By Natasha Rasaratnam
I was lucky. I was lucky that my grandparents left Sri Lanka to seek a better, more hopeful future for their children. I was lucky that I did not have to grow up in a war-torn country whose scars are only beginning to heal. Yet for those who lived through the 25-year civil war, the trauma is everlasting, hiding under the facade of a country that wants to forget the legacy of its conflicts. It is no surprise that after these decades of violence, mental health issues have risen dramatically in Sri Lanka. Yet this spike has not been adequately met with appropriate treatment and education. At its core, this crisis is underpinned by an entrenched cultural stigma towards mental health conditions.
Stigma is when there is a negative perception of someone based soley on them experiencing a mental health issue. More often than not, stigmas aren’t born from malicious intent rather due to a lack of understanding yet nonetheless they create a barrier for people to seek help. In Sri Lanka, it can sometimes be thought that having a mental illness or being associated with someone who does, negatively affects your employment and marital opportunities. This is exacerbated by a lack of mental health workers and information that is not readily available to the public. As a result, particularly in rural areas, it is more common to take people to faith healers or temples rather than seeking professional help. There are also cultural associations that link these illnesses with the notion of ‘karma’ and resulting in them being considered as fate with blame being laid on the person themselves. There are also some views that mental illness simply doesn’t exist and people “just need to get on with it”. This dismissive perception associated with mental illness is deep-rooted and spreads beyond South Asia to immigrant communities worldwide.
Closer to home, despite all the ‘R U OK days’ and mental health awareness events, there are still communities in Australia in which mental health is a stigma. Although we’ve made vast improvement to tackling the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, we must not be complacent in thinking we have completely solved the problem.
Growing up in a migrant community has its ups and downs. Everyone is friendly and wants to know about you… maybe too much at times. Coming from a Sri Lankan background, it is not unusual to hear older members of the community dismiss depression as a weakness of character and not a valid health condition. Similarly, suicide is often mentioned in hushed tones, more a source of shame rather than the tragedy it is. Of course, these attitudes cannot be generalised to all members of the community and I am lucky to be surrounded by a family that understands and values the importance of mental wellbeing.
Yet the consequence of this underlying stigma can have devastating effects on those already isolated due to their mental health. A friend was told to “just pray it away” by family members as a cure for her severe depression. Although faith can be a healing force, the dismissiveness of these comments resulted in a toxic environment at home of further isolation and distrust. Mental health stigmas not only stop people from speaking out about their health but can also worsen the situation perpetuating a vicious cycle.
These perceptions are so ingrained in the older generations of migrant communities it’s difficult to weed them out. Unlike Sri Lanka, Australia has the resources and educational tools to reform and erode taboos such as these. However, despite their admirable aims events run by organisations such as Beyond Blue and Headspace can have little reach to address older members of the community.
To an extent this is also a generational problem rather than a cultural one. Hence, it falls upon us as the next generation to strive to engage in a conversation with our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles about mental health. For all their flaws, migrant communities are tight knit, and it is this support which can be utilised to help those struggling the most rather than demonising them. Cultural leaders have the power to make change and it is only through our conversations with them that we can start to see this stigma being overcome. We’re the lucky ones – we have resources and information at our fingertips. Our communities’ ignorance can no longer be an excuse.