Meet Two Bangladeshi Women Creating Mental Health Awareness in the Bengali Community

by Sanjeda Nayeem

Recently, the advocation of addressing the needs pertaining to mental health has recently been a topic of a larger discussion globally. However, people of color have been expressing the importance of having spaces catered to the experiences that they have as trauma can be very specific to one’s ethnicity, culture, and ancestral history. 

When realizing this, two Bangladeshi women took a good look at their upbringing and realized the lack of mental health awareness, resources, and tools in the Bengali community. Tazin, and Riya then created and co-founded the Bengali Mental Health Movement, an organization for the Bangladeshi community! Sanjeda Nayeem sat down and chatted with Tazin and Riya to learn more about the new and thriving organization. 

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1. Can you tell us a little bit about Bengali Mental Health Movement? What is it exactly? 

Tazin/ Riya: Bengali Mental Health Movement (BMHM) is an initiative that was born out of a desire to unite our unique community in an effort to make mental health resources more accessible and to break the stigma of speaking about our mental health experiences. 

BMHM seeks to provide culturally-specific & linguistically-accessible resources for the community in order to bridge the gap between the Bengali community and mental health services. We are dedicated to cultivating a network of mental health professionals who can better meet the needs of the Bengali community. 

The hope is that by sharing our narratives, we will build solidarity and support one another in our trials, triumphs, struggles, and success. BMHM aspires to create a more honest, open, and safe environment for Bengali individuals to express their relationships with mental health. 

 

2. How did you both come up with the idea of Bengali Mental Health Movement? 

Riya: I have witnessed the lack of support, knowledge, and resources, surrounding mental health in the Bengali community. Due to which, I had a vision of creating a platform that caters to every single Bengali dealing with mental health issues and help remove the stigma in our community. The idea was to provide, resources, education, and a safe space. I shared my thoughts with Tazin and that’s when the idea of the website relaunch and expansion of Bengali Mental Health Movement manifested. 

Tazin: Riya and I met earlier this past Spring and she shared her vision of expanding the platform to create a more meaningful impact. That was an integral moment in the decision to relaunch the platform with a renewed purpose because we realized that a more intentional effort towards community healing is needed. We both agreed that a cultural shift on the perception towards mental health would help people across all generations and that centralizing resources would empower the Bengali community. 

 

3. What made you start this organization? How did it start?

Tazin: Bengali Mental Health Movement started for a number of reasons, but it ultimately began as a way to destigmatize conversations about mental health and to centralize culture-specific resources for the Bengali community. I like to think that various life forces culminated to the moment that I was awake one night, contemplating the realities of mental health service accessibility for Bengali people in New York City, and then created the platform online at 3am. 

When I started my Social Work Masters program earlier last summer at Smith College, I was one of two Bengali students in my year, and then the only Bengali intern at a mental health clinic later that Fall. I realized that even outside the cultural stigma, that systemically it may be difficult for people to find a therapist who shares their cultural background. On a personal level, I knew that there was room for growth for me in how to show up for other people, how to listen with empathy and non-judgment, how to create safety in relationships. I was – and continue to be – on my own journey of accountability and learning. Therefore, knowing the significance of having a space to explore one’s own thoughts and feelings, I wanted to create a similar experience with the platform where people can feel seen and understood for their experiences. Part of the reason why the platform was being facilitated anonymously was because I felt that it might be easier for people to share their vulnerable stories without having to worry about the agenda of the person behind the platform, and that people’s voices should take priority. I am now beginning to understand that building community and relationships involves trust and being open to perspectives outside your own, which has informed the decision to proceed with the relaunch without anonymity.    

 

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Tazin, Founder of Bengali Mental Health Movement

 

Riya: As Tazin mentioned, there is a lack of representation from our community for our community in the field of mental health. That’s why I decided to obtain an education in clinical Social Work from Columbia University. Even after finishing my education and obtaining my clinical license, I was told by family members, “do something else, why work with people that are pagol.*” The lack of education surrounding mental health is embedded so deep in our community that I felt it’s now or never to start to educate/ destigmatize mental health.  

 

4. Being Bangladeshi women, how does the fact that mental health is often disregarded and seen as a taboo topic in Bangladeshi culture affect the work that you both are doing? 

Riya: That taboo factor is what makes me even more passionate about the work we are doing. It is this taboo factor that caused the creation of BMHM and it will always be the reason for all the work we do because we hope to normalize mental health conversation in the Bengali community. 

