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Punjabi Men Are Struggling with Mental Health Because They Lack the Words to Describe It

Sukhi, a 28-year-old graduate student from Birmingham, England, was officially diagnosed with depression last year. He was forced to see a doctor after he started to lack the emotional energy necessary to do basic things: get out of bed, make food, hold a basic conversation with his flatmates, and most of all, take his final year exams for his master’s degree in economics.

For years, Sukhi had dealt with smaller bouts of depression. He had days where, he tells me, he felt a “heavy, overbearing sadness” without any root cause. Other days, he found himself sitting in the university library for hours, unable to work and “trying my best not to burst into tears.” At its most intense, he admits he had suicidal ideations: “I felt so worthless and like I wasn’t good enough for my friends or my family.” He says he usually could “pull himself together” by the end of the day, amounting his feelings to the stress of university life. It was only when he was physically unable to finish writing his final year essays that he decided he needed to get help.

Sukhi agreed to speak to me under one condition: That I keep him anonymous. That isn’t because he’s ashamed of having a mental illness. After all, more than 16 million people — one in four Brits — will suffer some form of mental illness according to official National Health Service (NHS) statistics. But while Sukhi talks openly about his mental health with his friends and colleagues, he still hasn’t told any of his tight-knight Punjabi Sikh family. “There’s still a lot of shame around mental health in my community, which is similar in a lot of South Asian communities,” he tells me. “I know that if I tell them that I’m going to therapy or that I take antidepressants, they’ll see it as me having a serious sickness. I’m not ashamed of mental illness, but I do worry that my parents will feel shame — like they’ve failed as parents. And inevitably, they’ll wonder how they’d tell other people in the community. Or how they’d even explain what a mental illness is.”

It is true that this is a common state of affairs in many Punjabi families, which view emotional vulnerability among men as a sign of weakness and failure. As a result, it’s led to a situation where, per Sukhi, “hundreds, potentially thousands, of Punjabis have been forced to get on with their lives, in spite of their mental-health struggles.”

“I know that my grandfather, who came to the U.K. in the 1950s, dealt with his own mental-health struggles,” Sukhi confides. “My mum saw him crying on his own in the car once, when she was a teenager — apparently, this happened quite often. But when my mum brought it up one day, he got angry, denied it and started shouting at her. She didn’t bring it up again until after he passed away.”

“When you’re an immigrant and you have to look after your family,” he continues, “there’s a pressure to suppress your emotions because your family is more important, and putting food on the table is the most important thing. It’s not just cultural taboos around mental health — I don’t actually think that’s the main reason. It has more to do with men feeling they need to be the head of the household, and it’s their responsibility to keep everyone together. That’s what encourages them not to say anything.”

Recent research from the University of East London has shown that South Asians were among the ethnic groups least likely to consult professional mental-health services, largely because they had fewer access to resources and the few that they did weren’t culturally contextual. The research also showed that Punjabi Sikhs were among the most vulnerable to suffer mental illness in silence, because of a “belief in self-sufficiency” and a “belief that they are capable of managing hardships without the input of external services.”

To begin to change those beliefs, at the end of last year, Shuranjeet Takhar, a postgraduate student at Oxford University started Tarakī, an organization that aims to provide Punjabi men an “open space to talk about their mental health.” He did so because when he went to look for help with his own anxiety within the Punjabi community, he discovered that “there wasn’t much knowledge about mental health and that often, it’s dismissed as a problem that only affects white people.”

While Takhar tells me that there’s been significant progress made in Punjabi communities — especially around women’s mental health — men still “find it difficult to talk about how they feel, and believe that you should just get on with it.” Thus, one of Tarakī’s central missions is to “provide better education in Sikh communities around what mental health is, and to make clear that mental health is as important as physical health, which is taken more seriously.” Since its inception, Tarakī has set up a successful Instagram page that profiles Punjabi men speaking openly about their mental health. They include people like Jaspreet, who recalls being told that his depression-fueled sleepless nights might be the product of “black magic.” The page also features mental-health professionals in the Punjabi community and contact details for private consultations.

“Social media outreach is just one way to reach the community,” says Takhar. He tells me that the organization is already running mental-health workshops in gurdwaras and within British Sikh communities, led by people in the community itself. “One of the biggest challenges,” he says, “is language. There isn’t a direct translation for words like depression and anxiety in Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu, which means that a generation that came to the U.K. as migrants aren’t able to understand what it is, or know the severity of leaving it untreated.”

“We need culturally attune services that understand the cultural context of illness and the histories of migration that dismissed the mental health of our parents and grandparents,” Takhar adds. “Homogenizing [mental-health] experiences doesn’t work, it only brings us to where we’re at. We want to make sure that people who want to help their own communities have the knowledge to do so. Ultimately, mental health should be a community-based approach.”

Sukhi does plan to tell his family about his mental-health struggles soon, and he believes that organizations like Tarakī are needed to help make a cultural change. “Younger Sikhs, in fact, are much more conscious of mental health, and it’s definitely helped that celebrities and sports people are talking about it,” he says. “But changing the views of our communities is much harder. Maybe, they think by keeping quiet, they’re protecting us. I don’t know. I just hope my kids won’t feel they have to keep their struggles a secret, too.”