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Mental Health Stigma in the South Asian Community

As a South Asian girl studying Psychology, when asked what I study by extended family and other people in my community, I’m met with a lot of judgement. This ranges from the people that think they’re hilarious by asking, “Can you read my mind?”, to people who make no effort to hide their disapproval, “Why would you want to work with ‘crazy people’?” I’ve since given up trying to argue with every single misinformed person I talk to, but these interactions have really opened my eyes to how much stigma there is around mental health in the South Asian community specifically.


Stigma is when a lot of people express disapproval around a specific topic. In society, there is a lot of stigma around mental health, which makes it difficult for people to open up when they experience mental health problems because they’re afraid of being judged. As this article is based off my own personal experience as a South Asian person, I’d like to explore some factors that I’ve seen contribute to stigma in the South Asian community (and also society more generally), and some ways we can do our part in breaking down mental health stigma. It’s important to remember that what I write about isn’t reflective of the South Asian community as a whole!


Research shows that, in a UK study, South Asians, including Indians and Pakistanis, were more vulnerable to mental health issues and even experience more symptoms of mental health disorders than their White counterparts. This makes the stigma an even bigger problem because it means so many people are suffering in silence. But why are so many South Asians struggling to speak up about their mental health?


Generation gaps

As a young person myself, I’ve often heard older people in my community dismiss mental health struggles. Research even shows that mental health is a taboo topic within older generations and so, they may feel less comfortable talking about mental health issues. Within my community, their favourite phrases to use are, “but so-and-so have it a lot worse, so why are you depressed?”, “there’s nothing to be anxious about, it’s all in your head” and “we had it a lot harder and we’re fine, you’re being sensitive”. Hearing these things every time you try to open up about your mental health can be very discouraging, so with time, you learn not to talk about it. It’s important to know that you shouldn’t be scared of speaking out and seeking the help that you need, no matter what older generations say. Sometimes older doesn’t mean wiser!


One way we can address this is to have conversations. Openly talking about mental health means people feel more comfortable about the topic. This can help more people talk about it without feeling afraid of being judged, embarrassed or ashamed. Therefore, having open discussions about mental health can help to reduce stigma.


Lack of education

Sometimes stigma occurs because people aren’t taught how to talk about their mental health. People just may not know how to communicate, or the kind of language to use when talking about their struggles. Maybe they don’t know enough about mental health disorders in general.


This shows how harmful stigmas can be. Not talking about it, means that people can’t learn about it, which in turn, makes it even harder to talk about. However, this is something that a lot of younger people are getting better at as schools have started to teach students about mental health, and today, social media can be used to facilitate conversations and raise awareness. This means we have other places to gain information from, rather than having to only rely on the elders in our community.


Learning more about mental health, including good mental health and mental health issues, means that we have the language to talk about it and can also help others understand. There are many useful websites available such as: Mind, Kooth, Mental Health Foundation and the NHS websites, to name a few.


Inappropriate treatments

Because of the stigma, a lot of South Asians struggle to get help and if they do get help, it isn’t always right for that person.


Research shows that South Asians can find it hard to get mental health help because they often don’t trust a non-South Asian professional to understand their specific struggles and they feel scared of being judged by others. This shows that stigma is so harmful that it can stop people from getting the help they need. It also shows how important it is for people-of-colour (POC) to get jobs in the mental health sector so they can represent their community and make other POC feel comfortable enough to access help.


Ignoring mental health issues increases stigma. If you feel like you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s best to get help. Some options include contacting your GP or a mental health professional, talking to someone you feel comfortable with and getting information from mental health websites, charities, and organisations.


Despite the stigma, a lot of South Asians are beginning to break down the cultural barrier. Great British Bake-Off winner, Nadiya Hussain, has openly talked about suffering with anxiety and panic disorder. She describes her struggles with being honest about her mental health due to stigma and her experiences with getting help in her BBC documentary. Journalist and author, Sathnam Sanghera, has also talked about his dad and sister living with schizophrenia. He describes how mental health is taboo in his culture and how he received backlash from the community after talking about mental health in his book. Well-known people, like Nadiya and Sathnam, speaking publicly about mental health and stigma can spread awareness and reduce shame, helping more South Asians to open up about their own experiences.


In the South Asian community (and as a society in general!), we should carry on having conversations about our mental wellbeing and trying to be non-judgmental when others speak about their mental health. It’s important to remember that everyone has mental health, and we all experience ups and downs in our lives- being open about this is the first step in normalising mental health and eventually breaking down stigma.

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