TarakĪ is the movement working to aid the Punjabi community in dealing with the difficulties of mental health. One of key areas of importance is that of awareness and increasing not only the understanding of mental health but the understanding of what services are there to help with it. In this new multi-part series, we aim to bridge the gap between Punjabi communities and their mental health by highlighting and profiling different individuals and local organisations working within the field. In doing so we hope to improve the accessibility to such services and progress the transparency around mental health within our culture.
This interview is with Pardeep who works within the NHS, helping people afflicted with mental illness, and aims to improve the support and environment for people with difficulties.
Hi, could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what you do?
My name is Pardeep Bhogal, I have been a mental health support worker for 11 years. I currently work for the NHS in an Assertive Engagement Team where I support people with severe and enduring mental health, drug/alcohol problems, dual diagnosis and other vulnerabilities.
What are the aims that you have for your work?
Our key aims are to keep people safe and out of harm, to ensure they are treated as individuals, to treat people with respect and compassion, a commitment to quality and care and to meet everyone’s needs. We also try to keep people engaged in our services, build good relationships with our clients and other organisations, provide support by getting people back to work, accessing the community, making sure people have access to their family members and loved ones, and keeping hospital admissions low or as a last resort.
What prompted you to work in mental health?
I want to help people and support people who don’t get the opportunities in life. Helping people drives me! Mental health is such a massive problem and although there is a decent acknowledgement by the media and organisations, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in raising its awareness.
What do you think are the key barriers to Punjabi communities with regards to mental health?
A lot of the barriers are to do with a lack of education and an ignorance towards the illness, both from families and the people suffering from the illness. Take alcohol for example, which is often swept under the carpet within the Punjabi Community. I have witnessed many cases that have involved alcohol and the next day the domestic violence, fights, arguments and abuse are forgotten. Too many people have skipped the alcoholic diagnosis and the support offered to them. People rarely sit down and talk about why loved ones become reliant on alcohol. Alcoholism and mental health are taboo subjects in the Punjabi community. Families either believe they do not need the support and it’s just a phase in the sufferer’s life, or they think with the mind-set of ‘what will people say?’. I have seen families who get their ill family member married off, buy a new house, or taken to see a witch doctor, all in hope that the patient will ‘forget’ their mental
health, move on from it and live a happy life. This way of thinking is utterly ridiculous and very dangerous, but it is real. No one chooses to suffer from mental health. And families need to realise that ignoring the issue never makes it go away.
Regarding the lack of education, people in the community just don’t discuss it enough. This stalls information that could be passed on to others. A lot of people in the community think that it is a curse on the family, or someone has brought black magic upon them. Superstition precedes scientific research. They think that medication does not work and that prayers and a ‘get up and get on with it’ attitude will solve the illness. A lot of this comes down to the main religion of Punjabi’s, Sikhism. If Gurdwaras focused more on explaining these illnesses with scientific fact instead of using prayers or saying that God is going to fix it, then maybe so many people wouldn’t be in the dark about mental health.
How do you aim to change this situation?
By offering support and education to families about mental health. We have also looked at preventative issues; if we can get people to avoid using drugs and alcohol, which is currently a massive trend in the Punjabi community, then this will help people think with a clear mind and will promote education. In addition, the link between mental health and alcohol/drugs is huge. We also maximise the many skills that the multicultural NHS employees have in the field. Things like shared culture, languages, family histories etc, can help to explain mental health to families or patients where sometimes interpreters can fail to do so. We have also created printed leaflets in Punjabi which we give to the older generation whose English may be limited.
What has been the highlight of your work so far in Punjabi mental health? Being able to relate with people and see where they are coming from. Communication is such a massive tool in the mental health field, and sometimes a chat can solve a lot of people’s problems. So being able to sit down and talk about
the different varieties of Indian Tea or Sabjis or talk about the many wonderful singers from the Punjab is enlightening. Also, holding festivals at our work place highlighting the celebrations within the Punjabi community. These events draw a lot of people in from the community which gives me a chance to talk about and explain issues like mental health, alcoholism etc.
What have you found most difficult in this work?
Families. This is sometimes the strongest and most vital part for someone suffering from mental health. Many Punjabi families are loving and caring, and we find that so many people live fulfilling lives because of a family supporting them through their illness. Yet families are where I have found the biggest problems too. All sorts of abuse occur in family homes, and like alcohol, it too gets swept under the carpet. Families can also be obsessively over-protective which does the sufferer no good for their confidence or independence. Families interfere which does more harm than good. Familial respect and ‘knowing one’s role in the family’ comes before individual needs, this can lead to damaging people’s outlook on life, which then leads to self harm, alcohol abuse, violence etc.
As mentioned before, ignorance towards mental health has been a big issue too. I have tried tirelessly to explain the ins and outs of mental health to families and patients and, on many occasions, it has fallen on deaf ears. Noting that denial is a part of many illnesses in mental health and this can be found in society as a whole, not just with Punjabis.
Working with families who have a lack of education around the illness is a lot easier than those who do not want to listen. People have their own pre-conceptions about the illness and no one is ever going to change their minds.
How can people get involved?
Talking about it, educating themselves, educating others, educating families and friends and not to sound horrible but to avoid what the Gurdwara has to say about
mental health unless it is scientifically tested or ethically justifiable. Most important is to listen to what professionals have to say around the subject.
What is your vision for Punjabi communities in the future?
That there are groups available in the community for patients and families around the illness. The NHS does an excellent job of promoting the illness in BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) groups, but it is up to charities and businesses to help around the subject too. How many times have you seen or heard on PTC Channel, Radio XL, Gurdwara’s and the many other platforms that have a Punjabi following, bringing up the issue about mental health, drugs, alcohol? Yes, I have seen it mentioned on a couple of occasions on a radio station, but it is far less often than I would have hoped. It would be nice to see some statistical data of family history, alcohol use etc and these findings may help people see the illness from a scientific point of view. Prevention is better than cure, so if we can use this data to explain the illness with evidence-based information, along with educational presentations and literature, then the future looks bright. I think singers and the Gurdwara could help too. Music is powerful, and if names like Jazzy B and Harbhajan Maan spread the issue then I’m sure people will listen.
We just need to lift that rug, let the issues fly freely, and get as many organisations to stick together and come up with a plan to help. This needs to happen because they want it to rather than for any financial gain. If we can be imaginative and passionate, then that is the way we will tackle the issue of mental health in the Punjabi community.