platform, how did you approach community-building?
"We have a different guest on the show for every episode and whenever I post a new episode on our website or Instagram, they all meet each other. They start DMing each other and it’s so cute! There are friendships that have formed and I’ve also definitely made a ton of friends from previous guests. So that’s part of it.
When I talk about community, the other side of it is that people who follow our page and listen to the show frequently see that there are people out there who look like them and are going through similar experiences. Even if it’s not direct, first-degree connections, there is a second-degree connection - that these people exist, they look like me and they are talking about things I care about.
TDC has grown a lot – it was a one-woman show in the beginning and we finally got a team last year. We are nearing the end of season 3 right now and have a lot of stuff planned for season 4. I also want to take the Desi Collaborative to the next level – not sure what that will look like but it will definitely have a lot more connectedness between different artists so that they can reach out to each other, collaborate or kick ideas around with each other. It’s also for Desi people who want to support artists in the Desi community, through the directory that we are planning right now."
What are your biggest learnings from running this podcast and how would you say TDC has helped you grow, even on the personal side?
"TDC has helped me grow a lot. I started podcasting around mid-2019 and not long after, I realized that I wanted to go into teaching. It feels like TDC is an educational endeavour...I learn a lot for it and from it and I definitely think the audience learns a lot from it as well.
I see my role in TDC not as an informer but more as a facilitator of conversation. I’m not a mental health expert and I never want to give actual medical advice. I use this space to have conversations and find information that I think will be useful for people who are interested in mental health. I started realizing that that’s what teachers do, what a good teacher does in classrooms – facilitate conversations and allow people to come to their own conclusions, which is what I really hope to do with TDC.
It has definitely made a huge difference in my personal life and has made me feel more confident in my own voice. I was always the quiet, shy girl so I think finding a voice helped me have the confidence to take education seriously as a career path."
The TDC team has started thinking about taking it to the next level and what offshoots they can create. Tanushree wants to have more interviews through different mediums, with the goal of building more community between features and guests. One avenue they are exploring includes Clubhouse conversations, starting with a biweekly breakup support group and spinoffs of previous episodes. The focus for the upcoming season 4 is on outreach and community building, with the team looking to meet more people and talk about new ideas. Another focus includes bringing more men into the conversation around mental health – something that they already do but now want to do on a bigger scale.
The Desi Condition is currently looking for new people to join the creative team and to help expand the platform. More information can be found on their website.
You can also find a sneak peek of their upcoming South Asian Creatives directory, The Desi Collective! You can also submit yourself to be a part of the directive.
Shreya Sridharan is an economics student, writer, and content creator for Pardesi based in the UK. She is South Indian and grew up in India, moving to Germany as a teenager. Studying at the University of Warwick, she enjoys learning about different cultures and traditions. As a proud South Indian, she is passionate about accurate representation of South Asians, building a community for Desi women, and encouraging Desi women in the diaspora or with international backgrounds to explore their intersectional identity. Sridharan enjoys watching Indian films, listening to all kinds of music, writing, traveling, and is excited to see a better representation of South Asians in international media.