Can Cultural Norms Lead to Suicide?

Though this does apply to any race or culture, this topic is close to my South Asian heart. I was blessed to grow up in a household where tradition wasn’t strictly instilled. My grandmother was the one who was very strict in following South Indian culture, but my parents allowed more freedom to follow passions that were more catered to what my brother and I wanted.

I remember going to a house party with my family to another Indian family’s house. As the kids were grouping up to play games and talk, I managed to talk to a few kids my age. I remember how scared they were for the week of school, and that the stress at home was unbearable. One boy said while laughing, “Man I just wanna kill myself. I need a break.” And I was completely taken aback at how abruptly he said it. What shocked me even more was that the two other kids in the group also agreed and nodded along.

South Asian culture is strict, and that is bluntly putting it. Kids are taught from a young age to obey their parents fully, and not question what is being told to them. Kids are taught that the best way to live their life is to be successful and make money, but in a reputable way. An ongoing joke in the South Asian culture is that a kid can choose any job as long as it is a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Those careers are perceived as highly successful and money-making and are instilled at a young age as jobs to pursue.

An elementary student is not thinking about their future career, rather thinking about their dreams, and wanting to be expressive of their dreams. My parents told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. I said, “I want to be an astronaut and go to space.” And without hesitation they said that NASA would love to have someone as bright as me working for them. I remember I changed my mind and said I wanted to become a teacher, and immediately my parents said all the kids would love to learn from me. However, in different households I have heard the kids say the same thing and the parents look in disgust and say, “You wish to be poor? You wish to make us look bad, then go ahead and do that.”

It is detrimental to a child’s growth and the stress is instilled at such a young age. Talking to a child as though their dreams and ambitions are not allowed makes them already believe that they have no control over their decisions and options.

Suicide is when an individual feels they have no control, no choice, and are no longer able to make the right decisions to better their life. But the biggest factor is the number 1 factor: No control. As much as parents want the best for their children, it is important to realize that they cannot control all aspects of the child’s life. The proper way for a child to grow and develop the tools necessary to be a successful adult is to allow them to make decisions for themselves, even if those decisions come with consequences.

Teenagers fall into the same category. South Asian teens are feeling more stress than ever before, because there are more instances of teenagers gaining success through social media that is causing an extra stressor. South Asian teens will want to pursue their passions, but also need to please their parents while also being relevant in the social world. But at such a young age, they don’t truly understand what a work-life-balance dynamic is. A parent being able to give them the creative freedom and allow them to have outlets will give the teens (and kids) a way to still feel they have the control in deciding their future.

Past kids, South Asians also have stressors of fitting into their culture, and this differs from male to female. Male South Asians are told from a young age that they will be the head of the household, so they must have to secure a strong job to be able to marry a good Indian woman. They must be assertive in what they want, whether in the house or in their life. Female South Asians have even stricter “rules”. They are told from a young age to hold their tongue, to obey culture and tradition, find a good Indian man to marry young and to have children young.

Over time, the culture has changed; however, some of the same culture still exists absentmindedly in South Asians. It causes a deep stress, again instilled from a young age, that grows overtime and can become unbearable. Females and males feel trapped in their own roles that they are told to play, and honestly it again makes them feel they have no control over their lives. They revert to smoking, or drinking to remove that stressor, but it never truly goes away since it is so deeply rooted.

I know growing up I was told by my grandmother constantly to not worry about a strong job, or a job that would keep me occupied and away from the house. She told me, as an Indian woman I should learn how to take care of a house, how to take care of children and my husband. I was maybe 7 or 8 when she began those conversations. She would have me in the kitchen learning to make rice, or dal; telling me it is essential I learn the basics from a young age. I was pulled away from studying to learn how to do laundry or sew – so if my husband ever needed any help, I would be the main source of providing that assistance.

I remember feeling trapped. Was that my life then? Grow up to get married, have kids, stay home, and just take care of my family? I couldn’t go to school? I couldn’t have a job, or have my own life outside of my family? It was depressing, and I remember having moments where I felt that life was a waste of time if that’s all it was. It wasn’t until I expressed this to my parents that they told me I was allowed to do whatever it is that I wanted to do. If I didn’t want to get married until I was older that was fine, if I wanted to pursue my career that was fine, if I didn’t want to have many kids that was fine. And they told me something that has stuck to this day, “You are in control of your life.”

South Asian parents are very reserved, and it comes from the culture. Kids are raised very similarly to how the parents are raised. But as times have changed, so should the parenting. Talk to your children and let them know they are in a safe environment to express their passions, needs and wants. Letting them know that they are in control of their life, and that you are there to provide support and advice is all they need to hear. Controlling their life and feeling the need to push your beliefs is a quick way to strip them of their sense of belonging in the world. We as humans want to have a purpose, but that purpose needs to be found by the individual not by anyone else.

Not only is communicating important, but so is listening. Not talking over your child or dismissing what they have to say grows the trust between you two. Listening to what your child wants means you are talking with them, not at them. Communication is a two-way street, and it is the best way to grow with your child rather than be in the shadows.

Suicide is scary, and it can happen to anyone at any time. Having control over your life and having the feeling of constant support at all points of your life gives you the freedom to express yourself, and the freedom to find your purpose. And one statement that I have begun to listen to as of lately, and this has taken me out of even my deepest darkest thoughts, “You are never stuck. Life works for you, not against you.” You are never stuck, so at any time, at any moment, your life can be completely different. You are in control.