I come from an Indian background and have lived in the UK for over 30 years. In 2007, I was diagnosed with severe depression but had had many episodes from 1989 up until then. In 2008, I was then diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and have had several relapses since that time. As a result, I am now better informed about my mental illness and know how to seek out and get immediate help and support.
For a very long time, I hid my mental illness from family and friends. However due to my lengthy admission to hospital in 2007, I was only able to cover up for a month by saying I was attending a course in Manchester. I could not carry on the lie much longer, as the admission went on for a further three months.
So, what stopped me from telling? Is it because I was ashamed of my mental illness or was it because I was embarrassed by how others might perceive me if they found out? I realised that I also had a preconceived idea about mental illness and I lacked knowledge and understanding of it.
I felt it was a sign of weakness; I did not want anyone to know that I was weak and that I could not handle what life threw at me. I also felt that my family and friends had succumbed to the age-old culture of keeping mental illness a secret. This is very common among the South Asian community. At one point, I too believed that mental health problems are not to be talked about publicly. I felt the stigma, feared people gossiping behind my back and then there was the reputation of the family at stake.
My family members weren’t aware of how to support me - I used to put on a very brave face when they visited me. One time, a family member told me not to take the antidepressants as I could ‘get hooked’ on them. I was even advised not to talk to my friends about it as it was ‘not necessary’.
Almost 20 years later, I find that there is greater understanding of mental health problems among the general population but not so much within ethnic minority or marginalised communities. I applaud how famous people have come forward to talk about their mental health problem openly but it’s still rare to hear stories from ethnic minority groups.
I run small workshops for Asian women on mental health problems. By talking about my own journey, I have been able to create a platform for them to openly share and learn about mental health issues, be it mild to severe depression or even anxiety.
There needs to be greater awareness of how to take care of our mental health and wellbeing, including the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, so that people can seek help much earlier. I left it way too late and sought help only when I was at the verge of contemplating suicide.
There needs to be greater involvement of family in supporting people with mental health problems. There has to be better openness and communication between mental health patients, clinicians and family members. Clinicians should be encouraged to get family members involved in the treatment and care plan of their patients.
Members of my family were there to support me physically, by taking care of my daughter and visiting me, however they were unable to support my mental wellbeing. They would not engage in any conversation about my mental illness - even to date it is a taboo topic.
I have valued the support provided by Mind and feel encouraged to be part of their national equality improvement steering group to help create positive change. This in turn, has also helped me to better understand and connect with people from other ethnic groups who are facing similar issues.