Exploring counselling through a South Asian lens

South Asian Man Receiving Counselling

Welcome to my page and thank you for dedicating your time to learn about counselling through a non-western perspective. My aim is to explore some of the themes that may be barriers for members of the South Asian community in accessing professional supports.

I have had many people ask me, “Why do you think South Asian people don’t access counselling?” 

To start, I want to begin by telling you a bit about myself. I am the eldest child of immigrant parents and a first generation Canadian. Almost 17 years ago, I embarked on a journey of change and enrolled in the Social Work program at the University of Victoria. My educational endeavours were able to solidify the foundation of my role as a helping professional. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work with my community and attempt to address significant societal issues. Here is where I learned valuable lessons about how important it is to be adaptive and offer support by centering South Asian experiences. I feel that part of my role, as a counsellor is to decolonize therapy and actively engage with my clients through a holistic perspective.  This means not centering Western perspectives and being vocal about systemic barriers that keep clients from receiving services. 

Along time ago, someone once told me do not try to force a square peg into a round hole. I feel that in order for therapy to work and be meaningful, I have an obligation to assist clients navigate barriers to support. As a practitioner, I cannot expect my clients to adhere to therapy that fails to encompass there lived experiences. South Asian culture is vast, complicated, nuanced and sometimes seen as problematic when it’s compared to western culture. However, I feel that South Asian culture is rich, beautiful and so resilient that when the community comes together there is no limit to what we can achieve.

When we attempt to understand counselling through a Western lens, there is an emphasis on science, human psychology and the how multiple factors influences our ability to deal with personal or psychological problems. A counsellor is tasked to give professional help or advice to individuals to help resolve the problems.  However, if we break down the definition of counselling even further, it is to give someone advice.  Based on this definition, I would have to say that elders, relatives, and parents in the South Asian community have occupied a counselling role for centuries.  

As a collectivist culture, South Asian people have deeply rooted values of taking care of each other.  Everyone that is an “apna” is part of our community and we have a common interest to care for their wellbeing. However, western ideologies devalue this practice and heavy influence is placed on individuals seeking ‘professional’ help. The opposing philosophies on how to ‘help’ conflict with one another and based on our lived experiences we gravitate towards what perspective aligns best with our own beliefs. Thus, our parents and or grandparents value traditional healing, while those of us who are born in Canada may place a greater emphasis on the medical model. 

The first step is to recognize that the current system is not going to work for everyone.

We have to understand that as immigrants to this country or children of immigrant parents we are trying to navigate through a system that is unfamiliar and not reflective of our narratives. The impacts of colonization and oppression continue to run rampant and we cannot simply ignore them. The history of South Asian immigrants in Canada is filled with incidents of racial discrimination and oppression.  The trauma caused by racial discrimination is REAL and affects US. Our health care systems further perpetuate our trauma as the expectation is to follow therapeutic routes that were designed as a ‘one size fits all’.  Due to the lack of acknowledgment and continuation of culturally informed policies and programs, we respond by turning away from seeking professional help because we think ‘they can’t understand us’. 

Language can get in the way of getting help.

How we communicate, verbally and non-verbally is essential to our understanding. The focus is not just to interpret words from one language to another, but also check for understanding. There may be issues with translation, when practitioners are unable to translate words from the English language to Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, etc. Practitioners need to be aware of the influence that culture has in translating to another language.  The same words passed from one language to another can have a very different meaning. It’s not only about choosing the right words, but there is a deeper knowledge of the culture required to convey accurately the meaning of the original content. This is often lost in translation and for the person who is trying to navigate getting support this is a barrier. 

Understanding the role of culture in helping professionals is paramount.

We also need to consider that there are also cultural norms; both implicit and explicit that play a significant role in the lives of South Asian people. The way our health systems operate now- in a medical model with treatment of problems with medications as the main solution- can be further detrimental for South Asian people who may respond to traditional ways of healing. Every individual is going to have a unique relationship with their language and culture and we need to stop expecting clients to follow western ways of coping, as they may not be effective for all. 

Trauma is intergenerational.

According to World Psychiatry (2018), scientists are now suggesting that trauma can be genetically transferred from one generation to another. Now stop and think about the trauma, which South Asian people have been subjected to for decades. If we solely look at how many times, India has been invaded, there are indications that this number is over 200.  Not to mention the devastating affects of British Colonization, religion based killings, honour killings, female genocide, and caste discrimination. We cannot blame South Asian people for not tending to their emotional needs, when in reality they are still suffering from the emotional scars of their ancestors.  Our parents and grandparents immigrated to other countries not only to give us a better life but also to be relieved from the horrific living conditions. It was a matter of life and death for many of them.  It is unfair to now point blame and expect that South Asian people take responsibility for minimizing their emotions when this is a survival mechanism for them. 

It is going to take time and space for our community to heal and learn healthier ways of coping. We have tremendous strength in our community and the connection to each other, relatives and our culture can be our support.  I am comforted to see that there is a growing number of health professionals that are of South Asian descent.  These individuals in my eyes are heroes, as they have chosen to work through their own traumas while they simultaneously advocate for and work with the South Asian community. I have one last humble request, to all of you who are reading this blog.  Before judging or stigmatizing visible minorities, please take a moment to explore and appreciate their personal stories. If we practice from a place of compassion and are open to alternative forms of healing, there is a greater propensity to influence change. 

References 

  1. Yehuda, Rachel, and Amy Lehrner. “Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 17,3 (2018): 243-257. doi:10.1002/wps.20568
  2. *I gratefully acknowledge that I am an uninvited guest, living and do this work on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional shared territories of the Sumas (Sema:th) and Matsqui First Nation which are part of the Stό:lō Nation.