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Author:  Starnta Johal

Despite being a British born Punjabi woman, whilst training to be a counsellor it never crossed my mind that I would want to work with people of South Asian heritage. I was focussing on the specialisms I was interested in, S&DV, bereavement, CYP and trauma.

Over the years my work has led me to an 11-18 year school with a diverse population from the area. Predominantly a white county but there is a micro population in this particular part with many South Asian heritage communities as well Caribbean and mixed-race families.

Working here now for 3 years it has provoked lots of thought, internal reflection, and frustration.

I look back to when I was growing up and how mental health was perceived in our community. Well, to be more accurate it wasn’t. I don’t recall a concept of mental health or depression being spoken about or acknowledged. In fact, if you were diagnosed with a particular illness eg schizophrenia you were referred to as the ‘paagal’ the mad or crazy one. There was a definite stigma around it all, it wasn’t spoken about.

Has this changed much? Some of the next generation have an awareness and greater understanding as society itself becomes more aware but there seems to be a lingering stigma, sense of shame or taboo around talking about mental health.

As a first generation born female, I struggled with the ever-present clash to adapt to the British customs of the world I was experiencing at school and beyond whilst maintaining traditional South Asian family values at the end of the day back at home. The pressure to assimilate with my friends and peer group, to belong and be part of them without losing my cultural identity at the time weighed heavy. I wanted the best of both worlds but ended up being embarrassed in both, at school shedding my Punjabi identity, at home pretending I was ingrained in it.

Being a small Asian community at the time, and facing racism, being seen as different and the total lack of understanding, empathy or awareness of other cultures at the time as a society that hadn’t accepted the richness of a growing multi-cultural country at that point, meant it was all to be hidden. It led to shame, isolation and feeling unable to express or share these feelings, thoughts, and experiences.

My reason for exploring this now is since working at the school and seeing clients of South Asian heritage it feels that not much has changed. As students who could be my children’s age it means their parents potentially are my generation. From what I hear, these young people are facing the same pressures I faced 30+ years ago. It saddens me to hear that they can’t talk about their fears, anxieties and worries at home as it is still considered taboo or dismissed as not important. The patriarchal pressure, the honour and respect for the family and community (predominantly but not limited to the females), traditional gender role stereotypes, the expectations to study and become professionals, to provide for your elders, to follow the religion, adhere to South Asian values of introduced marriages within the same culture and more, seem as prevalent now as they were then.

Religion and superstition play a large part too and inherent beliefs and values around this are difficult to break away from. Often ‘bad times’ are expressed as Gods will or superstitious rituals are acted upon to alleviate the stresses seen rather than talk about the underlying issue. In fact talking about how we feel can be seen as a sign of weakness, it is better to bear the burden and have a ‘get on with it’ nature much like the traditional British stiff upper up of old. There is an overall sense of ‘should be’ grateful for the life we have today here which is then passed to the younger generation preventing them from speaking up about the struggles they face.

Is it any wonder I see so many of our school population struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, stress, depression, self-harming and having suicidal thoughts.

When some of them have been able to open up at home it is dismissed as your problems are not important or big – we (the parents generation) have been through struggle, civil wars, partition, upheaval of countries, financial stress, open racism etc – how can the child’s struggles seem difficult compared to this?

Or it becomes about the huge culture of shame of South Asian families, the proverbial ‘what would the aunties say?’ The ‘community’ has a strong hold in the belief and values system and being seen as different, going against these core beliefs, is seen as worse than facing the stark reality of a changing, growing world. This links back to the cultural identity that is being fought to protect whilst living in an inherited culture that is not the same.

How do we bridge this gap between generations and cultures so we find some middle ground in helping our younger generation manage more healthily and the older generation accept that growth and change can be rewarding not threatening and needs a supportive hand at times.

Anecdotally, alcohol or substance abuse and domestic violence is high in these communities. The statistics don’t always back this up as it is not reported enough – I guess in part due to the shame culture again, keeping it in house, not letting the wider community know about what happens behind closed doors, after all ‘what would the aunties say?’

Clearly there are issues if alcohol abuse and DV is high but not recognised as such. Could we break down the barriers by stripping it back to basics? Using language that is culturally sensitive and acceptable without using the term mental health?

If we talk about our worries and fears in a general sense, exploring the physical – can’t sleep, don’t want to get out of bed, headaches, digestive problems, blood pressure, withdrawing from events – could it be we can then gently link this to stress, anxiety, depression and then on to mental health needs? If this is recognised within us then we could see it in our children and perhaps begin to acknowledge that mental health needs are as important as physical health and the two can well go hand in hand. Recognising this feels like a way forward in accessing further help or support. The language of therapy could be modified or explained more fully – confidentiality is perhaps not trusted or understood and key in South Asian families facing stigma from the family and wider community.

Are there role models or leaders, whether in places of worship or community at large, who can be trained in mental health needs that community elders would trust and can learn from?

I have no real answers but would invite thought and conversation around these topics raised to help raise awareness and support.

Starnta Johal

Although person centred trained, I draw upon other modalities and am trained in polyvagal theory, Cruse bereavement counselling and am a certified clinical trauma specialist as well as having worked for an agency specialising in survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.

Currently I work as a school counsellor with the 11-18 age group and work with adults privately.

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