Mental health taboos in south Asian culture

May 15, 2023

Collage concept by Sajeda with images from Pexels and photograph by Jonathan Borba

Sajeda Choudhury explores transgenerational trauma and the importance of expressing emotions

Is mental health a taboo in the south Asian diaspora, or are we just conditioned into thinking that showing emotions is a sign of weakness?

Being a young Bangladeshi Muslim woman, I am acutely aware that my culture and religion have been inextricably tied to the toxic teaching of perseverance and, essentially, belittling the importance of looking after our mental health.

For good emotional wellbeing we need to be conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and how we behave. All our feelings are valid and shouldn’t be repressed nor demonised.

Many things that happen in our lives can disrupt our emotional health. These can lead to strong feelings of sadness, stress and anxiety which are not signs of weakness but signs that tell us we are all humans.

It is vital to remember our physical health is synonymous with our mental health. In the same way we are not to deny our body water and essential nutrients, we are not to reject and repress our thoughts and feelings. When we are stressed, anxious, or upset, our bodies react in a way that is telling us that something isn’t right.

There is strength in the act of crying; it is our body exploding with emotions that need room to flow. Crying releases oxytocin and the body’s natural opioids. These feel-good chemicals can help ease both emotional and
physical pain.

The older generation, within the South Asian communities, are unable to see that mental health needs the same nurturing as physical health

This is not to say that crying is the only way of releasing pent up feelings but it’s certainly one that has been misconstrued as feminine and weak. Subsequently it has created generations who need healing but don’t know how to help themselves.

In Islam, we have a beautiful concept that we live by called sabr. Sabr teaches us how to navigate our lives. It tells us to be patient and to persevere in the face of adversity which in turn paves a path of righteousness. However, in practice, sabr has been used to invalidate my feelings. You can read more about sabr here.

There have been many times growing up where I needed encouragement to express my emotions. Instead, I was only met with a cold, ‘have sabr and pray’. I was told to pray and to remember how lucky I was to be going to sleep with a full stomach.

When I was physically injured, I was told to pray and go to the hospital. Subconsciously, I learnt how to suppress my emotions which gave me terrible headaches, anxiety, and a bad case of overthinking.

Recently, however I am slowly learning to embody sabr as a way of embracing my feelings. Of course, it doesn’t evaporate my problems but teaches me how to accept and express them.

I feel that most of the older generation, within the South Asian communities, are unable to see that mental health needs the same nurturing as physical health. It’s almost as if mental health issues don’t exist for them.

Research shows we can pass down the trauma of our own childhood, which is known as transgenerational trauma

It is imperative to dismantle the idea that a display of emotions means we are struggling to embody sabr. On the contrary, we have sabr because we are able to share our emotions.

Parents pass down all kinds of traits to their children, from hair and eye colour to how tall we grow. Research shows they can also pass down the trauma of their own childhood, which is known as transgenerational trauma. This trauma affects people so profoundly that future generations can be impacted as well.

Many of our families immigrated to the West in pursuit of a better life. They have run from war-torn countries, death, poverty, and destruction, having never addressed or healed from their traumatic experiences. A roof over their heads and food on the table was all that mattered to them and was something to be grateful for.

The older generation had to survive and showing feelings was synonymous to weakness. It is vital that these beliefs are exposed and dismantled by the younger generations so we can all live a healthier life.

During my exploration of the importance of taking care of mental health, I’ve discovered that many of my generation in the UK, with similar heritage, have been subject to transgenerational trauma.

I feel ever more determined and passionate about stamping out the stigma around mental health. I’m sure there are many people my age who are suffering without really understanding why.

We want to challenge our culture and scream that it’s okay to need to scream!

Sajeda is an English student at King's College London, where she is endeavouring to find her creative spark to pave her way towards a future filled with writing and books. Sajeda hopes to one day use her creativity to help dismantle ignorance.

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