Mental Health among the South Asian Community
Updated: May 12, 2022
Talking about mental health on an everyday, conversational level is still a difficult topic. It is more openly discussed through high profile projects, such as Prince William and Prince Harry’s ‘Head Together’ campaign, and is a trending social media topic. However, the challenges of addressing mental health are still quite a prevalent issue within the British South Asian community.
Most people will know someone who has experienced a mental health issue at some point in their life. According to official statistics, approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem every year in the UK.
There are many unique factors that can contribute to mental health challenges in the South Asian community - from racism to religion – and these are often the same reasons why mental health is still considered a taboo subject. Factors that contribute to our mental health include a range of environmental factors such as living in a global pandemic, being a caregiver, dealing with major life changes, loneliness and quality of our relationships, facing discrimination, and dealing with health issues. Genetics can also play a role.
Often those who do seek professional mental health services are often let down by a lack of culturally relevant support organisations and therapists in the U.K. This can also discourage British South Asians from accessing the right resources. Where individuals do try to access care, they find it lacking and then tend to lose trust in the entire system. While culturally sensitive organizations and resources exist and are increasing, it can then take a while for individuals to recover from their initial negative experiences.
The consistently high number of zine submissions we receive that explore mental health, tell us that there is a willingness to share our experiences now more than ever.
South Asians and Mental Health
Being part of the South Asian diaspora comes with its own set of obstacles, which can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, when left untreated.
The pressure to assimilate to British society without losing our cultural roots can often lead to identity conflicts, particularly when coupled with experiences of racial discrimination. Many young South Asians find themselves battling with their adopted and adapted British customs, which can clash with their families’ more traditional values. This can lead to feelings of isolation, particularly when they feel ashamed to share these experiences with their family and friends.
Unfortunately, many South Asian women are subject to patriarchal pressure, from abusive husbands and controlling fathers or male figure to sexual abuse in the home. In fact, a 2003 study by Hicks & Bhugra, found 92% South Asian women agreed that violence by their husband was a causal factor of suicide attempts.
Younger female members often have to conform to traditional gender roles and expectations, further alienating themselves from both their culture and British culture, when they don’t see their white counterparts doing the same. These family conflicts can consequently lead to low self-esteem and depression.
Women’s responsibility for maintaining the family honour means they may stay quiet about what they are going through in order to maintain their family’s reputation (and often, marriage prospects) intact. But ironically, it’s these exact situations that can lead to further breakdowns in mental health.
Feelings of isolation are also particularly exacerbated for women who have left their families in other countries to join their husbands in the U.K., as they adapt to unfamiliar surroundings and potential language barriers. Particularly, when the term ‘mental health’ or ‘depression’ doesn’t even exist in many South Asian languages - making it hard to articulate their feelings to English-speaking professionals in the U.K.
Shame and Stigma
The idea that mental illness can damage a family’s reputation is mostly down to the way mental health is perceived within the community.
Many in the South Asian community still don’t see mental health as a medical condition that can be professionally treated. Instead, they blame mental illness on religious beliefs such as karma or ‘God’s will’. Consequently, shame surrounds those who suffer from a mental health condition as community members blame it on the individual’s past wrongdoings.
Mental health problems are also considered a sign of weakness, which makes it difficult for men, who are pressured to perform conventionally masculine behaviour, to speak out. Given our histories, many South Asians have also subconsciously become dutifully bound to their oppression. This means we often silently bear our troubles and ‘get on with it’, considering ourselves grateful for the life we have today.
This taboo and stigma makes it difficult to gauge the true extent of mental health within the South Asian community, when few feel safe enough to come forward.
In fact, many mainstream studies have suggested that mental health issues within the South Asian community aren’t any greater than the White British population. But from speaking to members of our community, the anecdotal evidence and studies specifically targeting the South Asian community suggests otherwise.
