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Decriminalising Minds: South Asians and Mental Health

This month, the South Asian Diaspora Society at SOAS, London, hosted 'Decriminalising Minds', bringing together four young panellists to discuss South Asians and mental health. Drawing upon their professional and personal experiences, they discussed a

south asians mental health

This month, the South Asian Diaspora Society at SOAS, London, hosted ‘Decriminalising Minds’, bringing together four young panellists to discuss South Asians and mental health. Drawing upon their professional and personal experiences, they discussed a wide range of issues, from the effects of colonial ideologies within our curriculum, to specific issues women of colour face, and the need for mental health services to offer alternative forms of therapy.

Research generally recognises that minority ethnic groups in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems than the general population, and are more likely to experience a poorer outcome from treatment. A study last year revealed that 63.5% of South Asian women are diagnosed with anxiety and depression, compared to 28.5% of white women.

Amit Singh, co-Editor of magazine Consented, began the discussion by addressing one topic that is often at the forefront of discussions on BME mental health- perceptions of stigma within South Asian communities:

“People say: “There’s a huge amount of stigma in communities of colour. They don’t like talking about mental health.” I think that’s true to an extent, but it becomes a bit problematic, because it almost positions English white people as being more open and progressive than people of colour.”

He related his family’s experience of living in 1950’s Britain, and how the effects of racism re-traumatised communities that had already seen and survived violence in their colonised countries: “When my mum’s family came here, Britain was really racist. My dad used to run away from the National Front everyday in Southall. My grandparents came here after Partition, having seen some horrible things and they were displaced. Partition fuelled migration to the UK, but when we talk about migration, we never talk about colonialism… a really important context that’s often missing.”

Singh pointed out how the media created narratives framing ethnic minorities and immigrants as “benefit tourists, cockroaches and scroungers”- an approach that has seen little change among mainstream outlets to this day.

“When we hear about South Asians in the media, it’s often about honour killings, Islamic rape gangs, all of these really negative things that we heard about during the colonial period. It’s never a celebration of South Asian culture.”

Adding to this, Romena Tobi, a clinical pyschologist-in-training and Bangladeshi second generation immigrant, explained how South Asian women have to contend with harmful stereotypes, particularly “misconceptions about oppressed women not having a voice”.

Racism and sexism lead to alienation and mental illness

How do South Asians deal with typecasts forced onto them by the media and wider public? “The only way for people of colour to survive in this society is to essentially distance themselves from their traditional ideologies… and don what Franz Fanon called the ‘white mask’,” said Singh.

The way in which South Asians must contend with racism and misinformation can be hugely isolating, and can lead to feelings of alienation from one’s own culture. This is particularly true for second and third generation immigrants trying to negotiate an identity between multiple cultures.

“Isolation is causing mental health problems,” explained Tobi. “In the old days, when a new Bangladeshi would come into the community, my grandma and her friends would go and knock on the door and take them food. It was just part of the process, and that’s how they built their community. There are loads of stories about community and helping each other, language, and food- so many things that were supporting the mental health of the community during those times. That’s being lost as we’re becoming more and more Western.”

For many British South Asians, ‘becoming more Western’ is a process that starts in the classroom, with a history curriculum that frames British colonialists as heroes, and almost entirely neglects to tell the stories, or celebrate the achievements, of BME people in the UK.

“I remember at school we were taught about the British Empire, and how regressive South Asia was,” said Singh. “But no one talks about the Bengal Famine where three million people died because of Winston Churchill; a man who is on £5 notes. How bad is it that I left school with him being celebrated? That I left school feeling my culture was inferior?”

Panellist Simran Randhawa, Assistant Politics Editor at gal-dem, highlighted how taught racism within Britain’s education system, combined with the experience of sexism in Asian communities is especially damaging for women of colour:

“By the time we are adolescents, there’s a whole heap of norms that have been fed to us, which we internalise- body hair, colourism, and the idea that women are expected to be the bearers of shame in our communities… (Then) women of colour are failed by higher education. The same themes of isolation, lack of support, micro-aggressions, judgment from their faculty, and not being represented in the curriculum come up time and again.”

Distrust for mental health services and the need for empowering narratives

Research suggests that mental health problems within Asian groups often go unrecognised. When they are diagnosed, people from BME communities are generally more likely to disengage from mental health services, leading to further social exclusion and illness.

“In general people from BME communities access services when they’re in a time of crisis, having a psychotic episode, feeling suicidal, or in A&E,” explained Mind project co-ordinator Zain Ali. “The result is that they’re given a more complex diagnosis and end up being admitted to hospital. Going from not accessing services at all, to coming in in a crisis situation and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act is very traumatic and counter-productive. There’s less understanding from clinicians about the person’s context, so they end up having a poorer outcome of treatment. We then get a vicious cycle of BME communities having a lack of trust in services.”

As well as citing the lack of conversation about mental health within Asian communities, Ali also highlighted the need for alternative therapies, including BME specific support groups:

“It can be very daunting for someone from a BME background to come into traditional mental health services. They don’t necessarily want to talk to a white counselor about culturally sensitive issues. When they’re engaging with our service in an alternative way, they’re building that trust in our service, finding peer support and eventually being able to talk about their issues.”

Tobi added how her experiences of working with Bangladeshi women have shown that ‘therapy’ shouldn’t have to involve medication or conventional ideas of treatment. She explained how re-framing the way in which South Asians view their feelings of inferiority as the product of social problems, not mental illness, can be an empowering form of therapy in itself. Telling stories is an important part of this process.

“Instead of trying to encourage them to take medication or go through therapy sessions… how about we start building between us a narrative where we fight against it? …When your agenda becomes about freedom and liberation, you become powerful… These are our stories, these are our narratives… It’s our responsibility not to let Asian women be silenced. It’s our responsibility not to let any woman be silenced.”

Singh highlighted the need for unity among all BME people, and the rejection of “colonial ‘divide and rule’ that’s been placed upon communities of colour” in order to reinforce those positive and empowering narratives.

“We need to reject the ‘good immigrant’ type… and reject anti-black ideologies and Islamophobia in South Asian communities. We have a lot more in common with each other as people of colour than we don’t. We have to organise along those lines and hopefully create a better fairer society.”

Find out more: South Asians and mental health support

Many members of the audience were of South Asian origin, and spoke openly about instances of mental illness and distress in their own lives. If you feel like you have been affected by mental health problems and wish to find out about treatment specific to South Asians, you can contact the South Asian Health Foundation, the South Asian Community Mental Health Service, and Mind. If you are a student, you can also contact counselling services within your school or university.


Heenali Patel is Editor-in-Chief for 1000women, and is a passionate campaigner for women's rights. She also works as the Communications Officer for feminist charity The Fawcett Society, and has a Masters in International Journalism.

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