TACKLING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN ASIA

by Faizal Nor Izham 

Disclaimer: mentions suicide, depression, physical and mental abuse

Tackling the stigma against mental illness is arguably gaining ground among Western students and in Western society in general. However, the task of helping to achieve widespread understanding and acceptance of mental health still remains highly stigmatized in Asian cultures, regardless of which region of the world they’re in.

There may be increasing discourse on the human rights of the mentally-unwell, as well as the demand for their social inclusion and the need for resources to tackle mental health, but the issue remains seriously ignored in the developing world, or even among diasporic Asian communities in the West. In fact, what the dialogue really needs to address is the larger issue at hand that mental health-related problems are still exceptionally stigmatised in Asian society.

In 2007, according to the American Psychological Association, suicide ‘was the second-leading cause of death for Asian-Americans aged 15-34’. In Hong Kong, on average 23 suicides a year have taken place between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. The reason is simple: the stigma surrounding mental health issues has always been deeply rooted in traditional Asian values. According to Veronica Pearson, an academic who conducted major case studies on mental health in China, “There is widespread belief that mental illness is a punishment for the ancestors’ misdeeds visited on the present generation, effectively shaming several generations of the family simultaneously. The ‘taint’ associated with mental illness is so strong that it extends beyond the affected person, for instance with regard to the issue of marriage.”

(Fieldnotes from Singapore: art and mental health in South East Asia; Vanessa Bartlett © vanessabartlett.com)

Meanwhile in South Asia, the number of suicide cases continues to be higher than those who die of road accidents, terrorism and HIV/Aids, and is among the top three causes of death between ages 15 and 34. The problem is only exacerbated further by the fact that mental health support barely exists in a region that is still coming to terms with bread-and-butter issues such as poverty and social inequality.

the stigma surrounding mental health issues has always been deeply rooted in traditional Asian values

What’s more, there continues to be very little data on mental health in the South Asian community. According to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), South Asian-Americans between the ages of 15-24 were found to be more likely to suffer from depression. Another report noted much higher suicide rates among young South Asian-American women than the overall population in the United States. At the same time, South Asian-Americans were found to seldom utilise mental health services, a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone raised in such communities.

Above all, an unspoken golden rule in Asian communities is that everyone else is always watching. The concept of izzat, or honour, is always crucial to those who are raised in such traditional backgrounds and is linked to the concept of sharam, or shame. So, on top of factors such as poor mental health resources and the educational rat race, traditional concepts of maintaining community honour, combined with the stigma of showing weakness, continue to be the underlying hinderance behind real progress in recognising, understanding and assisting those dealing with mental health problems in the Asian community.

(A woman left chained in a room in East Java © Andrea Star Reese / Human Rights Watch via Independent)

To admit to such problems would threaten the honour of one’s family, since mental health has always been deeply stigmatised in their communities. As a result, individual members simply prefer to keep up appearances at the expense of their own wellbeing. In fact, the cultural stigma behind mental illness is so great that it is not uncommon for sufferers to be totally neglected and shunned from society altogether — such as in Indonesia, in which those with schizophrenia are frequently found to be chained up and kept in sheds by their own families.

the cultural stigma behind mental illness is so great that it is not uncommon for sufferers to be totally neglected and shunned from society altogether

It is important to recognise that the Asian community remains seriously left behind in the discourse surrounding mental health, as well as the efforts to create an environment that is willing to assist those with such related problems. Needless to say, this applies to all cultures all over the world too. An individual in need of support is far less likely to open up in a community that stigmatises mental health problems simply by pretending it doesn’t exist at all.

Featured image © Huffington Post

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