• Expert By Experience

Isolation Series : A wake up call for South Asian mental health?

Written by Sheetal Mistry

Illustration from https://itg.digital/

The South Asian community is notoriously bad at talking about our emotions.

Take my dad, for example. I have never heard him respond to the question ‘how are you?’ with anything other than the word ‘fine’, even when he most definitely is not ‘fine’. My mum will talk around the subject a lot if you ask her (and usually bang a lot of pots and pans around) but never really get to the heart of what she’s feeling. Being able to express our emotions in a healthy way, and understanding the need for others to do so, is historically not something we’re very good at. And being able to accept that mental health problems exist (and closer to home than most people realise!) is still close to impossible in a lot of South Asian families.

There are a variety of factors as to why this is - a historical and entrenched sense of shame, honour, and a lack of understanding being just a few. My own mental health issues began when I was in my teens, but my parents put my behaviour down to hormones and ‘being a brat’ - now I know it’s because they just didn’t know any better. I myself have struggled to open up about my experiences with my family and other South Asian friends, believing for a long time that I would be judged as ‘weak’ or ‘abnormal’ and that no one else would understand. For so long in our community, the notions of mental health and mental health problems have been ignored, shunned, or completely denied - the infamous phrase being that “desi people don’t get depressed”.

Our community has certainly made progress in this area - the volume of blogs, vlogs, insta accounts and panel discussions emerging on the topic in recent years can attest to that (I’ve even helped organise some of these myself!). However, our current locked-down situation, and the myriad of emotions and experiences that it has thrown up, has me concerned that our community’s mental health, and our attitude towards it, is going to struggle now more than ever. There are aspects of this awful situation that are arguably more impactful to the mental health of those in the South Asian community, particularly considering both socially and economically we are more disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Additionally, having been indoors with my family for the past few weeks, I’ve noticed the ways in which our unhealthy and deep-rooted ‘go-to’ mental health habits are coming into play more frequently, as our minds are having to deal with a constant influx of new information and emotion at a rate we don’t normally have to process. Many people are struggling with the mental toll of having to stay indoors, watching loved ones get sick and not being able to do anything about it, hearing dreadful news churned out from every different platform - imagine the potential effects within our community where emotional struggle is seen as embarrassing, weak and shameful.

To start with, the entire family is stuck together in the same house. For many South Asians - and young women in particular - being able to leave the house on your own terms, whether for school, work or social reasons, is still a relative privilege. Growing up in a brown household, parents tend to be more strict or protective over their children - particularly girls - and this means missing out on freedoms that so many other children and teenagers take for granted. Hanging out in the park after school was something I distinctly remember getting in trouble for, because I wasn’t home to help out with making roti. I am now a grown woman in my 20s, but until I moved out last year I still had to ‘ask permission’ to go out and make sure I wasn’t taking the mick with how often I socialised. Even just being out at work all day can provide a sense of independence and freedom from the sometimes claustrophobic family home, and now having that freedom taken away is undoubtedly going to have effects on our wellbeing.

But for some who have experienced the more extreme oppressive nature of desi households, the effects of lockdown can be far greater. For some South Asian women, lockdown is bringing back traumatic memories of childhoods where they were forced to stay indoors by parents or abusive relatives, and highlights the long-term impact this has had on their mental health and social skills - The Pink Ladoo Project have created a campaign to share these stories in response to the many messages they received about it. A particular story of theirs has stuck with me: “This quarantine has hit me hard and I am struggling. I am lonely, feeling suffocated and suicidal. I resent being brought up that way and fought it all the way. I feel like I have lost now”.

This loss of independence and space we’re currently experiencing can be annoying and frustrating at best, and traumatising at worst. For those who’ve been able to break out of the ‘lockdown’ of their younger years, or are even still experiencing it, there is every danger that the current situation will have regressive and devastating effects on mental health.

Secondly, South Asian culture is collectivistic - a sense of community and interdependence is inherent in the nature and structure of our families and upbringing. South Asian households are more likely to have multiple generations living together, and many of our ceremonies and traditions rely on extended family members taking on specific roles. Not being able to get together and connect in the same way we normally do is exposing the intricate reliance we have on community, and the strength that we draw from it. It’s currently Ramadan, a month that is notable for the coming together of friends and family at the end of the day for iftaar (breaking of the fast). Many will now be cooking, dining and celebrating alone or via video call.

