Suffering in Secret- South Asian Mental Health

Suffering in Secret- South Asian Mental Health

I was always aware of my difficulties with food. It all began at the age of about 16 when I started restricting my intake, initially in school. I quickly realised I could also restrict at home, so I did.

Fast forward 13 years when I was officially diagnosed with Anorexia and I found myself under the care of Mental Health Services. I kept everything a secret and my family were none the wiser of my struggles with my mental health. I am sure they noticed I had lost weight, but it was never spoken of and in a disordered way my eating disorder thrived off this. I kept all my appointments a secret and did not allow my Care-Coordinator to my family home, which is where I resided. But then came the time when I was subject to a Mental Health Act Assessment, at which point I was given the choice to voluntarily accept an admission to my general psychiatric hospital or to be detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. I recall my heart sinking and feeling physically sick and panicked. Not so much so because of the options outlined to me, but because I had to let my family in. I had to inform my family that I was going to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This filled me with dread. Why? Because I come from a South Asian family and there is a huge amount of stigma attached to “mental hospitals”, where “all the crazy people go”. I feared my family’s reaction. I recall planning for hours how I was going to break the news to them. A big part of me felt so ashamed.

I eventually decided to inform, only my Dad. I phrased it in a way which in my mind, “did not sound so bad” by saying the doctors said I must go, if I do not go, I will be forced to go. My Dad comes from a generation with the thinking of “do as the doctors says”, so I figured he may be able to digest the news better if I picked my words carefully. I was right. He told me to do “what the doctors says”. The rest of my family got to find out about it when I was packing my bags. Not ideal, I know but I just could not face telling my siblings. I spent three long weeks on the unit, where I waited for a bed to become available at my local Eating Disorders Unit.

The first thing I noticed, was the number of South Asian people admitted to the unit. Naively, I did not expect to see so many people from the same culture as me. I recollect thinking, gosh what if I see someone I know- as if being there was something to feel ashamed of.  It brought home how mental health conditions do not have a set criteria; of course, I knew this prior to my admission but I reckon It struck me as hard as it did because mental health is never spoken about in my culture.  I understand mental health is a taboo subject in all cultures, but there is no attempt to break down the barriers within the South Asian culture. People with a mental health conditions are often shunned and made to keep “it quiet”. There is a lack of understanding and openness to even acknowledge that someone is struggling mentally.

After three weeks on the unit, I was transferred to an Eating Disorders Unit, but took my own discharge a short while after. Again, I found it tricky explaining to my family that I will be admitted to a specialist unit because I have an eating disorder. The level of awareness and understanding of eating disorders within my family unit and the wider community is extremely limited, subsequently I felt, and still do feel very much alone.

As a result of taking my own discharge from my local specialist unit, I was admitted to a unit a little further from home, but it was a unit which met all my needs, which is essential when receiving specialist treatment. The feeling of shame and dread was becoming quite familiar to me by this stage, as I explained to my family that I will be admitted to a unit further away. To give credit to my Dad, he just wanted me to be healthy and well, and he was, with his limited understanding of the scale of my struggles, accepting of my admission. The rest of my family did not say much and looked, quite desperate. It was during this admission that I began for the first time in my life, having suicidal ideation and making plans. This resulted in being detained, initially under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, then followed by Section 3 of the Mental Health Act.

This posed many issues for myself and my team. Once detained under section 3, it is by law that the persons nearest relative is informed- to protect the individual detained and also so that they have someone to advocate for them. I recall the ward manager informing me of this, as I was unaware. I did not take this news well at all, as I knew if my family became aware of the reason of my detention under the mental health act, there could potentially be some ramifications for me. Therefore, the team and I agreed to withhold this information from my family. However, there was a slight issue of the Law. My team, in particular my consultant bent over backwards for me, and after analysing the Mental Health and trying to find a “loophole” and seeking advice from the City Council Law Department, they held a professionals meeting. It was officially decided to not inform my nearest relative, much to my relief. I was told this was the first time something like this has happened to their knowledge. I was grateful to my team for going the extra mile and listening to me. Up until this day, my family are still unaware of what occurred during that admission.

Although my family are a little more aware of my struggle with food following another admission, we still do not speak about my troubles. I passionately believe that mental health difficulties need to be spoken of more in the South Asian Community, especially when it comes to suicide. Recently, I have read a couple of news articles of two people who sadly took their lives in my local community, yet no one has spoken about it. In comparison, there had been a lot of talk about murder, following the death of a young man in my community. I do not want to generalise and speak for everyone, but overall, in the South Asian Community people are too embarrassed, uncomfortable, and unwilling to engage in any discussion of mental health conditions and suicide. I feel more needs to be done to begin dialogue of mental health within the community, and for us all to come together to demonstrate that it is okay to be human, it is okay to struggle, and it is okay to speak out. I want people to understand that our mental health is as crucial to our wellness, as our physical health is and that no one should be made to feel “crazy” or made to feel like an outcast.

I hope by sharing my story, other people who may be reading this can feel empowered or inspired to share their story, to seek support and to speak up. We all have a voice, let it be heard and let us together break down the stigma attached to mental health.

A really useful site for information and support on eating disorders is Beat. Helpline numbers can be found on the website and there is information for carers too.

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