Inadequate Support Services
Exploring mental health within the South Asian community is also challenging because many encounter barriers when trying to seek the appropriate support, whether that is due to the stigma within the family/community or being able to access a therapist who is sensitive to their particular needs. Because of this, British Asians are one-third less likely to be in contact with mental health or learning disability services.
Recently, the Prime Minister’s 2017 race disparity audit and Mental Health Foundation 2019 report revealed those from BAME backgrounds experienced more complex pathways into care and are more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals, detained under the Mental Health Act, and experience poor treatment outcomes.
This failure of mainstream mental health services means that people from our communities are discouraged from visiting doctors out of fear of being institutionalised, wrongly diagnosed or just simply being misunderstood.
And these fears aren’t unfounded. BAME patients are more likely to be given medication rather than offered talking therapies such as counselling. This could be due to a lack of understanding of the lived experiences of these patients.
Much of this is because the current system still relies heavily on Eurocentric models, which professional therapists then apply to all patients. While many evidence-based studies use white participants and then apply the findings to BAME patients. But this ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t take into account the cultural nuances of the patient and as a result, is most disadvantageous to those from BAME backgrounds.
Instead of being quick to medicate or detain BAME patients, therapists should be trained on exploring the causes of our pain. There are many reasons, cultural, sociological and environmental, that are specific to our experiences and U.K. services must learn to pay more attention to these. Because this doesn’t exist, some feel the need to perform their pain in order to be taken seriously. Equally, there is still a thin line between showing vulnerability and being sectioned for BAME patients.
The Conversation Continues…
Times are slowly changing as the South Asian diaspora have begun openly discussing mental health in the community. We now have many South Asian professionals, such as Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist, Chaitanya Pankhania and social worker, Megha Agnihotri, who use their platforms to provide useful support, analysis and advice to those suffering from mental illness.
Making these services more accessible through social media goes a long way to normalising the conversation and is seen through other forms of popular culture.
Most recently, actor Sacha Dhawan tackled mental health in a powerful short film, written by writer, Nikesh Shukla. The monologue explored themes of grief and healing – topics that are usually kept quiet amongst South Asians.
Mindy Kaling’s latest Netflix offering, Never Have I Ever, has also sparked many discussions and debates, some on the depiction of mental health. In the comedy, Indian American teen, Devi Vishwakumar, regularly visits a therapist to help deal with the grief of her father’s death. Not only was it refreshing to see a BAME therapist on screen, but the candid, friendly relationship between the two show South Asians the beneficial effects of therapy.
British Asian journalist, Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, The Boy With The Topknot, also explored the secrecy behind mental health in the South Asian community, after he discovered he grew up with a father who suffers from schizophrenia. A TV adaption by the BBC also encouraged many British Asians to share similar experiences on social media after it aired.
While the increase in open mental health discussions with the South Asian community is encouraging, it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done to improve mental wellbeing within our community.
The systemic discrimination against those from BAME backgrounds means the infrastructure is always working against us. But there are some things we can go to help our community.
We can start by creating definitions of wellbeing within our own cultural framework. We must also tap into the healing processes that are most effective for South Asian communities, which focus more on collective, group therapies rather than one-to-one sessions.
Mental health training could also be provided to those embedded in the communities such as faith leaders and hairdressers, to ensure support can reach as many community members as possible.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month was changed to ‘Kindness’ in light of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. And we, as a community, can do more to normalise the conversation by offering our support to those who need it most. We can educate others on the importance of seeking help, share relevant BAME mental health organisations and remember to check in with friends and family where possible. Because we might not know what they’re going through, but just talking can be the most effective first step.
Further Resources and Readings
Mental Health and Smashing the Stigma by Inaya Hussain, TRC Blog
Intergenerational Trauma in the South Asian Diaspora Part1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 by Dr. Rima Lamba, TRC Blog
Time to Change, Report on Stigma in the South Asian Community
Tasha Mathur is a volunteer at The Rights Collective. She is a London based freelance journalist and Picture Editor at Sky. She has written on a multitude of gender-based topics within the South Asian community and spoken on a number of panels about various issues faced by South Asian women today.