• Shiri

How We Can Beat the Stigma of Mental Health

A week ago, #timetotalk was trending on Twitter. I get the feeling, people feel a sense of self-satisfaction when promoting awareness of mental health on social media, but when it comes to actually discussing the ins and outs of it with someone, we all seem to shy away. It's understandable, we're not exposed to this often, and we were never taught how to handle such situations.

We see someone walking down the street talking to themselves and think they're "crazy" or we hear about someone being sectioned and we assume they're violent and aggressive. Sadly, this is because it's the way society and media have portrayed people suffering from mental health problems. It takes a lot of courage for someone with mental illness to open up, so if someone decides to bring up the topic with you, how would you respond?

Mental health is a spectrum. Some are very aware of how they are feeling, and there are some who are entirely oblivious to what's happening to them, let alone around them. I happen to be someone who is aware. I've been dealing with my depression for several years now and I can recognise when I have bad days and I know what I need to be doing to feel better. On most days, I can deal with it myself, but sometimes I can't, and at that point, I may reach out to friends and family. What I need at that point is for you to be there for me. But what does that actually mean? It means I need someone to listen to me, distract me and remind me of the good in my life.

Sadly what I often get is "but why do you feel like this?". Trust me, if I knew the answer to that, I would have already solved it.

Based on what I've heard from other people who are also experiencing depression, the cause is often unexplained or irrational. Something small that we didn't really notice in ourselves has caused us to spiral. Once we have spiralled it is incredibly challenging to do everyday things and often, we can't explain why we feel this way, but we do, so just be there for us while we come out of it. We don't expect you to understand it, but we do want you to extend to us the same patience, kindness and tolerance you would want if you were having a bad day. You don't need to go out of your way every day to do this either; having a mental illness doesn't necessarily mean poor mental health. One can exacerbate the other, but mental illness can also fluctuate; hence people tend to have good days and bad days. Just try and be there for them when you can.

Mental health is a huge taboo topic all around the world, not to mention the Tamil community. A lot of us struggle to talk to our friends about it, let alone our parents because for a lot of them, it simply just doesn't exist and therefore, isn't taken seriously. I can see why it's often brushed aside by the older generation. Most of them came over as refugees - they had bigger problems to deal with. So it's understandable that many aren't on the same wavelength when you tell them you're depressed.

Looking at the wider South Asian community, there isn't much difference, mental health issues are taken literally as being "mental".

Reputation and cultural expectations only strengthen the stigma within the community, especially with the older generation as often it's associated with the supernatural, and therefore not spoken of. This was the case growing up because my mum suffered from schizophrenia. Retrospectively she had relatively mild symptoms in comparison to many others with the same condition. Still, regardless of how severe her symptoms were, we weren't allowed to talk about it outside of the house because of the age-old saying: "What would other people think?". Given all the stigma around it, the majority of family and friends who knew about our situation decided to distance themselves from my mum. My mum was semi-aware of what was going on, but belonging to the older, more traditional generation, she too thought that it was many a supernatural thing that was going on. It's great that we can help raise awareness for it so easily through social media nowadays. But to really help we need to start having those "uncomfortable" conversations, whether that be with our parents or with our friends.

We tend to treat those with a physical illness with more sympathy than those who have a mental illness. So, if someone IS talking about it, they either don't care what others think, or they've thought about it so much that they need to get it off their chest. And they've come to you to do so. Be honoured, be privileged that they've chosen you to open up to. Respect their thoughts because that is how they feel and do your best to be there for them when they need you. Listen, try not to judge and don't feel like you need to have all the answers, it's that simple.