Mental Health Care ‘Fails Asians’

People of South Asian origin with mental health problems are missing out on treatment, the BBC has been told. Experts warn it is contributing to the high suicide rate among Asian women.

The chairman of one NHS Trust says he blames “institutional racism” for the “lack of engagement” with the South Asian community. And Lord Kamlesh Patel, of the Mental Health Act Commission, warned the “hidden plague” would grow if the problem was not tackled urgently.

Antony Sheehan, chief executive of Leicestershire NHS Trust, said government attempts to improve mental health services for the South Asian community had not worked.

He added: “We really should acknowledge the impact of institutional racism in mental health and wider health and social care services, in the same way it is recognised in the criminal justice system.

“The real issue is just how we’ve chosen not to connect with these communities.”

Lord Patel says he wants to avoid the same mistakes that were made with black ethnic minorities being made again with the Asian community.

People from some black ethnic groups are 18 times more likely to end up in a mental institution than the national average.

He warned: “If we ignore the message then in the next 10 to 20 years we’re very likely to see the same numbers of South Asians enter the mental health system as Afro Caribbeans are now.

“That’s completely unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Lord Patel warned that, until equality in mental health care goes up the political agenda and money is spent, the “hidden plague” will grow.

Zeinab’s husband, Ilyas, developed schizophrenia after being mugged and hit on the head.

Although he was treated, he remained violent towards her and their two daughters.

She was afraid of attracting attention to their plight and didn’t ask for help for 12 years.

“It was so hard, just sitting inside, and looking after him and the children.

“I wouldn’t go out. If I went out I would think people were talking about us and saying ‘she is with a mad man’.”

But she wouldn’t leave for fear it would jeopardise her two daughters’ chances of getting married in the future.

Image and status

Harjit Sandhu runs Adhar, a Leicester-based project which aims to support people like Zeinab and her husband.

They have seen several hundred cases and she said her biggest challenge is to fight the heavy stigma around mental illness in the Asian community.

“They don’t want mental problems in the family to be exposed. They want to hide it, to preserve the family image and status.”

But she added: “The effect of stigma is deadly. It can lead to people harming themselves, possibly committing suicide or in some cases harming others.”

‘I was scared’

Statistics show that twice as many Asian women kill themselves as the rest of the population.

Geeta was diagnosed with cancer just before she gave birth to her daughter. But her in-laws would not let her hold her baby in case she “passed on” the disease.

She wasn’t even allowed to attend her daughter’s first birthday party.

Geeta became severely depressed and attempted to kill herself twice.

On the second occasion, her father-in-law asked her to write a note to absolve the family of responsibility.

She says she didn’t seek help because she had no confidence.

“I came from India. I was scared of the community, what will people say.”

Three years later, she left her husband and was given back her daughter, but she’s still on anti-depressants.