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Mental health, Race, ethnicity and culture

Mental Health in South Asian communities

Zara Kayani writes.

05 July 2018

A culture of shame is all too familiar for many South Asians suffering in silence with mental health problems, and discussing psychological health is seen as taboo within the community. I stem from a South Asian background and am currently studying psychology in university, which brings other controversies. Why go for a non-traditional subject? I’ve been asked this many times. So, what influenced my decision to take up psychology?

I’ve always had an interest in people’s health and overall wellbeing, whether physical or mental. To be of sound body, you also need to be of sound mind – they are equally important, and I believe this needs to be widely recognised. During my sixth-form years, I was aware of messages about mental health all around me, from the news stories on depression, eating disorders and OCD, to soap storylines like, Stacey’s postpartum psychosis in EastEnders and more recently, Aidan’s suicide in Coronation Street. I watched Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, titled The Boy in the Topknot [see], and realised just how big a taboo mental health is in the South Asian community. One of the main storylines consisted of how Sathnam did not know that his father had schizophrenia until he was well into adulthood, and even then it was due to a chance finding of his father’s medication that he found out.

The Time to Change campaign has identified that within the South Asian community, mental ill health is stigmatised, where shame and a fear of others finding out were key reasons why it is such a taboo topic. Unlike Western culture, which focuses on individualism, the South Asian culture takes a collectivist, holistic approach. But ironically, when it comes to mental health, many feel it should be a private matter, kept inside the home. The campaign highlighted the impact of cultural norms that are seen as paramount in the South Asian culture – e.g. value is placed on strong family relations and networks. As I understand, the dichotomy between living in Westernised Britain and such cultural norms may produce mental health issues for British South Asians struggling with their identity.

Recently, I read in an article that some people of South Asian background attribute mental illnesses to supernatural causes; in particular, demonic possession, black magic and the evil eye were mentioned. More needs to be done to change these deep-rooted, somewhat outdated thoughts.

I have spoken to people within the community to hear their thoughts around mental illness and overall psychological wellbeing. Generally speaking, people feel as if a lack of understanding and self-awareness and no knowledge of psychological disorders has led to negative attitudes. It was stated that when someone hear the word ‘mental’ coming into play, it is taken literally. There is an emphasis on mental illness being a ‘hidden illness’, which is not taken seriously or dealt with sensitively. I discovered that everyone I spoke to quoted cultural expectations and reputation to be predominant reasons why there is such a stigma in the community. People feel as if the South Asian community is not open-minded when it comes to mental health, especially the older generation, and traditional values were often cited. From my understanding, the stigma in the South Asian culture is different from other cultures as traditional values have more of an impact, even on the younger generation.

So, how do we break the mental health stigma in our communities through removing misconceptions? How do we educate people on the topic of psychological wellbeing? We need to aim to have more open, honest conversations with our parents, relatives and community leaders. Perhaps, the link between mental health and spirituality should also be explored, as this offers a source of comfort for many, including myself. And one last thing we should all address, no matter what our culture, religion or personal beliefs – if someone had a broken leg, you wouldn’t ask them to walk on it. Why say to someone with a broken mind, ‘Just get over it’?

Zara Kayani

Illustration: Tim Sanders