This post was written by Khushbu Patel, our 2017 Stephen C. Rose Legacy Scholar in the 2017 Emerging Scholars cohort. Over the course of the next few months, Khushbu is focusing her project on employing qualitative methodology to understand how culture influences the way South Asians conceptualize ‘mental health.’ You can read more about her project here.
I recently attended a screening of documentary filmmaker Dinesh Sabu’s Unbroken Glass. In 57 minutes of footage, the film traces some devastatingly turbulent and abundantly love-filled stories of his family. In particular Dinesh invites himself, and by extension us, into an intimate portrait of his mother’s entanglement with schizophrenia and the rippling effects on this particular family. It’s a challenge to do justice to an intimate family portrayal in a tiny blog space, but I share this in order to talk about my response to the film. I was a bit paralyzed, honestly.
In my 25 years of exploring the world, I hadn’t encountered a piece of art or storytelling that I could insert myself into in that way. I could feel a similar longing echoing from the audience as well that evening. And in the middle of my swirling thoughts about my research project, my social work world, and my family, I realized this emotional resonance is why I wanted to take on this fellowship in the first place.
I am a (graduating!!!) master’s student of Social Work at the University of Chicago. Though I’ve loved my program, I’m incredibly excited to graduate and dive back into full-time work. Ironically, and with perhaps misguided optimism, I chose to start this research project as a way to shift back into my non-academic life. To get closer to the things that were deeply part of my childhood.
India was a big part of my world, in direct and indirect ways. This photo is either my second or third passport. I got my first one as a months-old baby with my mom holding me up, before I made my first journey overseas and into my grandparent’s palace. I was pretty introverted as a child and spent much of my time pressed into a book. I felt like I could never tire of reading (…and then I came to grad school). When I think back to my favorite stories, the ones I keep on my windowsill to this day for a sense of comfort, these titles are strikingly bare of South Asian origins. And then, why I try to think of the stories that show families like mine – with parallel roots in multiple continents, ones that struggle deeply with mental health and unconditional love, I’m at a loss.
Enter my idea for this project: to listen to as many stories as possible, and then write one myself. Very broadly, my project uses interviews to explore both the idiosyncrasies and themes that shape different South Asian family narratives around mental health. From this richer understanding, I’d like to present the findings and engage a younger generation of South Asian researchers and storytellers as well as social workers who may encounter this population in their work. Then, the writing part of this kicks in. I started this project to make mental health dialogue and support more accessible for families like my own. I want to stay true to this, and like I said earlier, to my younger self who explored the world through the fictional stories on my bookshelf. My aim for the final (long-term) product of this project is to write a fictional novel that dives deep into South Asian characters struggling with mental health. And I want them to be complex, and troubling, and loving, and hopeful, and enduring. Just like my own family.
Though I don’t want to disclose too much here in respect of personal privacy, I don’t hesitate to share that my family, like so so many others, has navigated the unpredictable tides of mental illness. It adds to the already isolating experience when stigma and lack of representation stifle your ability to connect to others. Though I am passionate about direct practice work and hope to build my career in supporting real families, I am just as excited about what can be gained from fiction. I’ve found, at times, that nothing feels as real as what we’re able to step into through words. I’ve already been so humbled by the stories individuals have shared with me through this project, and I hope to offer them a little something in return through this long-term end goal. I thank my participants, this fellowship space, and my family above all, for the chance to do this work. I love sharing ideas and learning from others, so I welcome anyone reaching out if they are so moved to do so!