Mental Health: Stigma in South Asians

As part of Asian Heritage Month, our VP Welfare, Ahmed Mahbub, held an event all about the complex relationship of mental health, and its stigmas in the South Asian community.
The event provided a safe space for discussion and offered me invaluable insight into the topic.
It kicked off with an introductory talk from Ahmed about what the audience and panel defined as mental health, and also the strength it takes to talk about it.

The first speaker was Julienna Tasaddiq. She recently graduated from Kings with a BA in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics and is currently studying for her MA in Global Ethics and Human Values. Her talk was all about her experience as a South Asian Muslim woman with mental health problems. She’s 22 now, but at 17 she began experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Initially, like many, she put it down to being stressed about her A-Levels and the prospect of starting university. Her aunty, who is a mental health nurse, urged her to go to the doctors. However, she saw no point, as it was ‘only a feeling.’ Then she started having panic attacks and saw this as ‘evidence’ to take to a doctor. She also found this easier to explain to her parents. She was assigned counselling and her dad drove her to and from every single appointment, but it wasn’t until her mum came along that questions about what exactly was going on were raised. She explained how she’d been putting a barrier up – she didn’t think her parents would understand, as it was a topic the community didn’t talk about, and yet she also desperately wanted to know her parents cared. From there, she described how, although her anxiety began to drop, her depression soared. She was sleeping 16-18 hours a day because she’d been prescribed meds which tend to do that to you when your body is first adjusting. She did everything to isolate herself, even spending hours in the bathroom. Her parents tried blaming more tangible things, like she was only sleeping so much because she was working hard, and it was a bladder issue causing her to be on the toilet. The medication seemed to be the elephant in the room, since her parents couldn’t understand her need for them; she ‘didn’t need to be sad’ and that it was a sign of weakness – everyone has down days after all.

Nowadays, she explains she is much more open with her parents and they seem to understand the situation far better. Recently her sister was complaining that she was feeling sad, so her dad suggested she go to counselling, as it had really helped Julienna.

She used her experience to demonstrate the stigmas which are prevalent in the South Asian community and the crippling affects they have on their sufferer’s mental health.

She pointed to two key aspects:
1. The silencing stigma on South Asian women – Her perception that she could only go to the doctor once her problem became physical stemmed from the pressure on south Asian women to appear strong.
2. The shame stigma – The community is a focal part of South Asian lives and there is a fear about how it will react.

She also used her platform to explain the best routes for change:
1. We need to look within ourselves and fix the internal stigmas.
2. We need to educate our families and have open conversations.

She concluded that this will help younger generations to ‘build a community of people who are a lot more aware and open about mental health and reduce stigma.’

Next up was, Mohammed Bashar, a final year medical student. He completed his BA in Physiotherapy and a MA in affective disorders at IoPPN. His portion was titled ‘To Fear or not to fear – stigma.’ He didn’t jump straight into medical jargon about bio-pyscho-social causes and neurons. Instead he did an introductory about what stigma was, what forms perceptions and the consequences of stigma. He made the interesting comparison between our compassionate and active aid towards people who are too drunk or high, by contrast to our awkward and distanced reaction we tend to have towards people when they admit they have mental health problems. He then moved into specifically the South Asian community’s experience. Building on Julienna Tasaddiq’s section, he explained that a range of factors which explain the stigma within the community, from fear, lack of knowledge, and cultural norms. He pointed to an interesting quote by the renowned photographer Jeremy Binns:

“Bad experience and bad information results in faulty perceptions. Faulty perceptions will then lead to misdirection and disconnection. We take wrong paths in live and avoid the relationships that would be healthy and beneficial…On the other hand… Better experiences and better information results in proper perceptions. Proper perceptions will then lead to direction and connection. We’ll put things in the proper perspective and make the right choices and create healthy connections with the people in our lives.”

He said the best way to make change was to start with ourselves, to raise awareness and provide more Islamic narratives, to educate, and enact further research. His take home message was that the is it ‘the youth who make the change. It is our time to transform to be brave and stand up against stigma.’
I was able to grab him at the end of the talk and have a chat about the Welfare Project he set up with the Islamic Society at Kings. It launched in 2014 and has three main aims:
1. To be a point of contact for students in need.
2. Raise awareness of mental health issues.
3. Destigmatise mental health.
In a 2016 article regarding him achieving the Centre for Affective Disorders Award for Outstanding Academic Performance, he explained,

“The Welfare Project is about having someone to talk to when you need to. Sometimes people just need a listening ear, rather than professional help. It’s all about sharing a problem and the project has been really successful.
If it didn’t happen to me, I might not have been so forth coming in sharing my experience, meeting new students and starting the Welfare Project. I believe in hindsight, everything is a blessing in disguise.”

Last, and certainly not least, was Dr Fatima Rajina. She completed her PhD at SOAS, during which she looked into British Bangladeshi Muslims and their changing identifications and perceptions of dress and language. Since then she has done research into police and counter terrorism. To introduce her talk she played the video ‘When Sadness Gets Too Much: A Bengali film about mental health’ ( She then read out the powerful quote ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare’ by Audre Lorde. Audre was a pivotal American activist and writer. Expanding on the previous speakers, she investigated the internal dynamics of the Bengali community which contribute to the community’s mental health. She, like Julienna Tasaddiq, pointed to the expectation of women ‘to tolerate’, however, she also explained the effect of a lack of networks and shadism have compounded the issue. Moreover, she introduced that the mental health experience of Bengali men also needs to be addressed and that the ‘toxic masculinity’ which argues men can’t be emotional is still very prevalent. She then moved onto the external dynamics of racism, prejudice and sexism, including the Prevent Act, which are also impacting the South Asian experience and ability to seek help.
After the three speakers had finished, the floor was opened to a Q+A and the topics of generational difference, male coping mechanisms, the stigma of shame and the power of celebrities were discussed.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the event. It was an amazing evening for open discourse on the topic. Before attending, I understood that cultures experienced mental health differently, but through listening to Julienna Tasaddiq’s powerful story and the facts provided by Muhammad Bashar and Dr Rajina I now appreciate the full extent. And yet, it also showed me how the South Asian experience is very similar to any other person, regardless of background.

We all need to work together to make a change. Together we are stronger.

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