• Expert By Experience

Found In Our Mother Tongue: Thoughts On Mental Health, South Asian Languages and Poetry

(Originally published on The Aerogram)

Author's notes - This article has been re-written to be more accessible (November 2019).

Recently I wrote an open letter on mental health in South Asian communities through my own experiences with anxiety (“We Need to Talk About How Mental Health Affects South Asian Men”). 

After some time had passed since the article was published, I started to question one central argument within the piece. The argument can be summarised by the following quote from the article:

Languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati do not have adequate terms to communicate about mental illness. As a result, derogatory terms are used.

This argument was inspired from a study in the UK of South Asian communities which stated that some South Asian languages such as including Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati, do not have adequate terminology when it comes to expressing mental ill-health. As a result often times derogatory terms are used such as ‘pagal’ (‘Breaking Silence’: A Consultation on Mental Ill Health in South Asian Communities, 2008). Other writing like this piece called “Finding a word for ‘mental health’ in Urdu and Punjabi” refer to this point too. The author writes:

At that time I didn’t know it was referred to as a ‘mental health’. Why? Because there is no term for what ‘mental health’ is in Urdu or Punjabi. In its literal translation it means something like ‘problem with the brain’, which implies ‘being mental/crazy’. In my experience there was a lot of stigma, ignorance, discrimination and oppression against those that were identified as ‘mental/crazy’.

These derogatory terms and attitudes can be traced back to the fact that there is a a lack of understanding when it comes to South Asian languages and their capabilities in being able to provide appropriate terms to discuss mental ill-health.

To move forward towards being able to tailor mental health services for South Asian communities from a point that enables mutual learning, this perception of the languages require some challenge.

One way to challenge this view is through poetry in south Asian languages, shayhree is very central to this. Over the generations, South Asian writers have used poetry as a way to provide expression to the vast human experience - mental health very much included here.

Mental Health In Urdu & Hindi Poetry

(Image courtesy of writer)

Urdu poetry presents Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984) who explored mental health through his poems. One such poem was “Tanhai” which delved into loneliness with these words:

Put out the flames, my poor, sad heart, and empty the chalice It’s time to bolt the doors shut No one will visit here anymore

Read the rest of “Tanhai” in English and in Urdu online here. Similarly another one of his poems explores emotionality through the Urdu language — “Gulon Mein Rang Bhare” in which Faiz wrote:

‘Qafas udaas hai yaro sabaa se kuchh to kaho Kahiin to bahr-e-Khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale’ ‘My caged body is cheerless today, Someone please fill hope in the morning breeze. For god’s sake! don’t let it not go empty, Let it carry with it the story of our friends.

(Read a full English translation online here.) The context of the poem is a plea directed towards a beloved and the sorrow that existed without their presence. In other words, Faiz’s poem can be understood as expressing states of mind such as clinical depression following a ‘heartbreak’. This particular poem is also decorated in words such as ‘udaas’ (translation – sadness, sorrow, heavy hearted), words which are linguistically relevant and ultimately useful in discussing mental health illnesses and their symptoms.

The use of poetry written in a South Asian language to express the experience of living with mental health illnesses can also be found in contemporary use. Take for example “Living With Schizophrenia” by Dr. Seema Mehrotra. A Hindi poem that that explores living with schizophrenia through the experiences of a sufferer, it reads in part in its English translation:

They say I have schizophrenia But by placing the label upon me, Why do they deny my humanity? My character is far from schizophrenia…. Allow me, too, to live with dignity and self-respect Don’t deny me my rights…

Mehrotra’s poem gives expression to living with schizophrenia in a society where the sufferer feels trapped by the imposed labels due to mental ill-health. Labels which ultimately according to the poem’s author rob them of basic human rights.

(Image courtesy of the writer, English translation by Shruti)

Encouraging Mental Health Discussion

In poetry, South Asian languages have been able to provide a way to express how mental health illness sufferers feel. There are other practical actions which can be implemented for South Asian communities with South Asian languages in mind - actions which might ultimately benefit those suffering from mental ill-health. For instance, the re-introduction via religious centers, community centers and libraries of key words in South Asian languages relatable to moods and emotions experienced in mental health illnesses would benefit sufferers - providing the ability to give wider expression to how they feel.

Being able to give expression to your symptoms in all the languages you speak could be quite useful for a number of reasons. One important reason is that it would help the sufferer and the mental health professional be able to get to the right diagnosis. For example, there is a significant difference between generalized anxiety disorder and anxiety stemming from post traumatic stress disorder. The strengthening of communication methods for bilingual users may help in obtaining the right diagnosis and ultimately the right course of treatment.

Likewise, the re-introduction of key terminologies in South Asian languages may also be useful in family and community settings when people wish to discuss and explore mental health illnesses and their causes. According to the 2008 UK study mentioned earlier, ‘Breaking Silence’, causes of mental health illnesses are often misunderstood, resulting in the use of religious or spiritual leaders rather than qualified professionals.

While this article is centered towards counter-arguing elements from my initial piece, there’s one significant fact that remains:

Mental illness does not discriminate, and its impact on south Asian communities is as prevalent as it has ever been.

This means that there’s much to be done, and I truly feel that using South Asian languages will play a key role in strengthening and ultimately empowering the communities and sufferers.