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Stigma, shame and suicide: we need to break the silence within the Asian community.

Published on Huffington Post Online.

Research has shown high rates of suicide among young South-Asian women within the UK. Some studies have reported a two to three fold increased risk of suicide compared to that of British white women (within the 15 -35 age range). Asian women who have attempted or completed suicide are also less likely to have had a mental illness diagnosed. They are more likely to attempt suicide by setting fire to one-self. Yet, despite these alarming statistics, there is a numbing silence about mental health within British Asian communities.

Priya, 24-years-old, lives in London with her self-described ‘modern Indian’ family. She recalls when she had her first bout of severe depression, her parents dismissal, and their anger when they found she was taking medication. She says they were unable to understand it as an illness and to this day her father has refused to speak about it.

There is widespread ignorance and misconceptions among the Asian community. In Urdu and Punjabi there isn’t a word for ‘mental illness’; instead often derogatory labels such as ‘crazy’ or ‘weak of mind’ are used. Some believe it to be a result of misdemeanours in a previous life, or that the individual is possessed by spirits known as ‘jinn’. These harmful beliefs have been perpetuated by some religious leaders, advocating that ceremonies or increased attendance at the mosque or temple will rid the symptoms.

Stigma within the community weighs down on individuals affected. Priya feels that, despite eight years of appointments & patient information leaflets, there still remains a visible reluctance within her family to speak openly about it. For young women, there are deep fears that openness about her mental health will affect her marriage prospects.

Secrecy and shame are recurring themes found in the research. Seema, a British-born Sikh lawyer, explained her mental health deteriorated after her ‘introduction’ marriage to a British-Asian man. Soon after moving in with his family, she became the victim of relentless daily abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law. She felt unable to speak out, and was essentially told by her family she must put up with it, rather than endure the shame of divorce.

It is still common for the bride to move in with the husband’s family, and domestic abuse from the mother-in-law remains hidden but prevalent. Social isolation that can occur after marriage can make the young bride vulnerable. Alarmingly, there are still a few that believe the bride to be the property of her husband and his family. One study found that three-quarters of the Asian women that self-harmed conveyed marital difficulties. Asian victims of domestic violence are less likely to seek help from authorities, due to a multitude of factors. Sexual violence is prevalent yet grossly under-reported, particularly within the domestic setting. Yet appallingly, some community leaders still refuse to acknowledge the existence of marital rape.

A further factor, carefully trod upon in the research using the finely coined term ‘intergenerational cultural conflict’. It is apparent that in most of the suicide attempts of young Asian women, there was a conflict between ‘traditional’ parents and ‘westernised’ daughters. This term, of course, encompasses a large spectrum, from discontent with their daughters choice of clothes and boyfriends, to the other extreme of so-called ‘honour’ based violence. The unfortunate fact remains that there are many girls born in this country that are denied their rights and forced into marriages against their will. The charity Karmanirvarna stated they received on average per month 250 new cases of honour-based violence or forced marriages. This is likely to be just scratching the surface. The curtailing of freedom and disempowerment of these girls is strong risk factor self-harm and suicide.

Ignorance, shame and stigma. Dishonour and disempowerment. This needs to be addressed now, not just by individuals but has to occur on a community level. Community leaders themselves need to be educated and take responsibility, and use their platforms to open dialogue and promote real change. The world health organisation has asked us today, On World Health Day, to speak out about depression. We must do this within our Asian community. It is time to break the silence.


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