Therapy and the South Asian Community

Old Hand Care Elderly

By Riyaza Rodriguez

When family is not enough


Tragedy comes to us all. Sickness and disease are indiscriminate. We all have to deal with our loved ones getting sick. How we cope with traumatic news varies from community to community though.

According to the Counselling Directory UK*, 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental health issues. Although the figures are uncertain on how many people actually receive counselling, in the UK alone, the number of qualified psychotherapists has tripled in the last ten years alone to keep up with demand*.

And yet, there is still a very low uptake in counselling and psychotherapy amongst South Asians.

There are some obvious barriers. The fear of being misunderstood is one. Some, particularly amongst the older generation might ask: how can these Westerners understand my culture, my religion? Secondly, language is a perceived barrier. Many of the older generation feel they can only really express themselves in their mother tongue. If language services are not in place then obviously communication cannot take place.

But a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2001** found that often South Asians don’t want to talk to someone of their own ethnicity. Many were concerned about the small size of the community and worried they might run into their therapist outside of the session.

So is our reluctance to receive psychotherapy more to do with pride? For a culture so built on status and family honour, are we afraid we’ll lose the respect of our community?  What is more, if family is our bedrock, does talking to an ‘outsider’ seem like betraying those closest to you?

As South Asians we are known for taking care of our own. Our strong support networks and sense of community are our hallmark. In times of crisis we are there for each other. We also cook! We provide meals for each other; we pray for each other, we look after each other’s children. Yes, it’s in times of crisis that our community comes into its own. We can all identify with being duty-bound to care for a family member who is sick or suffering.

It’s what we do as South Asians, it’s who we are. To go to an outsider or an outside organisation seems to say that family help is not good enough. Perhaps it’s even considered taboo, if using psychotherapy is thought of as a ‘Western’ phenomenon.

But what happens when family support simply isn’t enough? When a diagnosis of cancer comes to the family and talking to each other doesn’t answer those deep questions like “why did this happen to me?” or “how do I cope if the cancer comes back?” or even “do I need a different size bra after my lumpectomy?” Doctors can often deal with us in a business-like manner, blinding us with medical terminology. Sometimes there is a real case to use psychotherapy or at least a counselling support group.

Last month my family and I faced shock news of our own. My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. And even though we went to that doctor’s appointment expecting bad news, nothing prepares you for the big ‘C’.

My parents have a strong support network around them. Many loved ones have called and visited to help reassure my mother that she is going to be ok- her prognosis is good and there is no reason why she cannot make a full recovery.

But amidst the shock, mum has been plagued with some big questions about her diagnosis. As much as we support her as a family I know that to hear reassurance and advice from a trained professional will do wonders for her mental and emotional state.

In fact, there are some real benefits to receiving professional support. It can help us explore and understand our feelings. It can help us come to terms with our circumstances and build self-esteem. It can even help us develop coping strategies.

Whilst everything that the South Asian community offers us is wonderful, even vital to dealing with life’s difficulties, you cannot argue against the fact that sometimes we need to reach beyond the walls of our community. It’s not shameful, you won’t lose respect, and it’s not going to bring dishonour to your family name. It might just help you come to terms with your situation, bring a little healing to your heart and help you sleep better.

Luckily we were able to convince my mother to attend a cancer support group at the hospital. She had some reflexology (to help alleviate her anxiety and relax a little.) The counsellor, though not South Asian herself immediately recognised that family and religion are important to someone like her, and urged her to use these resources. It was wonderful that this lady was able to understand my mother’s background and show empathy.

Old Hand Care Elderly

For others like her, my hope is there will be a change of mind set amongst us South Asians with regards to psychotherapy. I hope we realise that in matters of serious illness and even life and death, we cannot do it all for each other and sometimes its ok to let others in.





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