Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 concluded yesterday on May 21, with the theme of anxiety being the key focus. But the topic of mental health remains ongoing – including everything associated with it, such as stigma, disorders, depression, visibility and support. A Spectrum colleague bravely shared their story with us, about their mental health experiences as a British Indian Muslim:
“I finally accepted I needed help for my mental health in my early adulthood, but have had various personal problems since I was a child. It’s understandable for adults today, when there was (and still is) so much stigma around mental health. To admit to having problems with your brain would be to admit that you are essentially a ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ person.
As a Muslim, it meant having my level of faith scrutinised – which made me feel that it was my fault. I got the usual harmful tropes of ‘snap out of it’, ‘stop acting’ and, in my case, ‘it’s because you don’t pray enough’. I then realised these comments are un-Islamic and there is a lot of work being done in our communities to inform people. There’s prayer, but there’s also action.
Being of Indian origin, my faith and culture do get mixed up sometimes – and often I’ve been told a visit to India would cure me. Perhaps see some spiritualists and herbalists. Often being told to avoid medication given by my GP. This causes much conflict. I try to talk about my experiences openly, in an effort to normalise talking about feelings and encourage people to seek help if needed.
My issues had a major impact on my school life, which led to me refusing to attend and becoming housebound. My attendance fluctuated before it got to this point and I had times where my attendance was very good. I remember white pupils being commended for improved attendance, but I didn’t receive such praise. I really needed support, but it was so hard to explain my anxieties, and what I was able to say was laughed at. Again, I did see some of my white counterparts who were struggling at school receive extra support, but I didn’t get this. The best I got was being given respite from normal classes by sitting with expelled kids!
Once I stopped attending, the contact from school stopped too – apart from the occasional ‘is he coming?’ call. After much determination, I was referred to a Pupil Referral Unit into their anxious non-attenders class. It was amazing for me and my confidence, being in a place not nearly as loud where staff could give you the attention and encouragement required. I was only one of two ethnic minority pupils, and everybody else, including the staff, were all white. This had its challenges, including indirect racism. Thinking about it, it’s not right that it didn’t reflect society, like many organisations fail to do. Were there kids out there similar to me who were denied this support, and if so, why? Still, I got the basic GCSEs required and moved on.
There is plenty of research done to prove that facing racism affects your health and the COVID-19 pandemic has put health inequalities into focus. I do sometimes think if I was white, how the support I have received would have differed. Finding the courage to talk your GP, getting referred and being on a waiting list is bad enough!
I’m quite a self-conscious person and being brown-skinned has certain harmful stereotypes. In public, I have moments I have felt I’ve been seen as suspicious, feeling I need to reassure everybody around me that they are safe. It took me a long time to realise that this isn’t normal and have worked hard in challenging these thoughts, but it is hard. It’s easy to take the amount of people spouting deplorable racist hate speech online as reflective of how most people think in society, and this doesn’t help either. It takes a lot to differentiate between the two and then my anxiety lessens.
The actor David Harewood talks candidly about his mental health in the BBC documentary Psychosis and Me and the affect racism is having on young black men. A lot of research has found racism is bad for your health and David talks about how what he saw on screen and stage (not reflecting the society he lived in) might have been a cause for or impacted his psychosis.
Muslims often joke about being stopped at airports as a way to make it easier to deal with. Being made to feel like you are a threat is not pleasant and you can easily become obsessed with proving you are ‘one of the good ones’ – another problematic phrase. Microaggressions might not seem like a lot in isolation, but when you have a whole life of hearing certain comments, it’s bound to affect you. This is why when people have a chance to talk about their experiences of racism, they say they’re tired, both by having to defend themselves and taking so much abuse. It’s also tiring having mental health problems. Both are easy to forget, but there’s so much happening in our minds that it takes up a lot of energy.
Hopefully with all the hard work that’s being done to make society fairer, we will all be healthier, happier and united as a result.”