Mental Health in South Asian Communities Mental health problems are very common and affect people from all different walks of life and all communities across England including the South Asian community. Some ethnic minority groups including Black and South Asian communities consider mental illness taboo. Something to be ashamed of and hidden from friends, family and communities. Within these communities, adherence to social norms - norms such as doing well academically, being married, having children - is key to achieving and maintaining respect. Mental illness tends to fall outside of these norms. So why is it that these individuals have difficulty in reaching out or even admitting they have these health issues?
‘Keep your family issues within the home’ I’m sure a lot of you have heard this phrase before, right? It’s a common phrase within the community, to maintain the ‘respect’ aspect of their lives. To an extent its true, I mean you wouldn’t really want everyone to know about our private matters however if you’re going to be talking to the right people i.e. individuals who will give you the help you need; then why not? Why is it so wrong to be talking to a councillor or a lifestyle coach? Truth is, none of these things are wrong however from generation to generation, a lot of South Asian families have been passing the knowledge down that mental health issues don’t exist. Well, they do.
Take depression for example. It can vary from extreme to a minor health issue. However, a lot of south Asian individuals don’t even realise they suffer from this. A lot of their issues will come from home, for example, married couple issues or parent child issues. They exist. But if you’re not allowed to talk about them then how will you ever get them off your chest or even get help and guidance from another individual.
The prime example would be a South Asian female who has been raised with all the traditional South Asian values, the most important being ‘Be patient with your husband’. This female will most likely take these values and inherit them into her culture. This will mean putting up with her husband’s demands, his and her own family demands, and maybe even domestic violence; without questioning anything. This would end up being a normal routine for her and because of this the individual could end up become extremely upset and even depressed. They may not even realise they are depressed. This is a recurring pattern and can affect them for their entire lives, it can affect every relationship, friendship and even their children. It has to stop somewhere.
Men also suffer from mental illnesses. Kale Dhindsa, whose father and uncle both killed themselves, wrote a book about the tragedy; My Father & The Lost Legend of Pear Tree. "In our culture, men are seen as the breadwinner, men of the house, top of their game," he said. "So sufferers try to remain strong and we don't talk about it. "Women also find it hard to talk because they fear they'll be labelled as 'possessed’. “Which I will be discussing. "My dad didn't share what was on his mind - and he took his life," he said. "In retrospect the signs were there. We, as a community, need to talk more about these 'difficult' things. Talking is the cure to this illness."
England cricketer Monty Panesar fought a public battle with mental health issues. He believes a culture of shame and labelling among the South Asian community is a barrier to others like him to get help. Panesar, who has suffered from paranoia and anxiety, is one of the few British Asian celebrities to speak openly about mental health problems. He was released by Essex County Cricket Club in 2015 and soon after admitted he was struggling to cope.
He said, "The cricketing world was very supportive and understanding, but in our Asian community there was no understanding of what mental health is. A lot of young Asians came forward [after I went public] and said, 'we're glad you opened up because it's a huge taboo in our community'."
Prof Dinesh Bhugra, an expert in mental health at King's College London, says the South Asian population has "a bigger notion of shame" than others in the UK. Many also fear admitting mental illness will prevent them from getting married - a major concern among a society in which arranged marriages play an important role. He says he has found many in the community do not consider it a medical issue, but instead put mental illness down to other factors "such as a superstitious belief that there is something they did in their previous life and they're being punished". Part of the problem, he believes, is language. "There is no word for depression in South Asian languages," he says. "The identified causes are usually [put down to] 'life's ups and downs'. "So, people say 'what has it got to do with a doctor?'"
Black magic, the will of God or bad parenting were believed to be causes of mental illness. It was also wrongly thought to be passed on through the genes to future generations. There is often a misunderstanding in Black and South Asian communities regarding the cause of mental illnesses with assumptions that illnesses are the 'will of god,' karmic retribution, evil eye or even genetic. ‘This person has a ginn (demon) inside them’ is also a commonly used statement. In reality, they’re probably suffering from a mental illness which needs to be treated, they need to talk to someone.
Research has demonstrated that although some South Asians understand what depression is, they also see it as a result of life's ups and downs. They would rather go to the temple, Gurdwara or Mosque than the doctor for treatment or advice because these are less stigmatising places.
Those in leadership positions in religious establishments and community groups are well respected - seen as figures of help, support and advice. Taking this into account, services must be flexible to educate community leaders. Community and spiritual leaders should engage with service providers to discuss service planning and delivery, they should have the knowledge of mental health problems and tell them where to go if they need the help. Communities can set up helplines, hold forums where issues related to mental health are explored and also perhaps nominate mental health champions. It is small steps such as these, which bring mental health issues into open, reduce stigma and ultimately increase diagnosis and treatment within minority groups.
Research carried out by ‘Rethink Mental Illness into attitudes towards mental illness in the South Asian community’ explores some attitudes specific to the South Asian community. These key issues are:
•Shame, or sharam, fear and secrecy surround mental illness
•The causes of mental health problems are often misunderstood
•The family can be both caring and isolating
•Social pressure to conform
•People with mental health problems are not valued
•Marriage prospects can be damaged
It is great to hear of such research taking place. This shows signs of improvements however the issue still remains. As a university we should try to encourage people of all backgrounds to talk to someone and get the help they need!