Shame and Sharam: The mental health crisis facing young British South Asians5 min read

Pagal, Fagol, bhudu – these are the terms that often come to mind when most first-generation South Asian parents are asked to contend with the term mental health. In fact, the word mental by its very nature is synonymous with psychopath in Hindi and Urdu. Therefore, it is no surprise that most of us second generation South Asian British (young people or Muslims?) struggle to even start a conversation about mental health with our parents, and grandparents.

Mental illness and cultural stigma

So, what about those who are living with mental health conditions within the South Asian community? The immediate barrier to awareness and engagement is social: many in South Asian communities are conditioned to  experience Sharam (shame) and fear in relation to mental illness.

The idea of belonging to a “good, and well respected” family within the South Asian community is, plainly put, about being wealthy, educated and  having a long and successful marriage. There’s a value system at play here. Generally, attitudes towards those who have disabled children is that they are at the bottom of the pile. 

Thus, parents and families can be led to see this as a form of punishment. You must bear the consequences of raising a disabled child knowing that if your child has a learning disability, mental health condition or behavioural condition, that they will grow up being surrounded by family and community members who pity their plight.

They will be denied basic human privileges, such as the right to be in a relationship  and to fulfil their ambitions. It is this very idea of denial that has meant that statistics around mental health amongst Asians  are inconsistent. The statistics speak for themselves. The broader picture reveals that ‘72% of people who died by suicide between 2002-2012 had not been in contact with their GP or health professional about these feelings in the year before their suicide.’ Yet, limited research conducted amongst BAME communities has meant that there is a ‘lack of adequate and sufficient data on BAME groups which contributes to the problems of misdiagnoses, underdiagnoses, and fewer treatments accessed.’

How can we treat the issue, if we do not allow ourselves to first accept that mental health, disabilities and learning difficulties are health issues not to be ashamed of – and demand our communities, and those in power – to support us?

As South Asians, we are obscuring the true extent of the issue at hand here. This ambiguity lends itself to the idea that in order to survive in this community, you must hide your vulnerabilities, be they your ill- health   material worth or lack of achievements, to succeed. This culture of shame, and stigmatisation has led to those with a diagnosed mental health condition to be at a higher risk of attempting and commiting suicide.

How long are we going to continue to allow our parents and loved ones to have a warped understanding of mental health, relationships and success before we lose ourselves in this downward spiral?

The abject hostility that the word ‘mental’ presents to our loved ones, isolates us and serves as a barrier to opening up with those who we’re taught are there to protect, love and care for us. There’s an dim irony to this, that us South Asians, out of the BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic groups) have been silently suffering the most from mental health related illnesses.

The hierarchy system

Alas, the hierarchy system. We’re all too familiar with the constant compare and contrast regime that parents insist on subjecting us to. While most of us may laugh off these comparisons through the creation of much needed memes on the matter for many young South Asian teenagers, the reality is much more profound.

The Guardian recently featured a report on how teenagers undertaking the newly revised GCSE qualifications are overwhelmed emotionally due to the rigid method of examination which this new system lends itself to.

The lack of mental health and pastoral support available at schools across the country, due to austerity, along with the closure of hundreds of youth centres across the country, means there is little to no room for young South Asians to openly be vulnerable.

The context in which second generation British Asians are growing up in is too often ignored. Living through austerity, in an age of shamelessly vicious media misrepresentation of Muslims has led to an unheard crisis in mental health amongst young South Asians today – regardless of their faith.

Online predators and extremists see us as easy targets. There’s a silent mental health crisis going on and they recognise it; but our government doesn’t (or won’t). This is why it’s our obligation as young South Asians to end the culture of shame, so-called “hierarchy” and as a community talk openly about mental health.

How can we encourage change?

We first and foremost need to accept certain structures within our culture, in order to change attitudes from within our communities as opposed to relying on culturally insensitive radical methods.

Generally, most South Asian communities’ central figureheads are faith leaders. Faith leaders tend to be first generation South Asians, who have had varied life experiences,  often with little in common with second or third generation British Asians. This fundamental disconnect has often meant that conversations around mental health have either not happened or have been dismissed. The lack of education around mental health, accusations of spiritual deficiency, shame, language barriers, and a hierarchy system which has cemented the idea: mental health is a taboo topic.

Surely the time has come to undo this culture of shame, which is perpetuated on a debilitating, flawed logic. Notions such as evil eye, black magic and jinn further intensify the shame that individuals and families already feel.

Faith leaders are instrumental in shaping ideas within South Asian communities; now more than ever they are needed to re-define our collective approach to mental health. At a time when religious and non-religious radical hate preachers seek to divide and isolate those choosing to openly embrace their faith; we must open up a channel of conversation to protect those who are most vulnerable to being radicalised.

In 2016 a police study found that 44% of individuals involved in radicalization have mental health or psychological difficulties. And those are the conditions we know about. UK chief constable Simon Cole remarked: Is there an opportunity for people who want to prey on vulnerable people to find them in a way they could not in the past? Absolutely yes, there is.

The Delicate Mind

This is exactly why I co-founded The Delicate Mind, a platform to empower and protect vulnerable young Muslim men who are feeling isolated, disenfranchised from their communities and need to have a place where they can connect with faith leaders and their peers to develop healthy relationships.

We work with faith leaders from different groups, mental health experts, schools, parents and teachers to de-stigmatise  and de-mystify mental health and to de-construct ideas of sex, gender and masculinity within the BAME Muslim communities in London and Birmingham.

This way, we can work towards nurturing current and future generations of South Asians to be open and accepting of their mental health struggles and to find the support that they need.

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