April 24, 2013

Smile faceI come from the South Asian Community and lived in a very traditional Pakistani home. I balanced two contrasting lifestyles: one where I was expected to be a perfect daughter and sister doing all the housework and cooking from a young age and the other where I had an ambition to educate myself and be successful. My parents were supportive of my education as long as my role as a traditional Pakistani girl was not neglected. I successfully completed two degrees.

I have lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life without it being diagnosed. My depression increased as I became older, including my self-harming and two suicide attempts in my 20s. The last one resulted in hospital admission for one month. I was 28.

There is no term for 'mental health' in Urdu or Punjabi

On reflection I had two big issues to deal with, one of culture and tradition and the other of my mental health. At that time I didn’t know it was referred to as a ‘mental health’. Why? Because there is no term for what ‘mental health’ is in Urdu or Punjabi.

In it’s literal translation it means something like ‘problem with the brain’, which implies ‘being mental/crazy’. In my experience there was a lot of stigma, ignorance, discrimination and oppression against those that were identified as ‘mental/crazy’.

No one ever spoke about mental health

It is quite distressing even writing about mental health in this manner as it feels very demeaning and implies negative connotations. But that is how it is, even today in 2013. It’s a very sad, lonely and scary illness to be living with. No one ever spoke about mental health.

It was only something someone who is ‘mental/crazy’ has and those people are shunned and not spoken about in society. In my experience, this culture dictates that those people are ‘bad’ people, they must’ve done something wrong, they have an ‘evil spirit’. As a child all this was reinforced to me, indirectly so, but I identified with these ‘crazy’ people because I could see me in them.

No one picked up on the signs or symptoms

I displayed various behaviours, signs and symptoms of some sort of mental health distress but it was never picked upon. I guess as time went by I tried to reach out but never got a positive response so I continued to battle it out in my own mind and through self-harming, which in various stages of my life represented the severity of my mental illness.

I carried on with my life and focussed all of my attention on my studies so I could get away from my mind and self. I was successful in my education and career but it was far from the actual reality I lived in: the one that was hitting rock bottom, the one where it felt right to take my own life. No way out. No one to talk to. It was a very dark time in my life.

My BME worker empowered me to talk to my family

I could talk to my friends. But the people I really wanted to talk to was my family. I just wanted them to ask me, ‘how are you?’ My second suicide attempt resulted in me ending up in hospital. The help of staff and my BME worker, who was from the same cultural background, empowered me to talk to my family.

The language barrier was so that I needed a translator to communicate what I wanted to say in Punjabi/Urdu because I did not have the words to express myself in the way I felt comfortable. Don’t get me wrong my Urdu and Punjabi are fluent but it felt more shameful to say it in my native tongue. Perhaps because that’s the culture I associate with discriminatory attitudes against people with mental health problems.

My sister helped explain the concept of mental illness

Regretfully, the translator did a terrible job. I can laugh about it now, as I’m in a better place, but at the time I was furious because I felt she did not convey what I really wanted to say. In the end my sister helped me to explain the concept of mental illness, self harming, suicide and the long and short term impact.

I felt like at times I was teaching them about a new phenomenon rather than having support from them. Although they listened and understood to a basic level, they were unable to help me. For them, I wasn’t ‘crazy’ in its obvious form, I was me. They don’t understand that I only need someone to listen to me and someone to talk to. My BME Worker helped me the most. She understood the mental illness and the cultural issues but most importantly she listened and was able to convey this to my parents.

I am slowly building my confidence to talk about my experiences

I am still on a journey, slowly building my confidence so I can talk about my experience in a more positive way and help those from similar situation as me.

All I wanted from my family was for them to acknowledge my mental health problems, to acknowledge that I will have good and bad days, to talk to me about my feelings and emotions and to listen. All I really wanted was to be heard and understood. You don’t have to be Pakistani or English to do any of this. You just need to be human.

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