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Why research – not just talking – is crucial for breaking through mental health stigma

Asha spent many years too ashamed of her feelings to admit she was struggling. She began self-harming as a teenager and there were times when she thought about taking her own life. But in her close-knit Pakistani community, asking for help never felt like an option.

“I grew up in quite an abusive household: there was physical abuse, emotional abuse and a lot of honour abuse too,” she says. Honour abuse describes abuse intended to protect the ‘honour’ of a family or community.

“Then at the age of 15, I went through quite a traumatic experience at home, and due to that I started getting anxiety – though I had no idea at the time that that’s what it was."

"It was only recently, at the age of 30, that I finally managed to escape the abuse for good.”

Today, Asha runs workshops and campaigns to break through the prejudice and misconceptions she believes stop people in South Asian communities from being honest about their mental health. Encouraging people to talk is part of what’s needed, she says, but it’s not enough on its own to stop stigma for good.

To do that, we also need a major increase in research – to help us understand how mental illness affects people, to learn what stops people from seeking help, and to discover how we can offer the right support for everyone, in every community.

Hiding the truth about ‘happy pills’

Asha was 18 when she broke down at college and confided in a teacher, explaining that she dreaded going home at night because she couldn’t fulfil her parents’ expectations of what it meant to be “good, obedient Pakistani girl”. Soon afterwards, she left home and moved into a women’s refuge.

“One of my siblings suffered from depression when I was growing up,” she says, “but we never really spoke about it at all. We talked about ‘happy pills’, and we all knew to keep it quiet that someone in our household was taking them."

"That shows the mentality about mental health in the community, really. If you mention mental health, you’re isolated, there’s a stigma attached to you. Unfortunately it lowers how you are seen in the community, so you keep schtum, you just don’t mention it.”

Eventually Asha moved back home and, despite promises to the contrary, the abuse continued. It wasn’t until her late twenties, when she began working in a mental health hospital, that what she saw made her determined to start confronting stigma head-on.

Refusing to stay silent

Asha realised the difference between what she was seeing in hospital and what was being said in her community. “I saw people from South Asian families who were sectioned, and then heard their families saying they were actually on holiday."

"People were in denial, and it started to frustrate me a hell of a lot. I became a lot more open as a result, admitting for the first time the abuse that was going on at my home. Not even my best friend knew what was happening before that point.”

Asha went on to set up Generation Reform, sharing her personal experiences through workshops and campaigns to encourage people from South Asian communities not to be ashamed about the struggles they face.

“I get hundreds of messages from people who can relate to what I’m going through,” she says. “I never saw myself as a role model. I was just coming to terms with what I was suffering from: how I saw it, how I still see it. I don’t see myself as something to aspire to, but as someone willing to be more open and more honest.”

Smashing stigma with research

So what does research have to do with encouraging people to open up? For Asha, it comes down to increasing our knowledge of how people are really affected by mental illness – and finding new answers and ways to respond as a result.

“Research plays an absolutely massive part in every aspect of life and impacts how every campaigner runs their work. But we just haven’t got the accurate stats and data about South Asian communities we need to understand levels of mental illness and what support is helping in those communities." 

"The lack of research stops people getting the right help, and it also restricts people like me who want funding to tackle more issues facing these communities but don’t have the information showing the problems that exist. It’s so important to have an organisation like MQ funding research to build our knowledge.”

Do that, and gradually you can chip away at stigma, helping people not to judge or feel ashamed, but to seek and find the right help.

“Too many people are suffering in silence,” says Asha, who features in our #WeSwear campaign calling on people to swear to tackle mental illness with us through research.

“Being part of the campaign is a privilege, especially knowing how research can provide understanding, which therefore breaks down the barriers of lack of knowledge and prejudice of mental health. This benefits anyone suffering from mental illness and the worry about the prejudice they face.”

Last updated: 1 August 2018

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