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Substance Use Disorders in the South Asian Community

An interview with Vasavi Kumar and Jyoti Chand.

Key points

  • There is an unspoken belief in South Asian communities that substance use disorders are a Western construct.
  • Little research has been done in U.S. South Asian communities regarding substance use disorders (SUDs).
  • Lack of education around SUDs can be a barrier to receiving support from family and community.

“Outside of my immediate family, there was a general thought that maybe I wasn’t an alcoholic enough to quit drinking. I didn’t fit the mold. I drank like everyone else and if I was calling myself an alcoholic, then what does that make everyone else? My sobriety was negatively internalized by many early on.”
—Jyoti Chand, author (Fitting Indian, 2025) and sobriety advocate.

There is an unspoken belief among many in the South Asian (SA) diaspora that mental health issues and substance use disorders (SUDs) or alcohol use disorders (AUD) are primarily a Western construct, not something “our people” deal with. However, given the harmful notion in many Asian communities that negative emotions are a sign of weakness, it is not too surprising that many SAs turn to substances to cope. This belief manifests in these issues being ignored or excused by others, especially female partners, who may fear backlash or shame.

According to addiction expert and media personality and host of Health, Humor & Harmony Dr. Lipi Roy, “stigma is profound in most ethnic communities and acts as a major barrier to treatment and care. In SA communities, women specifically face unique challenges that prevent access to treatment. These barriers include deep cultural stigma, shame, and judgement, as well as long-standing patriarchal traditions where women experience a strong sense of powerlessness.”

Source: Vasavi Kumar/ Used with permission
Vasavi Kumar is an author and therapist. Through her Say It Out Loud podcast, keynote talks, and group programs, Vasavi has taught thousands of entrepreneurs, creatives, and artists from all walks of life how to work through any situation —by saying it out loud. Her book, Say It Out Loud is published by New World Library.
Source: Vasavi Kumar/ Used with permission

Coping in a Bicultural World

For Vasavi Kumar (author of Say it Out Loud), alcohol entered her life at the age of 14 when she used it to cope with anxiety. “We went to a typical Indian party, and I was served a drink, and I loved the way it made me feel.” She adds, “I was a pretty anxious kid growing up in my household, which was pretty chaotic. There was a lot of fighting and instability with my mother, who was a very inconsistent person emotionally.”

Unfortunately, mental health issues in immigrant parents are often inconsistently monitored, and help is often deferred until circumstances are dire. They may seek treatment solely to appease partners, take medications irregularly, and drop therapy after a session or two. This is often to the detriment of their children. While Vasavi doesn’t blame her mother, a cardiologist, who she recognized had her own mental health challenges, she admits that her mother’s issues impacted her mental health.

Jyoti Chand, author of Fitting Indian, was also 14 when she tried her first drink. “Alcohol was the main character in my life for a very long time. He was invited to everything I did and without him, it just wasn’t fun. It allowed me to feel included and a ‘part of the crowd.’ High school is awkward and difficult as it is and all I wanted was to fit in.” SA teens are often expected to toe the line at home concerning schoolwork and strict curfews, so daily life in high school can be a challenging contrast.

Source: Jyoti Chand / Used with permission
Jyoti Chand, known as “Mamajotes” on social media, is an author, comedian, and advocate for self-care, self-love, and maternal mental health. She has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University with her first book, Fitting Indian, releasing Spring 2025. In addition, she uses the platform @thesoberDesi to create a safe space for the South Asian Sober diaspora.
Source: Jyoti Chand / Used with permission

Academic performance is a tangible barometer for SA immigrant parents seeking to ensure their children are on the right path. For “model minority” youth, slacking off in school is rarely an option. If grades slip, the first culprit in parents’ eyes is excessive socialization, which in some cases causes SA teens to lose the benefits of a supportive group of friends.

Vasavi, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 19, experienced manic episodes in high school, “I would seek out situations where I could get f***ed up… all my friends drank and used and so I would just be hanging out with them. My parents were very strict; they did not like me leaving the house because they knew something was up.” Vasavi admits that she didn’t tell her parents anything and became good at lying to cover her tracks.

