My experience with mental health difficulty first occurred during my undergraduate degree. At university I played sports, I was involved in societies, and I thoroughly enjoyed my work, however this did not mean I was immune from going through personal difficulties I had never experienced before. A mixture of being in a new environment, interacting with new people, and venturing into the unknown had an impact on my social interactions, so much so that I developed social anxiety.
This reached its peak part-way through my second year on the evening of a ‘meet and greet’ event organised with the Punjabi Society – a group I co-founded earlier in the term. After heating and serving several boxes of samosas, I took a few minutes to rest and speak with some of the event guests. There were around 45 people in the room and as I stopped to chat, I found myself blocked from speaking with anyone. I suddenly felt unable to interact, unable to speak, and unable to be myself. I took a few minutes to go outside and compose myself.
Fifteen minutes later I was still outside, checking the evening’s football scores on my phone. In my mind I wondered why I was unable to enter the room and speak with the very same people I’d helped organise the event with. I soon shifted the blame to myself. What was I doing wrong? Where had I gone wrong? It was only after discussing mental health with my housemates that I learnt that I was suffering from social anxiety.
I felt unable to discuss these issues with people in my community. Being a Punjabi man, I felt unable to open up with my friends at home; ideas of what a man of my community ‘should be’ and how we ‘should act’ really had an impact on my understanding of my own mental health difficulty. It was something I was told I should keep to myself and ‘get over’. Notions of masculinity blocked me from seeking help and from discussing these issues openly.
And it clearly wasn’t just me that like felt this. According to the Men’s Health Forum (2017), 12.5% of men in the UK alone are suffering from common mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorders. And, if this is the statistic for men in the UK, which is a pretty open society, who knows what other men in less-open societies are feeling.
Unlike my housemates at university – who spoke openly about their experiences and difficulties with mental health – my community encouraged me to feel the need to bottle up emotions and keep them private. Mental health discussions were often held in hushed, gossipy tones. This is something I thought needed attention.
Speaking openly with my housemates was the moment I understood mental health on a personal level, and it was what encouraged me to set up my social media campaign, Taraki, to ensure other Punjabi men are not damaged by this culture of silence.
Taraki, which is Punjabi for being progressive and forward thinking, looks to present the mental health experiences of Punjabi men to show the community that we can discuss mental health more openly – it is not confined to the domestic, to the public, to be bottled up inside.
I hope that Taraki encourages Punjabi men to understand mental health in a different way, detaching it from stigma, from shame, from societal norms about how men ‘should act’. I hope to show the Punjabi community how such notions are, in-fact, detrimental to the individual and wider community.
I want to use my experience of the Punjabi male community for social benefit, and I hope that this method of social change can inspire more to go into their communities to tackle similar issues. One day, I hope to engage a network of activists who are working towards a common goal: changing how our communities fundamentally understand mental health.