Census 2020: the impact on South Asian mental health resources

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With the 2020 Census underway and available online, by phone and by mail, the future of South
Asian mental health for the next 10 years is at stake. According to SAAPRI and Advancing
Justice-Chicago’s report: “There are more than 242,000 South Asian Americans in Illinois,
including people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepali descent, as well as
other smaller populations. Since 2000, South Asians have grown by over 55% in Illinois, a
notably higher growth than of Asian Americans overall or other racial minority groups. In
particular, the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan populations in Illinois grew by 52,
75, 153, and 104 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2010.” It is therefore imperative to
ensure that these changes in the South Asian population are accurately represented in the 2020
Census. But how do the 9 questions on the census directly impact mental health for South
Asians?

Well, the easy answer is money. According to public health leaders speaking at the American
Public Health Association’s annual meeting, the 2020 Census results will help determine how
billions of dollars in federal funding will be allocated to more than 100 programs including
Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and community health centers
funded through the Health Resources and Services Administration Health Center Program. An
undercount in the 2020 Census can result in misallocated and misinformed public health funding
which can contribute to the already existing gaps in fair, equitable, linguistically and culturally competent mental health services for immigrant communities especially the South Asian
community for the next decade. While the COVID-19 lockdown has added to the fear, stress,
psychological and social anxiety of many, it has also highlighted a huge gap in fair, equitable,
linguistically and culturally competent mental health services for immigrant communities
especially South Asian community members with limited language and internet access. Federal
funding not only determines the availability of mental health services in your community, but
also your ability to access them.

Source: SAAPRI

But access is also restricted by stigma. And this stigma is particularly powerful and pervasive in the South Asian community and manifests in various forms such as social, individual, and religious. The stigma associated with mental health issues prevents many South Asians from seeking care in a timely manner. Tackling this stigma requires psychoeducation through advocacy, workshops, and outreach that is catered to the specific community being addressed and therein lies another significant challenge: South Asian identity is not monolithic.

According to contemporary definitions, South Asia comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan,
Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These 8 countries constitute about one-fourth of
the world’s population (or 1.89 billion people). This is excluding members of the South Asian
diaspora, whose members “originally settled in many areas around the world, including the
Caribbean (Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago), Africa (Nigeria, South Africa,
Uganda), Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands (Fiji,
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore),” according to demographic information compiled by South
Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er. Unsurprisingly, South Asian identity is highlyheterogeneous, embracing seven major religions with diverse beliefs and values, languages,
sexual orientations and a diversity of ethnicities.

With South Asians being a “hard-to-count” group due to barriers of language, immigration
status, and general distrust of the government, they are vastly underrepresented in the census.
This means that the limited funding that does get allocated to South Asian mental health
organizations is severely inadequate to address the specific needs of the culturally and
linguistically diverse communities. It is therefore crucial to make each person count so that we
may begin to decrease the disparities in access and quality that exist in mental health care for
South Asians.

Another way the census impacts mental health care for South Asians is a little more gradual:
through public policy. Failing to fill out the census also means that your state may get fewer
representatives in Congress. Fewer representatives mean weaker advocacy for specific
community issues including mental health generally and South Asian community specific public
health resources.

We understand that we are living in unprecedented times that pose a significant risk to both our
physical and mental health, and filling out the census seems like another load to be added to our
lives. However, if you are able to, these 5 minutes of filling out the census would create a
substantial impact on our well-being in this country. And while it will not solve all our
community’s mental health problems, it would be making strides in the right direction.

Co-authored by:
Ashhad Qureshi, President, UChicago MannMukti
Shobhana J Verma, Executive Director, South Asian American Policy & Research Institute
(SAAPRI)
Co-signed by:
Angie Lobo, Executive Director, Indo-American Center
Kiran Siddiqui, Chief Executive Officer, Hamdard Healthcare
Promila Kumar, Executive Director, Sanjeevani 4U
Board, UChicago South Asian Students Association
Iman Akram & Shreya Narla, Co-Presidents, The South Asian Students Alliance (SASA),
Northwestern University
Rohan Chalasani & Archit Baskaran, Co-Executive Directors, WE ARE SAATH, Northwestern University

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