SA parents may also blame the school system. Many immigrant parents fear their children are susceptible to negative influences and may send children back to their homeland for schooling, or to local private or boarding schools. Vasavi's grades suffered, she recalls. “My dad thought the solution was to take me out of my school and put me in a private school, and the change was so hard… my anxiety was so high that I didn't stop using substances.”

For SA bicultural youth, college can be a time of deliverance. Young adults find themselves suddenly free to party openly or finally partake in taboos such as dating, alcohol, and drugs.

In college, Jyoti was drinking almost daily. ‘We partied and drank when we were happy or sad or, honestly, always. It was part of the lifestyle. To me, blacking out and being carried out of the club was a rite of passage I would chuckle about later in life. But when college was over, I was continuing to drink like I was in college.”

Vasavi started using cocaine her sophomore year; her senior year brought harder drugs such as ecstasy. She was a heavy substance user by the time she was 28 years old.


“Many South Asian individuals—like the general public—are unaware that SUD is a chronic illness affecting the brain, as opposed to a moral weakness or failing” Dr. Lipi Roy explains.

While Jyoti’s parents didn’t understand her addiction, they remained supportive and over time came to understand her story. Yet a lack of knowledge can stand in the way of support. Vasavi, whose mother was physically abusive towards her, spoke of living with shame. “I was berated by her and made to feel like everything was a moral issue.” Her parents didn’t understand how mental health and SUDs go hand-in-hand.


“For the longest time, I felt like I was the only Indian girl with anxiety and depression," Jyoti says. "I felt like if I talked about it openly, I would be judged harshly. It was as if everyone was OK, and I wasn’t, and it was scary to face it all alone."

Disclosing issues even to close friends can be daunting, due to an underlying and often valid concern of how one will be viewed. Religious and cultural systems play a huge supporting role in collectivist cultures. However, they are not always well-equipped to handle mental health issues, let alone substance use challenges.

“My mom would bring me to temple or concerts," Vasavi recalls. "She thought if she could just immerse me in the Indian community and if I just had more Indian friends, that I would be better.” However, Vasavi was turned off by how judgmental she found the community to be—an unfortunate drawback of diasporic culture that can make leaning on the larger community more disheartening than helpful.

Getting Help

“When I became a mom, I started to use alcohol to cope with motherhood," Jyoti says. "Only then did it start to look like a problem to me. After several attempts at quitting and then gaslighting myself into believing I didn’t have a problem, I finally became sober on January 3, 2021, and never looked back.”

Dr. Roy shares how her own family members dealing with alcohol use disorders “not only did not reach out for help, they also never acknowledged having a problem.” Many of her SA patients wait far too long to seek help. “They feel too ashamed to speak up.” She argues that mental health professionals need to do more educational outreach and hire more SA staff. “People who feel stigmatized are more likely to open up to professionals who look like them.”

Jyoti shares that while working on her sobriety, she read a lot of literature, but noted that “it didn’t represent me, my upbringing, my community, or my story. 'Sober lit' is primarily written by white women who cannot touch upon the guilt and shame that we feel culturally.” What helped her was a combination of reading, using a sobriety app, and connecting with her sober community.


Given their challenges, both Vasavi and Jyoti have become leading advocates for sobriety support in the SA community. As a mom of three, Jyoti feels there is still much to do. She believes that it is by having open conversations, especially with her own children when they are ready, that there can be awareness and then change.

Vasavi started therapy at age 12 after telling her parents that she needed to speak to someone. In her late 20s, after using cocaine for several years and on the heels of an unhealthy relationship and a recent miscarriage, she entered rehab. Her parents finally realized that she had a problem. However, they never attended the groups and gained the support they needed, which she feels could have made a difference. Thankfully, rehab helped Vasavi tremendously. Now a licensed therapist and five years sober, Vasavi openly shares her story in the hopes of helping others.

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