Date: March 30, 2011
Several years ago, psychiatrist Vani Rao began slipping patients into her early morning schedule before the community psychiatry clinic opened. The patients were handpicked, Rao says, because she saw a need, and the early hours were because she wasn’t sure if they’d feel comfortable at the regular clinic. Her effort blossomed. Word of mouth kept people coming. Now the South Asian Wellness Clinic is a well-established destination. Twice a month, she and colleagues see patients from South Asia and from China and more northern areas. They come with a variety of mental health concerns.
“I had to do something for my community,” says India-born Rao, who heads the local chapter of the Indo-American Psychiatric Association.
Culture shock, difficulties of integration, challenges to traditional family roles, discrimination and social isolation can, of course, aggravate psychiatric illness. Rao, however, counters that with the edge that ethnicity gives in creating a therapeutic rapport. “One reason to have someone you’re culturally comfortable with has to do with stigma,” Rao explains. For South Asians, the embarrassment of having a mental illness is perhaps 10 times greater than for U.S. natives.
“That’s not the only reason they tend not to seek psychiatric help, however.” In the Indian subcontinent, for example, psychic pain, sadness and stress are more accepted as a part of life. “It’s part of karma for something done in your past, knowingly or not, or that might happen in the future,” she says. “Suffering carries a positive slant: You experience it now so that you’ll see better days.”
So Rao considers that in urging patients to accept help. “I try to put mental illness in the proper light. I tell patients that when it interferes with their family and work life, when it’s incapacitating, then suffering goes against the grain of faith.
“But therapy pulls social, cultural and spiritual issues into balance along with the mental.”
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