On the other end of the spectrum, the death of loved ones during this period will also be even more difficult, as we aren’t able to see them or mourn with our community in the same way. My mum watched her uncle’s funeral via Zoom a few weeks ago - there were three other people in the crematorium, but otherwise, he was alone. It was a weird, Black-Mirror-esque experience to be watching such a huge, life-changing event take place through a screen, which would normally be so reliant on the extended family coming together to create the connection and atmosphere and support system. My family is Hindu, and our ‘official’ mourning period is 13 days, during which the deceased’s house is normally flooded with people coming and going and drinking endless cups of chai. The noise and constant flow of visitors is what keeps many going during this period, and now they won’t even be able to rely on this. We’re now having to both celebrate and grieve in a way that is unnatural to us - without the hustle-bustle and sense of community that is at the core of our culture.

Whilst some of us are busy adapting to watching engagements, celebrations and memorials via video call, there are many within our community who will be completely shut off from this altogether. Many of our elders likely don’t have access to the internet or technology to be able to visually connect with others. My grandad, who lives alone, has no internet or mobile phone in his house, and we were worried about his levels of social interaction - my uncle ended up visiting him so that he could join the family videochat for a few minutes, at the risk to both their health. Adding to this, the elders in our community are more likely to face language barriers in accessing the important information about keeping safe at this time, or cultural barriers that clash with the idea of ‘isolation’, which means they may not understand its significance in the same way that we do. This became more apparent to me a few weeks ago, when my maternal grandparents, who don’t live with extended family, went to visit the home of a family member who had passed away, much against the advice of their children and grandchildren. This is what they would normally do; it is the highest form of respect and condolence, and to them it was more important than staying safe and at home. Additionally, for the generation who are mostly retired, a lot of their time is normally spent socialising - whether at their place of worship, the local community centres or in parks and open spaces. What is the effect going to be on them, who have had their entire livelihoods and traditions and social support systems taken away?

It is not hard to conclude that anxiety and stress levels for our community will be at an all-time high. I suffer from anxiety, and the last few weeks have been a struggle at times. I know many other South Asians my age who are constantly worried and frustrated by their parents and other family members who aren’t taking the lockdown seriously, or are seeing them struggle with being so far from their other relatives and community, or are missing their own sense of independence - but at least my generation are somewhat talking about it. If I’m finding this difficult - someone who has friends she can open up to, and Twitter to rant to! - I can’t even begin to imagine the inner turmoil broiling inside those who don’t have a healthy outlet, or don’t even believe in the importance of expressing these feelings. Adding to that, there isn’t even the physical space to get away from what is causing the anxiety - we are trapped within four walls full of repressed feelings and bubbling distress. It is therefore more crucial than ever that we try to address and talk about mental health and emotion within our community, somehow.

I felt tentatively hopeful last week, when during dinner, my mum looked around the table and asked “so how are we all feeling?”. That’s not a question that ever gets asked in my house. I remember me and my sisters looking at each other in surprise. I could tell it was a big deal for my mum to even bring it up, that she had been gearing up to ask it whilst eating. And while we all struggled to answer it - yes my dad said his customary ‘fine’ and brushed it off - even the presence of that question caused a shift in the atmosphere in my house. Acknowledging the emotional turmoil and effect that this situation is causing is such a big deal in itself - for many families even this is hard to do. But knowing that it was also playing on my parents’ minds, and that my mum had been brave enough to speak it into reality, has already made me feel more emotionally connected with my family, albeit in an understated way.

So whilst it is difficult to start that conversation, to push past the pride and shame and fear and the whole web of complicated barriers we have built around discussing mental health in our community, we have to try now more than ever; whether it is something as obvious as hosting a ‘family feelings circle’ - I know friends who are trying this! - or as simple as asking how everyone is doing, and really taking the time to listen. Over the last few years we’ve seen a growing movement of South Asians endeavouring to break the deeply-entrenched stigma within our community and build a healthy conversation around mental health, and this is the first unavoidable ‘test’ to see actually how much progress we’ve actually made. I’d go so far to say it’s even make or break - some of us will make huge breakthroughs during this period, whilst others are at risk of further hiding away their emotions in the name of ‘resilience’. There has never been a more urgent time for action, for discussion, for tenderness, for connection. Our community is intrinsically built on this sense of interconnectedness - let’s try and come out of this period more connected than ever.

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