Following World Mental Health Day 2018, Shuranjeet Singh reflects on how social structures can affect mental health, and his efforts in addressing mental health openly within the Punjabi community
On this year’s World Mental Health Day, as I spent my morning at a breakfast event in Handsworth, Birmingham, and my afternoon as a speaker at a university event entitled ‘What is Mental Health?’, I also found myself following the various discussions arising on social media.
Needless to say, I was moved and inspired by all those talking of either their own difficulties or the need for us all to be more open about mental health. Amongst this, I noticed that the UK government appointed a minister for ‘Suicide Prevention’, a jarring announcement which reminded me of the intimate relationship between politics, society, and mental health. At a broad level, our society and its politics do not lend themselves to maintaining mental wellbeing for many of us, and it concerned me to see far fewer people critiquing such structures on #WorldMentalHealthDay.
For those of us who are part of minority groups, we have to deal with a debilitating social culture – endless working hours, low and precarious salaries, and cuts to health services – as well as experiences of racism, othering, and exclusion, in everyday life and at a structural level.
Being visibly Sikh, donning a dastaar (Sikh turban) and a beard, my experience of perceived racial difference at university in Bristol made my time, upon reflection, very difficult. Encounters ranged from persistent ignorant comments, drunken students asking to feel my beard, to others telling me how they ‘like Sikhs because they don’t like Muslims’. Seemingly small and off-hand incidents slowly built enormous tensions, massively shaping my self-perception.
In some senses, I was lucky that beards and buns were in fashion at the time, so I set aside the most visible marker of my Sikh identity – my turban – in an effort to assimilate into perceived ‘normality’. The ignorant comments reduced but did not disappear entirely. However, now, I had also developed two ‘lives’: my university Self and my home Self. The (mis)management of this, undoubtedly, contributed to my mental health difficulties. Sitting and chatting with coursemates was a continuous performance as I felt forced to suppress my Sikh upbringing. Feelings of social judgement became unbearable and I was stunted by seemingly simple interactions. I was lucky enough to have several support structures: my housemates, my personal tutor, and my university work.
The perception of social judgement which encapsulated my time in Bristol was couched in my experiences of constantly being singled out as ‘Other’, as abnormal, and as negatively different. As people of colour this is a feeling that is constantly refracted through layers of politics and media responses. Think of the migration ‘hostile environment’, characterised by ‘Windrush failures’ or the post-Brexit rise in hate crime.
Emerging from these struggles, I founded Taraki, a movement which seeks to re-shape how Punjabi communities approach mental health. One of our projects looks to platform the mental health experiences of Punjabi men to show them that is acceptable to discuss vulnerability, and personal difficulties in a public arena. Other parts of our work include talks at gurdware (Sikh temples), universities, and community centres. A culture of silence and stigma pervades Punjabi communities and this needs to be tackled.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists have outlined that institutional inequalities for black and minority ethnic communities in Britain mean that they are increasingly likely to be disadvantaged across all aspects of society, provoking risk factors for developing mental illness. As shown by the Mental Health Foundation, Black and Minority Ethnic groups are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, are more likely to experience a poor outcome from treatment, and are more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services. That’s what makes it so important that discussions on mental health awareness bring in the political issues that relate to wellbeing. Yes it’s important to tell one another that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ but the question of who gets to be healthy is also a politicised one.
Shuranjeet Singh is the founder of Taraki, a movement which wants to change how Punjabi communities approach mental health. Taraki was established in October 2017 whilst pursuing graduate studies at Oxford University, and moving forwards, Shuranjeet wants to work with Punjabis to develop better structures of support for those living with mental health difficulties, sharing his knowledge and experiences with others to best meet the needs of diverse and complex communities around the United Kingdom.
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