Health Equity Challenge finalist Supraja Saravanakumar

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a silent struggle for many new mothers, but for South Asian women, cultural stigmas and generational pressures often exacerbate this already challenging condition. As a woman of color and a first-generation college graduate, I have walked a path shaped by the nuances of both my cultural heritage and my academic pursuits. Through my journey, I have witnessed firsthand the barriers that South Asian women face when it comes to mental health, particularly in the context of motherhood. That’s why I’m driven by a personal mission to introduce innovative solutions to address PPD within our communities.

Growing up, I was unexpectedly thrust into the realm of mental health through my Ammamma (grandmother), who battled schizophrenia and depression. Raised under her care, I experienced the profound stigma surrounding mental health in my community. Conversations about mental health were rare and taboo, and my family attributed my grandmother’s struggles to simple issues like trouble sleeping. It wasn’t until I took my first psychology class in college that I began to unravel the complexities of mental illness and its impact on individuals and families.

Just before I started my MPH program, Ammamma unexpectedly passed away. In the aftermath of her passing, I found myself grappling with a torrent of conflicting feelings — anger, confusion, and overwhelming guilt. The relentless question of “what if?” and “what more could I have done?” echoed in my mind, a haunting refrain that refused to fade. Despite the support of friends and family, I felt isolated in my grief, surrounded by a culture that struggled to confront the reality of mental illness.

Thankfully, access to mental health therapy covered by medical insurance became a lifeline. Weekly sessions with a therapist attuned to the unique struggles faced by women of color provided me with a safe space and guidance through the waves of grief.

My journey with mental health didn’t stop there. As an undergraduate student at UC Davis, I had delved deep into public health, volunteering at the Willow Clinic and working at UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. These experiences were what had ignited my passion for addressing health disparities and led me to pursue my MPH at UCLA.

PPD prevalence has increased by 105% from 2010 to 2021 in Southern California, with Asian American populations (comprising 16% of California’s population) experiencing the largest relative increase of 280% compared to other races. While there has been limited research in PPD prevalence between Asian subgroups, studies have found a twofold increase in risk of PPD among South Asian immigrant women in the U.S., with South Asians being the fastest growing subgroup in California. Despite this alarming trend, access to culturally competent mental health services remains limited, and the stigma surrounding therapy persists.

Spill the Chai Ma is more than just art therapy — it’s about building a community of support where mothers can share their experiences, break down barriers, and destigmatize conversations around postpartum depression.

That’s why I’m excited to introduce “Spill the Chai Ma,” a program, partnering with SAAHAS, designed specifically for pregnant and postpartum South Asian mothers in Los Angeles County. This innovative program combines expressive art therapy with peer support groups, providing a safe space for mothers to gather, create, and connect over a cup of chai.

As someone who understands the unique challenges faced by women of color, I’m passionate about creating interventions that resonate with our communities. Expressive art therapy has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression by allowing individuals to explore and express their emotions through creative mediums. By incorporating culturally relevant activities such as henna, rangoli, and embroidery, I aim to provide a holistic approach to healing that speaks to the heart of South Asian culture.

But Spill the Chai Ma is more than just art therapy — it’s about building a community of support where mothers can share their experiences, break down barriers, and destigmatize conversations around PPD. Through weekly sessions, take-home resources, and a dedicated WhatsApp group, I hope to create a network of support that extends beyond the confines of traditional therapy.

Breaking the silence surrounding PPD starts with open, empathetic conversations. It starts with recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health, and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. With Spill the Chai Ma, we’re paving the way for a future where South Asian mothers feel supported, understood, and empowered on their journey to motherhood.

Together, I hope to break the silence and create a brighter, healthier future for South Asian communities. Let’s spill the chai and start the conversation.

    Supraja Saravanakumar

    By Supraja Saravanakumar

    2024 Health Equity Challenge Finalist
    Supraja Saravanakumar iis a second-year Master of Public Health student in the department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She is currently a Maternal and Child Health fellow at the MCH Center of Excellence and a Public Health Coordinator with the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project.

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