Tazin: I think that’s an important question, especially because the stigma towards mental health not only affects people experiencing mental health conditions but also people who would like to pursue it as a profession. Then when you add social discrimination into the conversation – classism, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism – the stigma becomes even more isolating. The insight of trained providers is questioned at times because mental health is not seen as valid, or significant enough to receive professional services for. It’s understandable that people would be skeptical because opening up about stress or pain or hardship goes against our instincts to protect ourselves from judgment and isolation. Something that I hope to underscore through this work is that there is a distinction between speaking to friends or family about your personal experiences and consulting with a professional about your personal experiences. Yes, the people in your life know you and love you and support you, but speaking to a culturally-competent mental health professional gives you a non-judgmental space where you can gain tools to cope with life stressors and sustain a healthy relationship with yourself and others. 

 

5. How did the two of you meet?

Riya: The first time we met was at an event at NYU, in 2014. During this meeting, she put henna on my hand. The next time we met was during a DoSAA (Division of South Asian Association- Part of AAPA) Conference in 2018. The third time we met was on the phone, when I reached out to speak about Bengali Mental Health Movement, when I discovered the page on Instagram. I guess that’s a short explanation of how we met.  

Tazin: I remember meeting Riya a few years back for a Mehndi Night Event I was hosting for NYU’s Bengali Students Association. Then last September, I attended a DoSAA Conference and ran into Riya. Looking back, I remember feeling really motivated during the conference because it was a space where South Asian professionals and students had gathered to discuss a myriad of factors that impact mental health in our communities. Seeing Riya providing representation for Bengali people as an organizer of this conference was definitely an affirming experience, and is one of the many contributors to how BMHM was born.  

 

6. What made you both decided to go into the field of social work? 

Riya: The desire to pursue clinical social work stemmed from personal experience. Growing up, I had witnessed many forms of mental health related issues in my environment but it was never addressed. The behavior of those dealing with mental health was phrased as, misbehaving, possessed, or “it’s an age thing.”  I also witnessed the lack of mental health conversations/ understanding in the community, which created a sense of shame for those that were either battling personal mental health problems or had a loved one dealing with it. It’s those experiences that ignited the desire to extract the stigma surrounding mental health from the roots of our community, and the field of social work provided the knowledge that is needed to attain that. 

 

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Riya, Co-Founder of Bengali Mental Health Movement

Tazin: Psychology and mental health advocacy were interests both at the educational and personal level for me. I think navigating life in the United States as someone of Bangladeshi descent shaped a lot of our experiences in terms of understanding our identities and trying to find community. Of course, everyone’s experience varies as we may never fully relate to another person’s experience of living in America straddling multicultural influences. But I think if those experiences were met with more understanding and that conflicts that stemmed in the community were able to be conceptualized through a mental health framework, then working towards healing and resolution would be more normalized. As I was educated about psychology research and child development, I noticed that South Asian people were rarely referenced, let alone Bangladeshi people. It was strange because I knew how large the Bangladeshi population is in New York City and yet there we were not included in conversations about health care. I knew I wanted to address the mental health needs of our community somehow. Pursuing clinical social work felt like the appropriate path because I would have an understanding of systematic barriers to receiving mental health services and contribute to the representation of the Bengali community, a representation that we need more of. 

 

7. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a similar organization for their own community? 

Riya: If the individual feels, this will help themselves or someone else, they should go for it. We need more organizations committed to improving any/all community. It might be hard at first because anything new can be difficult but always look at the bigger picture of what you set out to do, which always helps stay grounded and focused. And if they need anything from us, we would be happy to help. 

Tazin: It’s great when people want to get engaged and create meaningful change in their communities! We definitely need not only more people having critical conversations, but we need action as well. My advice would be to first explore your own positionality when you embark on an endeavor that impacts a community. Ask yourself about who you want to serve and why? Exploring those power dynamics is important because we should strive to not harm the very people we would like to help. The second piece of advice is to surround yourself with supportive, compassionate people because as Riya mentioned, starting something new can be challenging and it might require taking leaps of faith or going out of your comfort zone. By having a reliable support system that keeps you accountable, collaborating and communicating with others to build your organization will make the process easier. We would be glad to offer support as well and wish the best to anyone who is working towards building community!

 

8. Are there any upcoming events or anything of that nature for people who would like to learn more about Bengali Mental Health Movement and the work you both do? 

Riya: We will be hosting a launch event, very soon. At the launch event, we will be relaunching our website with a more user-friendly directory of South Asian mental health professionals. We will also be introducing a new initiative called, ALAAP, which is a mental health support group for the Bengali community. Through ALAAP, we hope to give individuals a space to speak and learn about mental health topics with others. 

