Meet Anjali Balakrishna: Disability & Philanthropy Forum Program and Communications Associate

by Anjali Balakrishna
June 21, 2022

As a recent addition to the Disability & Philanthropy Forum team, I’m very excited to formally introduce myself. This is my first job in the “real world” after graduating from Boston University, and I’m proud to be a part of it. We discuss intersectionality a lot within our work to create a more disability-inclusive philanthropic sector, and it is a concept that is key to my story.

May marked Mental Health Awareness Month, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – both of which are significant to who I am. I am a biracial white/Indian female. I heavily lean into my Indian heritage; it’s what I feel most connected to. But I often struggle with that aspect of my identity. My mental health became a focal point of my life as I got older, although in retrospect it was always there. I live with mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder. My own experiences and interest in psychology led me down the path of education and advocacy. College proved to be pivotal for this, as I had the pleasure of leading Boston University’s (BU’s) chapter of Active Minds – a national organization dedicated to eliminating the stigma around mental illness. This also greatly influenced my writing. I graduated with a degree in journalism, and I had the pleasure of interning for The Mighty to develop content on disability and health.

I am proud of my Indian heritage and the rich culture I get to be a part of. However, in more recent years I realized I’ve internalized a lot of what people have said regarding both sides of my ethnicity. In Texas, I was seen as very Indian. It felt nice to be able to represent our culture in a town that doesn’t have a big South Asian community. At the time, I didn’t mind feeling like the “token” Indian girl. But I did hear a lot of things while growing up that are etched into my memory:

“You smell like curry.”

“There must be a Hindu god for granite countertops and calculators.”

“Feather or dot?”

“Terrorist.”

When I moved to Boston for college, I began to encounter new versions of the same challenges. The Indian student body at BU was fairly large, and I did make friends; I didn’t have many South Asian friends at home. However, I began to feel like I wasn’t Indian enough. Because I’m half, I’m not truly Indian around these people. I don’t speak my family’s language. I don’t look Indian. I’m simply white.

When Kamala Harris was elected Senator of California, my uncle said, “She isn’t actually Indian.” She’s like me – biracial. My cousin gestured to me, and my uncle said, “Oh no, not you. You’re Indian.” But if Harris isn’t Indian, how could I be? This double standard and rhetoric still makes my head swim. If I think about who I am, who I am not, who I could be, I begin to get sucked into a cycle of depression and anxiety. This back and forth continues to take a toll on my mental health.

But within the South Asian community, mental health is not really there. It’s taboo. It’s a source of shame. This line of thinking is ostracizing, dismissive, and invalidating, and has led to a disconnect in understanding within my own family. My emotions have always been extreme and all over the map. It doesn’t take much to flip the switch in my head, as I like to say. I can go from composed to angry or sobbing in an instant. I would openly express these emotions when we’d visit India. I couldn’t help or control it.

“Why are you so moody?”

“It’s all just stress.”

“Psychology isn’t real.”

When I raised the topic of depression to some family shortly after my grandfather passed, I was met with laughter and told it was “all in [my] head.” I mean, technically that was correct. But to receive that response from people I’m closest to stung. I adore my family, and their responses to my experiences are improving. Yet, those comments are ingrained in my mind.

I’m still a work in progress. I’m still trying to get a better grasp on how to cope with my emotions, but dealing with this identity crisis? Sometimes I don’t know where to begin or how to accept the parts of me that have become worn down. But I am passionate about applying my experiences to raise awareness and offer support for others like me, and I feel more at peace knowing that I can use my life for good.

For more of my work and perspectives on the stigma of mental illness in the South Asian community, please check out my three-part series on The Mighty: Stories, Origins, and Resources.