For many years now I, like many others, have struggled with mental health issues that have affected me in many ways. As a young woman who comes from a South Asian background, I understand all too well the inequalities and challenges that many people from cultural backgrounds face, as well as the stigma that surrounds mental health in many communities.
People from South Asian communities, and other BAME backgrounds, are statistically less likely to receive support for their mental health. Much of this is due to the inequality and lack of cultural sensitivity currently in healthcare, which has ultimately led to a lack of trust in the system for many communities.
But a large part of this is also due to the widespread cultural stigma that surrounds mental health in communities like South Asian ones. The values that these cultures place a huge focus on can often conflict with those of Western cultures. For example, South Asians place a huge spotlight on collectivism and close family bonds. From a young age, we are taught to sacrifice our own personal goals and desires for the good of those around us. Young women especially are told that they must learn to serve others; even if that means at the expense of looking after themselves.
Culture of perfectionism
South Asian families also often face strong pressure to appear ‘perfect’ to those around them; to uphold a certain social status or reputation. Struggling with mental health issues is something that can bring shame and dishonour to a family, and therefore should be kept private. Sometimes it could be seen as a failure on the part of the parents, and many parents are often left wondering whether their child would be able to have a successful career or get married easily.
While many of these cultural values are certainly positive in some ways, unfortunately, they have led to the topic of mental health being seen as a taboo subject by many. There is an open shame not only in admitting that you struggle with mental health issues but also in trying to seek help for them. Medication and therapy, among other things, are incredibly useful tools to help tackle mental health issues, yet for many people, they are still seen as an unnatural way to help. I know from personal experience; I was shamed for my decision to take antidepressants and go to therapy. I was often told that my mental health issues were ‘all in my head’ and that if I was depressed, it was my responsibility to change that by ‘thinking positive thoughts.
As someone who has struggled with opening up about my mental health, I understand how isolating it can be to be belittled or pushed aside by those to who you are closest. When the community you are part of is already marginalised by mainstream society, you do not want to be marginalised by that specific community either. This has led to so many of us feeling like we are isolated and unable to share our struggles and experiences, for fear of being pushed away.
So what can we do?
The most valuable thing we can do is to remain open-minded and show empathy towards other people’s viewpoints. As frustrating as cultural barriers can be, often they are due to a lack of knowledge and understanding rather than just pure ignorance. After all, cultural values become embedded in communities over decades.
We must never stop striving to make healthcare more accessible for all communities. Our communities shouldn’t have to change their values and beliefs in order to access safe, equal healthcare. Rather, we should be pushing for more cultural awareness and sensitivity in healthcare for all different types of cultures and beliefs.
Finally, we need to keep talking and having these important conversations with one another. Whether it’s with friends, relatives, parents or community leaders, we should keep speaking to others about how mental health affects all of us. These are our communities, and we have a responsibility never to stop trying to make them more open and accepting for future generations. At the end of the day, it can take much less time to break these cultural barriers and stigmas than it did to build them up in the first place.
Zaynah Khan is a student from Manchester. She wants to share her experiences on how mental health has affected her life, especially as a young woman who comes from a Pakistani background.