Tazin: We are excited about our relaunch and about our new website! Since the website is under construction, the best way to learn more about us is by contacting us by email or following our work on social media. We will be sharing news about upcoming events and workshops online so if you want to be added to our mailing list, shoot an email to: bengalimhmovement@gmail.com

 

9. Do you both have any advice to give to people who are going through mental health issues?

Riya: Therapy! So my advice is not just for those battling mental health issues. Any individual can benefit from therapy. Therapy helps process personal thoughts and emotions which can benefit anyone. We have best friends, parents, siblings, and others to vent to but they can all be biased or judgmental or not understand, due to the nature of the relationship. A therapist is someone that will not judge or be biased. A therapist’s sole purpose is to help you and only you. 

Tazin: Find a connection and know that you are not alone. Coping with a mental health condition can be isolating because it can feel like no one understands the extent of your struggles. Reaching out for help is the first step, so if it’s a relative or friend or classmate, try to let someone know that you are dealing with something difficult. That way, there are people who can check on you and lend support when you need it. That being said, having supportive people in your life is great, but they are not a replacement for professional assistance. You deserve a space that is only yours to unpack your emotional baggage and speak about painful experiences. Therefore, if you have the ability to access mental health services, please consider seeking treatment. You can either speak to your primary care doctor or try a counseling center if your school has one. Your treatment should be custom tailored for your specific experience, so speaking about your condition will help a provider determine how you should proceed with counseling and/or medication.  

 

10. The work that you both are doing is so impactful but it’s often looked down on because of the fact that mental health is often disregarded and seen as “not real” in the Bangladeshi community, what motivates you to continue doing the work?

Tazin: Everyone has mental health. The ability to engage in self-exploration and embark on a journey of healing is unfortunately not afforded to everyone. When we talk about barriers to accessing mental health services, there are systemic obstacles that would deter people from seeking help. There are so many things to consider: the lack of culturally-competent providers, language access, affordability, accessibility… the list goes on. But even before coming to a decision about seeking services, there is a stigma that tells us we shouldn’t even consider it as an option or lack of awareness that doesn’t even put mental health on our radar. 

When it comes to many Bangladeshi families, building community with other Bangladeshis is how we stay close to cultural values and derive support through the pressures of American life. The Bengali community is a resilient one; but there is still pain and trauma that we need to address for the sake of our wellbeing. Therefore, whenever I encounter a lack of understanding or acceptance towards mental health, it actually reaffirms my commitment to its necessity for our community because there is more work to be done so we can take steps towards collective healing.

Riya: Due to personal experience with mental health, I know it’s real, which is the motivating factor. Just knowing that there are individuals that have mental health issues and are not able to express themselves due to cultural barriers is motivation enough to do the work we are doing. 

 

11. What are some challenges you face running this organization? 

Riya: Fundraising, has been a challenge. It’s understandable why individuals would feel skeptical about donating to a new organization. We are hoping, once everyone is able to see and experience what we are bringing to the table, the GoFundMe will pick up the pace. 
Tazin: Bengali Mental Health Movement is a new experience for not only the organizers, but perhaps the community as well. As Riya mentioned, it makes sense why people would be hesitant to trust a new organization. We created this initiative because we got so much feedback from people asking for a space where we can grapple with difficult topics and join with others for a sense of solidarity. In order to make this space sustainable and available long-term, we need investment from the broader community. We need professionals to realize that culturally-competent services need to be more widely available for minority ethnic communities. We need institutions and healthcare systems to work towards integrating mental health into an individual’s care, and provide resources that are linguistically accessible. Of course, we also hope that the community will see potential in our organization and support the efforts of Bengali Mental Health Movement because we are here to serve and uplift the voices of Bengali people.

 

Want to know more about their movement and how you can help? Check out their Instagram page and donate to their GoFundMe page!

Sanjeda Nayeem

Sanjeda Nayeem (she/her) is a 21-year-old Bangladeshi American community organizer from NYC. Her dream is to save the world in any capacity, so she makes sure to dedicate her time to helping her community grow. You can find her at NY Presbyterian Hospital where she works alongside orthopedic surgeons as a medical assistant. Besides medicine, her other passion is to ensure gender equality and women empowerment. She’s a self-defense instructor and community organizer at Malikah, a non profit organization that teaches women self-defense, healing justice, financial literacy, and an event coordinator for Bangladeshi Mental Health, an organization dedicated to uplifting Bengali voices, and reshaping the way mental health is discussed in the community, and MSA Showdown, a non profit talent tournament for Muslim college students. Sanjeda is also conducting research on Kurdish Muslim refugees across America as a research assistant. In her spare time, you can find Sanjeda eating Ketchup chips and binge-watching almost every show on Netflix.

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