How One Organization is Redefining Mental Health for South Asians

Featured Illustration: Anatolii Babii

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A lot of entrepreneurs are motivated to create the resources they needed when they were younger, and Poonam Rahman is no exception. Growing up as a Bangladeshi American and Muslim, she remembers being bullied for her name and ethnic background.

“When I sought out support at my high school, I realized that none of the counselors looked like me,” Poonam says.

On top of that, she felt the weight of expectations in South Asian women to be “put together” and bear the burden of others’ expectations.

“There’s so much pressure in society when it comes to body and beauty standards, but people forget that you have a mind and soul that you need to take care of,” Poonam says. “It’s important to learn how to center your own needs.”

So, Poonam did what she does best — she drew on the strength of her community. She had the support of her friends and family who listened to her without judgment, and she wanted to offer the same for others.

“My bullying experience inspired me to start Virtue Mental, an international non-profit organization that’s making mental health resources more accessible and addressing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community and other minority communities,” Poonam says.

She created space for conversations about topics like beauty standards and boundary setting by offering regular support groups for the LGBTQIA+ community, South Asians, Latinx and Asian and Pacific Islander folks, women, and the general public. The only requirement is to be 18 years of age or older.

“Each one is facilitated by a certified mental health professional, and there’s no cost or catch,” Poonam says. “If you don’t feel comfortable sharing in a group setting, you can also sit in on the workshops from these mental health professionals.”

Dr. Naeema Akter, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, knows that these support groups are a powerful way to create a sense of community.

“We could all use help sometimes, and we deserve a space where it’s completely about us,” Dr. Akter says. “Being in a support group can make you feel less isolated in your experiences.”

In addition to these support groups, the organization has also hosted workshops that have covered everything from colorism to maternal health, which are topics that they identify based on surveys with participants and the community.

“We take a holistic approach to health and ensure that people can heal in the presence of others,” Poonam says. “Building this community motivated me to keep going, even when it was challenging.”

Akter also hosted a virtual workshop on the basics of finding a therapist and having conversations with your insurance provider.

“Pursuing therapy is a world that most people don’t know how to navigate, especially South Asians,” Dr. Akter says. “Every professional has a shared language, so I wanted to share some of the questions you could ask.”

This workshop is inspired by Dr. Akter’s own identity and work as one of the few hijabi South Asian therapists in her field.

“Growing up South Asian, my family didn’t have open and honest conversations about mental health,” Dr. Akter says. “I was told to focus on school, eat, and do well in school. I hope that my sessions create for everyone, especially South Asians, to express their feelings without judgment. I want people to know that all of their feelings are valid.”

It’s clear that some attendees have felt isolated during the pandemic, but these support groups have been making a difference for some of the participants.

“I remember reading a response in our feedback form where someone mentioned that they didn’t feel like they had a support system in the past,” Poonam says. “After attending these groups, they felt like there was someone that cared about them. It made all of the hours I’ve put into Virtue Mental worth it.”

It’s not easy or linear to build an international non-profit from the ground up, especially while juggling her work as a pre-med and pre-law student and upcoming book release. After working 19 hours a day in the early days of launching, Poonam knew that she had to focus on time management.

“It’s helped to have an amazing team of people from Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico, and they’ve helped me delegate responsibilities,” Poonam says. “Ensuring that you have a team that you trust is one of the best investments you can make as an entrepreneur.”

Working on Virtue Mental has reinforced Poonam’s belief in its mission statement: mental health is just as important as physical health. No matter what identity you hold, Rahman encourages you to advocate for what they need, whether it’s boundaries, therapy, or time with a trusted friend that you can confide in.

“We can see when someone has a fever or is wearing a cast, but you don’t always see the effects of a mental illness,” Poonam says. “Oftentimes, you have to be the ones to advocate for yourself, whether that’s seeking therapy or attending one of our support groups. My hope is that the Virtue Mental community can play a part in that.”

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Learn more about Virtue Mental, and follow Virtue Mental on Instagram.