Tackling the Silence About Mental Health in Desi Communities

Illustration and article by Arfa (@arfakhan)

Here in the US, you go to the doctor even when you’re not sick. Most people in Pakistan don’t go to the doctor until they’re absolutely sure they’re sick, and even then, there’s a weird reluctance to get medical help. Countless times I have heard about people I know in Pakistan passing away because they recognized symptoms of something but were too afraid to get it treated until it was too late. Physical illnesses are already seen as more important than mental in most other parts of the world, so when people don’t even want to treat the physical ones, how unimportant do you think the mental ones are to them?

My mom has a phobia of heights. On our trip to the Glacier Skywalk in Albertaa giant platform over the Canadian Rockies, made of glass and completely see-throughmy relatives forced her to join us, and she was terrified. When we left, my uncle asked her why she had a fear of heights. “Couldn’t you just imagine that the glass was solid ground?” To me, this sounded a lot like, “Can’t you just be happy?” People in our culture genuinely don’t understand, and it’s because they were never taught that understanding is necessary.

Our boys are raised expected to “act like a man” and are told to be strong. The pressure to be successful and become the leaders of the household is thrown at them. They grow up with their emotions kept inside, their voices stuck in their throats, and when they don’t fit into the role of traditional masculinity, they're ignored. They are told to “man up.” And then we're surprised when they develop mental illnesses because of it. In 2010, Time to Change, a program in England working to end the discrimination faced by mentally ill folks, wrote a report on the attitudes toward mental illness in South Asian communities. In stage two of their research, they had thirteen participantsseven of which were menwho were mentally ill or had mentally ill family members.

So why are we like this? My mom will say that there’s no logical reason, but honestly, it’s because it’s been ingrained in Desi culture for centuries. By the end of their study, Time to Change found six key reasons for the stigma and discrimination:

  1. The shame, or sharam, fear, and secrecy that surround mental illness. Mental illness is a taboo subject, and sometimes is kept a secret even from immediate family members. A lot of the time this is caused by the feeling that it’s something to be ashamed of, or something people will be afraid of.
  2. The causes of mental health problems are often misunderstood. There are so many misconceptions about it. This in turn can be caused by belief systems, but I won’t go too into that.
  3. The family can be both caring and isolating. This may seem contradicting, but in Desi culture, you don’t just cast away your familyyou take care of them. However, in doing so, the close family sometimes tends to keep the mentally ill family member away from extended family.
  4. The social pressure to conform. This one is easy to understandadhering to cultural and social norms is important in Desi communities.
  5. People with mental health problems aren’t valued. 
  6. The possibility of marriage prospects being damaged. Since Desi communities are so close, people are very conscious of their family name becoming tarnished. In rishtas, or marriage proposals, it’s common that both sides look into the bride and groom’s backgrounds, just to make sure that their child is marrying into a good family. These rishtas are often made between family/friend circles, so if the word gets out to anyone outside of immediate family that someone has a mental illness, the prospects become reduced.

Now that all that is explained, here’s the real question: how do we fix this? How can we make our communities better? Although we have many problems, we have a lot of good things as well; We have our immediate families. We have faith. We have a strong sense of community. We have support. To challenge the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness, we have to work on normalizing it. We have to share the positive messages about it, not just the ableist portrayals we see of it in the media.

Say it with me now:

Mental health issues can affect anyone and everyone.

People can recover from mental illnesses.

Mental illnesses are not shameful, scary, or embarrassing.

Even while I was writing this, my mom told me, “Don’t say too much. Don’t mention your own mental illnesses.”

Spread the word. Talk about it. Don’t sweep this under the carpetwe’ve already been doing it way too long.


Big thanks to Sham for the wonderful input and reference photos!

1 comment:

  1. Coming from a Pakistani family and having previously had anxiety, I can relate so much! My mum understands and helped me, but once i had an argument with an aunt which ended up in an anxiety attack and she couldn't understand, chided me for "being silly" and even thought the devil played a part ( our family is quite religious). It's very important for desis suffering to talk about their problems though i understand it isn't easy at all. There's a history of illness in my family and though my immediate family helped with those afflicted, i heard the gossip and rumors of the extended family. I'm grateful to have a family of which the majority understand the importance of mental illnesses. This is a really important topic, Thanks!


If you have any questions, suggestions, or just want to say hi, contact us at risenzine@gmail.com!