How to Talk about Mental Health in Desi Households

For the South Asian community, how difficult is it to talk about mental health? Are we heard by our families? We explore this important issue.

How to Talk about Mental Health in Desi Households f

“We are taught to assimilate, survive, settle and make a life"

Talking about mental health and well-being can sometimes be difficult.

In a Desi household, this can be even more challenging, especially as mental health is still considered a taboo subject in the South Asian community.

To help someone who is struggling with their mental health, start the conversation and actively listen.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of; neither is talking about it. This can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow for Desi families.

The shame associated with mental health issues in the South Asian community can make an individual feel weak, and not worthy of care and attention.

Judgement from others, not wanting to be pitied and the risk of hurting their career are just a few reasons why people may not want to talk about their mental health.

In a Desi household, the reasons may differ slightly.

Fear of a lack of support and understanding from family and friends, as well as the thought of their mental health defining them, are some of the barriers South Asians may face.

Aishah Hannan, an assistant psychologist and mental health advocate says:

“There is definitely a negative vibe in the South Asian community in regards to meeting a therapist for mental health illnesses.

“Being deemed as weak and a lack of education are the leading reasons as to why many South Asians feel conflicted when thinking of consulting with a therapist.

“Bigotry and a poor mentality and outlook of mental health issues certainly doesn’t help.”

The Stigma

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Comments along the lines of “Can’t you choose to be happy?” or “Other people have it a lot worse” are examples of what the mental health stigma sounds like.

Mental health is not something you can snap out of, and it is not a sign of weakness.

Denial of mental illnesses in the South Asian community is also all too common. Pretending that mental health does not exist is likely to cause both short-term and long-term problems.

Due to a lack of education and knowledge of mental health illnesses, many individuals within the South Asian community may feel unacknowledged or forcibly silenced.

In many Asian countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, mental health is unspoken.

Mental health issues are not responded to like physical health conditions. This may make many individuals feel that they have no choice but to endure and struggle in silence.

In the UK, the South Asian community still struggles with the mental health conversation. The stigma has travelled through each generation.

Whilst younger South Asians are far more likely to engage and be aware of the importance of mental health and well-being, the conversations beyond social media may not be happening as often as they need to be.

Journalist and playwright, Meera Syal says:

“Mental health problems are common and affect people from all walks of life and all communities across England including the South Asian community.”

Whilst school and university can be an exciting time for many, there are those individuals who may feel stressed and anxious.

Desi households are stereotypically somewhat repressed. The thought of talking about mental health to a senior family member may be incredibly uncomfortable.

Struggling with mental health at a young age is far more likely to also affect someone in their future life.

According to a Lancet Global Health Study, suicide was the leading cause of deaths among Indian people aged 15 to 39, in 2016.

Start the Conversation

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Talking about mental health is hard. The idea of starting the conversation may initially feel daunting and out of reach in many Desi households.

However, the more the South Asian community talks about it, the more comfortable it will become.

To start off, the conversation does not have to be conducted face to face. A simple text message or a phone call can make all the difference.

It is important to not only ask questions and be encouraging but also to listen diligently.

Allow room to both speak and listen.

Asking questions such as “Is there anything I can do to help you?” and “Do you need to talk?” are great examples of ways to start the conversation.

The South Asian community should not allow awkwardness to veil the conversation of mental health. If you are listening to someone telling you how they feel, do your best to push through the initial uncomfortable stage.

We spoke to Sonal Pandya Boda, a counsellor based in London, about how the South Asian community should talk about mental health. Sonal says:

“It’s important to take breaks, to allow your patience, openness and tolerance when discussing mental health.

“The older generations can dismiss the discussion due to lack of understanding or sometimes own disconnected experience.

“There can also be judgement, arguments, triggers and strong opinions which can have a deep impact”.

“We are taught to assimilate, survive, settle and make a life within the UK, usually considering our families best interest within our own.

“Second-generation individuals are on a continuous journey to integrate as British but with Asian core values. This usually involves a conflict of some sort.”

To help someone who is suffering from a mental health illness, acknowledge that you cannot understand what they are feeling. However, you can offer your compassion.

Acknowledge the elephant in the room.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 90 million Indians suffer from some form of mental health illness.

Learning about mental health, giving practical support, and avoiding comparisons are just a few small ways in which Desi households can help.

The South Asian community should actively engage in self-education to improve their knowledge of mental illness and raise awareness of their normality.

Learning about a health problem is the least we can do.

It should also be said that mental health illnesses do not discriminate. Regardless of age and sex, anyone can be in need of help and support.

DESIblitz exclusively chats to three young people living in the UK about their experiences of mental illness and stigma.

Amrit Kaur, a university student from Leicester says:

“My sister used to suffer from severe depression and anxiety, and for a long time, nobody in my family wanted to acknowledge it.

“I’ve often felt frustrated but I don’t think this relates to just South Asians. I think all ethnic minority groups have the same stance.”

Balwinder Singh, a blogger and mental health advocate based in the West Midlands says:

“Toxic masculinity reminds me of a time in my life when people were telling me that men shouldn’t cry and openly speak about their emotions.

“The stigma associated with male mental health still exists, even more so in the South Asian community.”

Rohit Kumar, a university student from Wolverhampton says:

“My parents are very conservative. They have never thought or ever mentioned anything relating to mental illnesses.

“I think the mental health stigma is extremely harmful. I just don’t understand how a lot of Asian families are not open about acknowledging mental illness in the first place.”

It is important to provide just as much support and compassion as people with physical health conditions.

The South Asian community needs to remember that mental health is part of being human. It is important and complex.

The stigma attached to mental health, specifically in most Desi households, needs to end. Mental illnesses are a real thing, and we need to talk about them.

Being open to discussing mental health is the only way the stigma associated with it can be dismantled, once and for all.

Ravinder is currently studying BA Hons in Journalism. She has a strong passion for all things fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. She also likes to watch films, read books and travel.