Suffering in Silence: Mental Health in the South Asian Community

South Asia, boat on the water at sunset

In January 2016, David Cameron pledged a billion pounds to reform mental health services. The government often (always) refers to this when attempting to defend so called ‘progression’. However, what many are unaware of is that this money was not ring fenced, and instead siphoned off into other services; yet another betrayal to those in desperate need of mental health care.

At the end of July 2017, Jeremy Hunt promised 21,000 posts for mental health staff, along with other proposals, which had many discrepancies, but only time will tell whether anything changes. Going off the government’s track record of tackling mental health, I’m doubtful much will happen.

However, whilst these debates continue, patients are caught in the crossfire.

The above information isn’t new; it’s been repeated time and time again relentlessly by the media, professionals and activists. What isn’t mentioned is the effect this has on minority communities, such as the South Asian community.

In the years 1970-1974 there were 435,000 immigrants from India and Pakistan, and 150,000 from Africa. Whilst the majority tended to settle where there were already cultural and familial networks, political representation in those areas remained limited; with only 10 non-white councillors elected in the London Borough. By 1978 this number had gone up to 35 but it didn’t reflect the size of the immigrant population.

Have things improved in 2017?

(Spoiler: the answer isn’t yes)

Put simply, there are 650 Members of Parliament. Only 52 of them are from an ethnic minority.

The 2011 census shows that there are nearly two million people who identify as Asian or Asian British living in the UK.

It further shows that 15.8% of the UK population didn’t identify as White British.

With a complete lack of political representation, the stigma stays. The majority of the pressure to reform and educate comes down to charity organisations which cannot always reach South Asian communities due to a lack of resources and finance.

Immigrants in the seventies did the manual labour, the mundane careers with no room for promotion, took the jobs everyone else refused to come near; a fact often conveniently forgotten by right wing activists.

Is this where the stigma originates? The racism and prejudices that don’t seem to ease, instilling a desire to remain isolated for fear of being a burden? Tell someone they aren’t wanted enough and they’ll believe it, pass it onto younger generations, starting a cycle difficult to break.

“Research has shown that South Asian people underutilise health services compared to white people”

Further to this, research has shown that South Asian people underutilise health services compared to white people. So as stigma lessened within majority communities, it simply remained everywhere else, not tackled, manifesting into shame and fear of speaking out or seeking treatment.

For those who did seek help, they found that services did not meet their cultural or religious needs as well as language barriers, leaving them more isolated and trapped in aforementioned cycle.  The NHS website lists only one service in Lambeth that treats South Asian mental health. One service. Nearly two million people.

The Muslim Women’s Network carried out a counselling pilot finding that 91% of clients felt that a faith and culturally service was important to them.

This has led to the rise of organisations such as Inspirited Minds and the Trafford South Asian Mental Health Service, charities catered specifically to certain groups – charities left overwhelmed with demand and lack of sufficient funding.

For some, the lines between culture and religion have blurred. Religion does not disregard mental suffering in any which way; whilst because of remaining silent on the matter, culture remains ignorant of the effects of mental illnesses. A report by ‘Time for Change’ cites consequences for those with mental health problems including lowered community status and damaged marriage prospects.

Illnesses such as depression and eating disorders feed off of shame, growing, exacerbated by the above factors.

Whilst the government attempts to put plasters over mental health services they continue to ignore a part of the population that has been ignored for far too long. You know what that does? Furthers shame.

Last month, Brendan Maclean, a musician, tweeted, ‘I have no idea why mental health issues are so prevalent in communities who are exposed to regular public debates on if you deserve to live’. Shame and stigma bounce off of each other, aggravated by privilege.

“I understand that there’s a financial deficit, but it’s not good enough”

Being South Asian, I’ve met people who have both sought treatment and those wary of what it will bring. I understand that there’s a financial deficit, but as my mum likes to say when I half-ass something, ‘it’s not good enough’.

Unfortunately, whilst it’d be great to get the establishment to listen, Theresa May seems extremely increasingly preoccupied with purposely decreasing the fox population, and, you got it, a strong, stable Brexit.

The thing with statistics that the above government is awfully keen to refer to when it suits them, is that they become normalised, and we forget that behind each one is a group of people who have suffered, are suffering.

And so if you find yourself in a position where you need mental health treatment and you happen to be South Asian, reluctant to seek help; remember that above all your wellbeing should be a priority, and that people will criticise regardless of what you do, be it climb Mount Everest or wear that yellow coat.

That said, it’s much easier said than done to let go of years of beliefs built together into a skyscraper of stigma.

You are valid, always. Feelings are irrational, but we’re often irrational beings, and anyway, they’re your feelings, own them.

Below are some organisations that tackle mental health in predominantly South Asian and other minority communities:


It’s almost a given that having seen the stigma firsthand that isn’t being tackled by the establishment on a great scale, and no one in the community speaking out, it can be overwhelming when you know you need help but feel as if you can’t turn anywhere.

However, empathy and compassion are found in the most unlikely of places.

Therapy isn’t for everyone, and neither is medication, but regardless, the option to choose it should always be there.

One thing is clear. As people with mental illnesses speak out, the powers that be continue to ignore them, giving us empty promises and hollow words. And one day, it’s all going to come crashing down.

Education isn’t enough. It’s needed of course, but we need more services, culturally sensitive services, and a strategy in place moving forwards.

To fellow South Asians, I know, I see you. If you can, visit your GP, talk to someone, and remember that just because society doesn’t deem your illness as something real or serious doesn’t mean they’re right.

Just because a lot of people have the same attitude doesn’t mean their attitude is the right one.

To the people in power, you won’t silence us, so listen.

To you, keep fighting.

The pain might never make sense. But that doesn’t mean it’ll never leave.

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