Health > The stigma & shame of mental health

Posted on February 20, 2017


Nadira Ibrahim and Firdowsa Abdulle ask why some communities are still afraid to tackle perceptions and misconceptions

With one in ten people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, it seems as if more and more people are opening up about this difficult topic.

In 2015, the government invested in a national campaign with the organisation Time to Change, to address mental health among young people and change the way people think.

Time to Change reported an increase in the number of people willing to live or work with someone suffering from a mental health problem. Meanwhile, a number of high profile celebrities, like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, are openly speaking out about their own experiences.

However, as second-generation Somalis we’re surrounded by a familiar silence concerning mental health. It’s not uncommon to hear rumours like: “They’ve been possessed by Shaytan [the devil].” “She’s just mad,” or claims that an affliction has been struck upon a person by an evil eye.

Why such derogatory or dismissive judgements? It’s partly because people blur the boundaries between religion and health. But also, many people simply aren’t well informed, and that’s not through choice.

The civil war that has ravaged Somalia from 1991 left many people deprived of an education. With religion the only other source of understanding, it is clear why many rely on religious traditions to explain something like mental health. This problem is not just apparent within the Somali community.

One in ten people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year

Discussions with the counselling service Turning Point revealed the extent of the “stigma and shame” associated with having a mental illness, among people from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds. “A good understanding of mental health problems does not exist… issues are not discussed and are frowned upon,” the organisation reported.

Such attitudes prevent those suffering being able to obtain treatment in good time. One Asian student, interviewed by the website HealthTalk, said that many families in his
community believe “their kids have been possessed and it would bring shame on their family… so they prefer to keep [them] at home and not let them access mental health services.”

In fact, according to Time to Change, 93% of people from black and minority ethnic groups with mental health issues also face discrimination from their own communities.

It’s no wonder people don’t feel able to openly discuss their mental health. They fear being judged and treated differently by the very people who should be supporting them.

So what would help to combat these stigmas? Firstly, education. This could include raising awareness through campaigns on social media or in local newspapers read by these communities.

Minority ethnic groups with mental health issues also face discrimination from their own communities

Workshops could be another option. Discussing what people think are the causes of mental health problems, and then providing them with the actual facts. Workshop leaders would need to know how to communicate with the community effectively, so nothing is lost in translation.

There are various examples of such educational projects taking place. At the Tottenham Talking project, 30 trained volunteers from black and ethnic minorities ran ‘eat and talk’ sessions. They invited a total of over 1,200 visitors to share their experience of mental health while eating together.

If education is the key to tackling perceptions and misconceptions, it’s only part of the solution. We also need much more information about how ethnic minorities are affected by mental health.

The Lankelly Chase Foundation is trying to implement this by investing £1.25 million over the next five years in gathering and sharing data on ethnic inequality.

Sometimes it can feel like even if we have the key to the door, we can’t get in because the lock is jammed. In other words, even by focusing on education, many barriers to better treatment for people with mental health problems still persist.

To lessen the plague of mental health taboos, the door simply needs to be opened by whatever means possible — even if we have to knock it down!

This article originally appeared in issue 124 a mental health special funded by John Lyon’s Charity.

Our thanks to John Lyon’s Charity for making this project possible.


Nadira Ibrahim
Firdowsa Abdulle


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One Response to The stigma & shame of mental health

  1. Charlotte April 4, 2017 at 10:50 am #

    This article really impressed me. Not only because of the fact that your writing style is incredibly good and because you pointed out that mental health is a taboo in your own culture (I don’t think a lot of people would do that. We all tend to claim we’re the best, don’t we?) but also because I wasn’t aware of how much silencing and ridiculing mental health was still a thing.
    I like your idea to host workshops!
    I wish more people would read this article.

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