Mental Health: A taboo subject in Asian communities


By Shahid Dastgir Khan

Mental health remains a taboo topic and has not received the attention it deserves until recently. In the UK, one in four adults and one in ten children experience mental health problems. It is never easy todiscuss with someone about your mental health, although problems of mental health are now being discussed by sportsmen and celebrities from their own experiences which is a good thing for community at large and those affected by mental health issues.

You often hear conversations like “it is all in your head” or there is “no such thing as depression or anxiety”, yet it is real. The problem becomes bigger if it is supressed because there is no one to talk to about it or if the responses received near and dear ones are negative. It also depends on the company you keep, some friends are more sympathetic whilst others may make fun of you.

In many eastern and African cultures, someone with a mental health problem is often labelled anti-social or worse still as being under a magic spell or possessed by spirits. Thus, instead of seeking medical help, the family will turn to primitive, ritualistic practices which can result in more harmthan good.In Asian families there can be all kinds of pressures such as sending a girl to university education, arranged marriage problems, school or university grades and relationship problems, which may lead to mental health problems. Discussing these problems can help avoid setting in of depression or anxiety, but to express your feelings is often discouraged and even regarded as something not worthy of discussion. Mental health conditions can therefore become aggravated or in some cases manifestin self-harm episodes. Younger people often have difficulty discussing with their parents their anxiety issues because of fear of being told that they must be mad or imagining things. Comments like “just be strong” and “just get on with life” can be very disappointing and harmful, therefore listening carefully, being caring and a sympathetic and compassionate approach is needed.

The NHS offers free 24 hours listening support since it recognises that talking therapies are important in healing and comforting process of the young people. There is the need to make parents of young Asians and local community organisations to actively participate in helping parents understand their children’s mental health issues and how best to deal with them. Many parents seek the help of mosque imams or spiritual healers rather than seek medical help. This candoserious harm in many cases. The right thing is to seek help from your GP and get treated as soon as possible.

Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. It is good to be socially connected to your family and friends and physical fitness and a healthy mind also help. The quality of relationship is far more important than the number of social contacts and living within a toxic relationship can be more damaging than being alone. Neglect during childhood, abuse or breakdown of marriage of parents can have negative effects which inturn can affect social behaviour as well as educational outcomes. Research shows that a happy childhood and young people having good personal and social relationships with family and friends have higher levels of wellbeing. Mental health issues carry into adult relationships and married couples in a happy relationship are more stable and positive in their outlook to life than those who are in an unhappy relationship with high stress levels and depression.

However, many married couples remain in an unhappy relationship, for the sake of children in Asian communities which is often detrimental to their own mental health. Membership of local community organisations, social interaction with neighbours and relatives is needed and this is something which is missing in the daily life of many Asian families. There are also issues of drugs and alcohol abuse leading to mental health issues which are often ignored and supressed, because it may bring shame or feelings of guilt to the victim and the family,insteadseeking professional help. Growing crime and anti-social behaviour including knife crime in London has impacted on our neighbourhoods and a number of parents whether a mother or father are not engaging with their children or seeking proper help which in turn is affecting their own mental health. Up to one third of the population in England are prescribed drugs to help deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Some of the medications have side effects but there is no awareness as a result of which other medical conditions develop.

In the UK, NHS related research shows that about seventeen  per cent (17%) aged 18 to 64 years were prescribed antidepressants rising to about twenty per cent (20%) among those in their retirement years. The use of antidepressants is on the rise and millions of people are long term users or addicts. They need help and support from close family and friends rather than rejection by the society and family.

So, what is the government doing to protect mental health disorders and raise awareness?

There are various schemes in place to help raise awareness at schools, universities and workplace. There is a lot that still needs to be done and the major political parties continue to make promises, but the budgets are still limited, and mental health patients receives far less attention than other medical patients. In 2018- 2019 the NHS planned to spend just over twelve billion pounds. The only good news seems announcements of improved mental health policy by politicians from time to time giving due recognition to mental health.Raising awareness should also be a priority and better, wide-ranging treatment centres are needed for mental health patients.

A longstanding criticism of health and social care in England is that people with mental health problems often fail to receive the same access to services or quality of care as people with other forms of illnesses. That is also a reason why many mental health conditions go undiagnosed and untreated. The Asian community definitely has far more to learn about hidden mental health issues than are known or treated effectively.

GP practices with high intensity of Asian populations should pay more attention to mental health issues by organising training and awareness raising workshops at their surgery or local community centres to help parents and children facing mental health issues or living in a family with such problems.

Community and social health workers should engage far more with their local community with a view to helping parents as well as adults and young persons living on their own or in families.Sports and recreational facilities should be encouragedas this helps reduce anxiety, depression and mental health problems. The Asian community should not treat mental issues as a taboo but get involved in a positive spirit because good awareness raisingcould prevent certain mental health problems and early detection could mean better management of a mental health condition. The NHS is already cash strapped because of which it is in a crisis. It is a big election issue every time, therefore there is the need to concentrate on more effective awareness raising programs and treatment centres  to tackle the mental health  taboo issue effectively for the sake of a healthy community.

(The writer is solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, political analyst and ex-trustee/ council member of Anti-Slavery International UK. E-mail: Facebook:  Shahid Dastgir Khan. Twitter: @Sdk184)