Having gone through difficulties myself during my time at university, I was hugely helped by my housemates who provided a formidable support structure to help me through tough times. Throughout my time at university, we all helped each other with a number of things. We were very close and could speak, share, and discuss pretty much anything. This environment helped a lot.
Looking back at the Punjabi community, especially at relationships between men, it would be a lot harder for someone going through mental health difficulties to use such groups as strong support-structures. At a time where the National Health Service is being placed under increasing pressures, as waiting lists are longer and resources are stretched, it is hugely important that communities are able to support themselves, with regards to helping people through mental health difficulties.
I recall a conversation I had at the gurdwara (Sikh spiritual centre) with a middle-aged Sikh man. I spoke about the increasing mental health issues in the local community, to which he dismissed my claims that mental health was even an issue, asserting that it was something of ‘my generation’. Seeing his rejection and blindness to a very real issue concerned me.
After seeing how far away the Punjabi community was from being able to support each other through mental health difficulty, I started Tarakī; a movement designed to fundamentally change how the Punjabi community understand, approach, and treat mental health difficulties and those suffering from them. This is a long-term goal, but we believe that by working alongside local and national mental health initiatives, volunteers, and groups, we can make this change happen. Since starting Tarakī in November, we have focused a lot of our social media capacity on beginning to change the relationship between Punjabi men and mental health, starting to undo the stigma attached to the subject by platforming and amplifying the mental health experiences of various Punjabi men.
In the Punjabi community there is a distinct expectation of men to behave, act, and speak in a certain way. Discussion of mental health is distinctly at-odds with this expectation. Men must be rational and logical, not ‘emotional’. Men must be strong and tough, not ‘weak’. Men must be a fearless shere (lion) - something mental health discussion and experience is placed in opposition to. These cultural ideas of manliness, or masculinity, are not unique to the experience of Punjabi men, as they occur across groups around the world. Similarly, such ideas of what it means to be a ‘man’ in contemporary society have the impact of distancing men from engagement with mental health, be that education, awareness, or discussion of the topic.
Through our work on Punjabi men and mental health, Tarakī has helped to normalise conversation around mental health, shaping the essential foundations from which we can build better and more supportive relationships within the Punjabi community. When starting the project, I rarely received submissions – however, moving forward, Punjabi men are much more open to discussing their experiences or even acknowledging the existence of mental ill health. This is a huge step forward from the denial I have experienced with some in the community.
Beginning a conversation on a topic which is often swept under the rug, is a massive step in developing a community with more ability to support those going through mental health difficulties. Over 20 men have shared their understandings of mental health, and we are beginning to close the gap in perception which stops Punjabi men from even speaking about mental health openly.
Through a sustained approach of awareness and empowering the community to build better support structures, Tarakī and many grassroots initiatives can begin to approach an issue which has impacted the community for so long. With small steps and working within and between communities through such initiatives such as Time to Change, we can all begin to shape the way mental health is understood, approached, and treated.