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I know mental health has a devastating firsthand effect on people when it’s ‘taboo’ – Saira Khan

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To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, the British Asian Trust and the CareTech Foundation are jointly urging the Anglo-Pakistani people to recognize and de-stigmatize mental health in their communities.

I fully support this initiative. With my own Asian origins, I have experienced firsthand the devastating effects mental health has on people when it comes to a taboo subject that is poorly understood, ignored, and brought under the rug.

We cannot allow this to continue, because failure to recognize the importance of mental health has a wider impact on all of society.

My parents and countless other first generation British Pakistanis grew up in a culture that does not recognize mental health. I remember my own trauma when I realized that maybe I should marry someone my parents chose for me.

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Mental health can be a taboo subject in some communities (Image: Getty)

It consumed my thoughts when I was 11. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because they would be ashamed of me, and I couldn’t talk to my teachers and friends because they didn’t understand my culture. So I had no outlet for these feelings of fear, anxiety, anger and helplessness.

Shockingly, families in Pakistan often turn to spiritual healers, who associate mental illness with supernatural forces such as witchcraft, possession, and black magic.

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A child showing signs of misconduct or a woman not respecting cultural norms would be taken to one of these healers to rid them of the gin or the evil spirit.

The UK has accessible mental health services with over 211,000 registered therapy professionals. Yet many Pakistani communities in the UK do not ask for help for fear of being judged.

In a British study, middle-aged Pakistani men and older Indian and Pakistani women reported significantly higher rates of depression than whites.

It angers me that the West-educated Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has not used his platform to address the mental health of his people, which in turn could have a positive impact on the community. Asian here in UK.

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In a country of 216 million people, it is shocking to learn that there are less than 500 psychologists and less than 400 registered psychiatrists and that only 0.4% of the health budget is allocated to mental health.

The British Asian Trust started working on mental health in Pakistan in 2012, improving access to clinical care. Its ambition is to reach 500,000 people through its mental health program by this year.

There is a long way to go, but I hope many more people will be helped to live happier lives in Pakistan and, in turn, here.

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