Many of us enjoyed the BBC2 dramatization of ‘The Boy with the Top Knot’ last night, a film (and much lauded book) touching on themes of secrecy, mental health and the life of a second-generation immigrant.
‘Enjoyed’ is probably the wrong word not least because the issue of mental health in Asian families is deeply disturbing because of the deliberate and very particular way it is given such short shrift and importance, leading to a culture of stigmatised silence that burns deeper into the psyche of those who need help the most.
So why is this?
One element might well be that traditional Asian families hate failure.
In a society where reputation is based on groups - if something bad happens to you, it is a reflection of poor parenting from your parents. Not only you will be shamed, but your family will be as well. If you grew up in that kind of environment for a good chunk of your life, you will start taking this in, and it will be harder for you to seek therapy.
This programme-and Sanghera’s book-is important because it gives the Asian community role models who actively talk about this ‘failure’, showing that mental health shouldn't be seen as a stigma, but a regular part of life and how you can grow and be better as a person.
Most Asian parents only know of "hard work" and "perseverance," and seem to equate a lot of other things to weakness. They sometimes deny emotions rather than accepting that emotions are an intrinsic part of every human being. They see "new ideas" as a threat to what they taught, rather than an addition to what they know.
Doubts about therapy exist even outside of the Asian community. There is a lot of stigma against the idea of mental health support and it doesn't help that a lot of it is equated to people who are "psychopaths." If I go on a further tangent, so called psychopaths and other people who are deeply troubled are a result of a society who refuses to face the idea of mental health being just as important as physical health. We ignore it, suppress it, and misconstrue it to the point where someone is so deeply disturbed and hurt that things are out of control. It's the same as any other illness. If you refuse to acknowledge it, it can get worse and cause so much unnecessary suffering that could've been avoided and treated while it was manageable. It doesn't justify what horrible things some can end up doing, but if we want to resolve it then it can't be continually ignored.
It's always the same pattern when you look at individuals who suffer from mental disturbance (particularly pertaining to extreme cases where they cause harm to others in acts of violence). They are labelled as trouble, instead of being seen as a result of troublesome circumstances and misguidance which lead them with the inability to cope with it in a healthy matter. They're fired from jobs. Coworkers despise them. They're ignored by families, hated by neighbours. Seen as oddballs, and largely misunderstood. They have no one to talk to. No one who truly understand that in the inside they are not bad at all, just in need of someone who will see them beyond all the negativity. And all it would've taken is just one person to help them see things differently. That's where therapy and mental support and de-stigmatizing is incredibly important. The symptoms are all in front of our eyes. People who feel that there is no hope are the ones who turn to doing bad things. We as a society need to be more supportive of such individuals' recovery, not demonizing them after it's too far gone.
There’s also the element that psychotherapy is a relatively new practice that has only gained mainstream adoption in the late 20th century, and only in the West. So really, anywhere outside Europe and the USA, psychotherapy has yet to be widely adopted, and so people naturally seek existing traditional treatments. Not only that, it can be said that psychotherapy is also shadier in non-popularized countries due to their unfamiliarity and lack of regulation (even self-regulation), which does not help their adoption at all.
Another important catalyst to psychotherapy is the intuition that we, as individuals, are in control of our identity, our being, and the meaning of life. Therapy is very much about regaining control in pursuit of stability. However, these intuitions are Western cultural intuitions that often directly conflict with foreign cultural intuitions of other cultures.
But largely the eastern/South Asian culture has deep roots in personal strength and integrity of character. This is actually seen in very specific, identified phenomena that affect or become of young Asians, in particular, males who struggle with mental illnesses. It is not as accepted and they are comparatively often less sympathetic to it in that part of the world.
Males with mental illnesses or other afflictions of character, so to speak, often feel great shame; not only unto themselves but that they are shaming their family through their perceived weakness. This is especially poignant to them.
Mental health is an ‘invisible burden’ within Asian communities and it’s time we look beyond stigma and concentrate on welfare.
Saurav Dutt is the Guardian Books and LA Times Book short-listed British author of fiction and nonfiction works. He wrote for The Guardian, The Independent; he is a novelist, independent film producer, playwright, screenwriter, graphic design illustrator and above all, an accomplished author and [...]