The Teen Author Fighting for Mental Health Awareness in Her Community

Mental health has increasingly been an important topic to tackle, especially as some clinicians and politicians have declared the U.S. to be struggling with a “mental health crisis” (see, e.g. the resource page by the National Alliance on Mental Illness). In the past couple of years, the topic has been addressed by politicians, users on social media platforms, and even by some important celebrities who speak up with the hopes of bringing awareness to the topic.

But not all communities are benefiting from the increased pressure on mental health education and resources.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors including inaccessibility of high-quality mental health care services, the cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health.”

In particular, there is currently a taboo surrounding mental illness in the South-Asian-American community, where the cultural understanding of conditions like anxiety and depression tends to be that the symptoms simply don’t exist and, for sufferers, “it is all in their head” (and therefore “less real” than physical ailments). This minority is directly affected by their parents’ views on mental illness.

Dr. Jyothsna Bhat (PsyD) explained part of the community-specific stigmatization in the National Register of Health Service Psychologist: “Even though Indians have experienced depression, schizophrenia, and other issues, those suffering from mental illness are still not completely accepted in mainstream Indian society. South Asians immigrating to the United States have naturally brought these biases and fears with them. Many believe mental illness is not a real illness, but rather the product of hysteria or an overactive imagination.” Therefore, in the South Asian American community, “A person with depression is often dismissed as just playing the victim. Someone dealing with anxiety or stress is seen as merely weak-minded.”

Nineteen-year-old author, Shoilee Banerjee, is on a mission to fight the stigma in her community. She believes that one way to destigmatize anxiety and depression is through mental health representation in fiction. That is what she seeks to do in her upcoming young adult novel, Something, coming out from Leaf Publishing in May 2020.

Something follows the story of Aleeya Rai, a high schooler and aspiring singer who is learning to deal with her emotions, as teenagers, we start to experience more emotions every day and most of the time we don’t know how to handle them

Adult and teen readers alike will leave the book with a greater understanding of the importance of mental health advocacy in the South-Asian-American community. Through the fictitious character of Aleeya Rai, Shoilee Banerjee hopes to fight the stigmatization of depression and anxiety in her Indian community and to share a story that hits close to home for her and teens like her.

Banerjee originally wrote Something as a response to the mental health crises that she saw all around her in her Boston-area high school. After winning many national writing competitions and seeing young members of her community struggle with anxiety and depression, she was inspired to use the power of her words for a greater good. She believed that they needed a story that felt like a friend. That they needed an empathetic story written by a teen of color for teens of color.

She’s able to share that story with the help of Leaf Publishing, an independent publishing house that puts authors first. They understood how important it was for the author to represent her community, and how impactful her words would be even from her young age.

Banerjee combined her passion for writing with her interest in medicine to craft Something. At the moment, Shoilee studies Public Health at the University of Massachusetts and works as an infectious disease researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital—the same hospital where she was born.

Through her words and her research, Banerjee seeks to continue to advocate for those who have a hard time finding their own voice and for those who have already found theirs.

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