By Dr. Zak Uddin

General Practitioner


Over the past few years, awareness and understanding of mental health illness has been massively raised, helped in part by high-profile sufferers including performing artists and sports personalities, coming forward and sharing their experience.

It is often quoted that a mood disorder will affect one in four of us, and while for some this may be a short period of low mood that resolves on its own, for others it can be a crippling existence of barely being able to function, with progressive withdrawal from all aspects of life.

Mental health statistics for South Asians in Britain are truly terrifying, particularly when it comes to women. The rates of suicide among women between the ages of 15-35 are up to three times that of white women. These women are far less likely to have a diagnosed mental health disorder, suggesting they felt unable to come forward for help. Perhaps most distressingly, they are more likely to attempt suicide using violent methods such as setting fire to oneself.

Experts in the field of psychiatry, themselves of South Asian heritage, ascribe a unique phenomenon in how the community both reacts to, and tries to manage mental health issues. The culture of shame is perhaps stronger than in any other ethnic group, and is not limited to Muslims, encompassing the views of Hindus and Sikhs as well. In many dialects, the words “mental illness” do not exist, and are replaced by derogatory terms such as “weak willed” or worse “stupid”.

There can be feelings that mental illness, particularly low mood and depression, are punishments for previous mistakes, even indiscretions in a former life. Other suggestions are that it is reflection of weak faith, or even a test from God.

Socially, many senior relatives may wonder why the person is suffering from low mood or anxiety, when they have everything that the older generation never had. Yet the unspoken pressure to be the best at school, on the sports field, to obtain high flying careers, and also to marry well, can make the pressure on some individuals unbearable.

Indeed marriage itself a minefield. Having a mental health illness may make it difficult for a young woman to marry, with the perception that such a condition may be passed on to the children. Even having a close relative, for example a brother with mood issues, can affect prospects for some women. Yet arranged marriage itself has often been accused of precipitating mental illness, with some young women feeling a loss of self and adjusting to a life in another household, where they may not gel as well as with their own parents.

The management of mood disorders among the South Asian community is sometimes at odds with currently accepted treatment. While faith is undeniably important for many and indeed a source of comfort to some, it will not cure mental illness in the way that it will not remedy diabetes or heart disease. Indeed untreated depression is a risk factor in its own right for heart disease, which makes it doubly important to approach in a pragmatic manner.

Thankfully, things are changing. National efforts, particularly the 2010 “Time to Change” Campaign, are raising the issue of mood disorders, particularly among South Asians, aiming to dispel the myths and taboos surrounding this difficult topic.

The former Essex and England Cricketer, Monty Panesar, famously came forward to discuss his experience of depression, and how his cultural background was a barrier to seeking help earlier. Panesar is now a mental health ambassador for the Professional Cricketer’s Association, suggesting the issue does exist in many successful sportspeople.

Thankfully the tide is slowly changing, with the recognition that addressing mental health disorders should have the same importance as physical health issues, and that left untreated the long-term effects can be as serious as ignoring the symptoms of heart disease or diabetes.

In a community famously renowned for looking after each other, with the importance of family wellbeing at its core, raising concerns about mood issues should be a natural extension of this caring ethos.

If you recognise any of the symptoms of low mood or anxiety in yourself, or a loved one, the first thing to do is talk. Your routine general practitioner is expertly placed to deal with 90% of all mood disorders and will help you with empathy and understanding, aiming to get you enjoying life once more.

“Left untreated the long term effects can be as serious as ignoring the symptoms of heart disease or diabetes”.

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