Opinion

The Invisible Illness: Mental Health From a British-Asian Perspective

Source: Chemistry World

This article is part of a series for Mental Health Awareness Week.

By Atiya Chowdhury

Growing up in a Bengali household as a child of immigrants, mental health was a foreign concept at the very peripheral of discussion. It was not even the case of mental health being taboo, but it was never a thought to begin with. In my Bengali community, an illness was something which manifested physically, the effects of which could be seen on, or in, your body. Mental illness thus became an invisible entity which made its way quietly and secretly through many Asian communities.

Mental health is still a complex notion throughout the whole of Asia. While Western psychology treats conditions like depression and anxiety just as seriously as physical illnesses, in the East it is still very stigmatised.

The World Health Organisation has reported that the main services for mental health in Central Asia are based in the traditional hospital or institutionalised setting. However, many people have said they would not choose to go to those services to treat their mental health out of fear of being discriminated against. 

While progress regarding mental health awareness is slowly being made within the past couple of years in many Asian countries, such as the structural reform of the mental health service and television shows bringing the discussion of mental health out in the open, the importance of mental health still needs to be stressed more in the individual household. 

When the conversation of my depression first arose, which back then was unidentified, it was shocking how many relatives told me they had experienced similar depressive periods and had learned to deal with it themselves. Rather than it becoming a mutual bonding experience, however, it became the question of “if I got over it, why can’t you?” Instead of support, what I found was the suffocating invisibility regarding mental health. If you had something wrong mentally, you learned to deal with it covertly behind closed doors, to conceal it until it had healed on its own.

It’s difficult and confusing living in a Western British environment which wants to open up the conversation surrounding mental health while growing up in a culture which seeks to do the opposite. However, I couldn’t blame my culture, as easy as it may have been, for this disregard in our Asian community towards mental health. The lack of education was really the root of the problem. How could my family and relatives understand my mental health if they had never even been taught the concept of it in the first place?  They had been raised with the knowledge that mental disorders were shameful because it was an illness which could not be explained, which then led to the inevitable conclusion that there was something inherently at fault with the person. To avoid this dishonour you had to keep it hidden. It is hard to grow up learning about something in one way and then have that understanding being shifted once you move to a new place. 

When my mental health reached a point where it could no longer be managed privately, it spilt all over the well-maintained, clean image I had constructed of the perfect daughter. I thought the response from my family would be one of disappointment and a lack of understanding, but instead, the reveal of my depression brought into light the invisible illness which had slowly plagued our community from the shadows of our households. While my family still didn’t quite understand the concept of mental health, they showed a newfound willingness to try to understand in order to help me get better. 

I was, and still am, regularly asked if I am feeling ok, and the very thing which was never mentioned is slowly being brought into the discussion. Suddenly my relatives were asking their own children, with more alertness, about symptoms regarding their own mental health. 

While I realise mental health is still the Bermuda Triangle of our household and of many households alike, a region which we don’t traverse often and know little of, my experience has shown the significance of awareness of mental health conditions. 

If we allow them to grow and fester in the dark corners of our houses where they never see the light, then they will never fully become the subject of a much-needed, de-stigmatised conversation. The importance of mental health awareness starts from the individual household. And, as daunting as it may seem, it is this small step towards visibility which will allow us to treat our mental health more seriously. 

If you are in need of support regarding your mental health, especially during this difficult time, please know that these services below are still active and are here to help and support you. 

Mind

www.mind.org.uk

0300 123 3393

Papyrus 

www.papyrus-uk.org

0800 068 4141

Samaritans 

www.samaritans.org.uk

116 123

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