“Taboo” and “Shameful”: How mental health is perceived around the world

What does it mean to be truly healthy?

Exercising regularly, following a strict diet and visiting your doctor for an annual check-up is insufficient if you bottle up your feelings and scoff at the mention of mental health. Your health encompasses far more than just your physical body’s needs. The way we feel, emotionally and mentally, has the power to make or break our lives.

Having good mental health means having the ability to feel and manage both positive and negative emotions. In addition to this, it means being able to form, develop, and maintain meaningful connections. In other words, being mentally healthy means having faith in yourself and your ability to cope with the stressors in your life. When you look after your mental health, you ensure the wellbeing of yourself and the people around you.

It follows then that neglecting your mental health means putting yourself in danger. Some of the symptoms of poor mental health include: constant fatigue, severe mood swings, inability to concentrate, changes in sleeping habits, weight loss/gain, feelings of sadness, etc. In our overly busy world, it is common for people to say that they do not have the time to deal with their thoughts and emotions. This means that they suppress everything and neglect things that require attention. With time, however, their symptoms worsen as it becomes more and more difficult to cope with everyday life. Subsequently, people begin to search for ways to feel better. Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging their mental health, they turn to self-destructive habits. Thus, rather than seeking help, they inflict more and more damage to themselves — and often, to the ones around them.

Sip of Culture interviewed several people from various countries around the world to see how different cultures perceive mental health and seeking help. Their answers revealed the same thing: change is needed – and it is needed fast.

Nour, Lebanon: “Mental illness is still a taboo subject.”

“The majority of Lebanese citizens don’t even acknowledge mental health or give it the importance it deserves, as with the majority of Arab countries. The only mental health that is deemed of any importance to them are the severe cases that require hospitalization or urgent medication. Even those, are usually kept secret and hidden from friends and family. Mental illness is still a taboo subject. For example, if one were to “bravely” announce their poor mental state, they would not be taken seriously or simply, labeled as being too dramatic. If one were to boldly open up about wanting to seek therapy, those around them would purely disregard the whole idea as they unfortunately still believe that anyone who seeks therapy is “crazy”. Hence, the reason why the older generation in Lebanon refuses to get the help they need. Eventually the people of the younger generations begin to fall behind the mentality of the older generation. This in turn creates a never ending cycle of covering up mental health which can lead to a plethora of issues both mental and physical. However, it’s hard to blame the individuals that get fooled into falling in line with the “old school” mentality. It’s no easy task to break free of such a shell and the majority of people do not. The fact that the topic of mental health is left so unrecognized and the people around one’s self see it as a sign of weakness and disgrace, it’s no wonder this cycle hasn’t been broken yet.”

Anonymous, UAE: “I love this country but it is lacking in mental health.”

“In the UAE, the facilities are not nearly enough. Therapy is overpriced and this discourages a lot of people from seeking help. Therapists don’t aim to talk to you or to help you – they mostly try to diagnose you so they can give you medication and earn more money. When the pills do not work, you get prescribed more and/or new ones. It’s an endless cycle of pills until one becomes extremely reliant on them and cannot go a day without them (when, often, the problem could be solved without any medication at all). I love this country but it is lacking in mental health. I just think it is not enough. It’s often very difficult for a child to convince their parents to get therapy because they find it embarrassing or taboo and they just think their child doesn’t need it.”

Anonymous, Egypt: “You are seen as crazy and abnormal, a lost cause that’s to be contained not nurtured.”

“To be anything outside the norm is something to be shamed about and once shamed you cannot be redeemed. You cannot seek help because many families will try to reduce from their shame and cover up the fact. You are seen as crazy and abnormal, a lost cause that’s to be contained not nurtured. Depression is a concept that simply does not exist. There are harsher realities in the world is what you’re told or there’s always someone going through something worse so suck it up. You get really sick and tired and frustrated of not having someone to talk to about it. You don’t want to burden people with your problems and often your problems will be blamed on you or your lifestyle. It’s rarely ever accepted that it is a real health issue, unless the matter is being discussed with someone who’s gone through the same experience. I guess that’s true with everything in life but Arabs just don’t see the validity of something they haven’t gone through. If it doesn’t have a visible physical effect, it’s simply not important enough. There’s always someone going through worse times and I’m just so tired.”

Anonymous, China: “Going to therapy is considered somewhat shameful and weak.”

“Mental health issues in China are increasing each year, and for people who take great pride and effort in maintaining their physical health, they are neglecting their mental health. Discussing any form of mental health disorders in China is strongly frowned upon, and going to therapy is considered somewhat shameful and weak. In Chinese culture, one is taught to keep any “sensitive” topics to themselves, and are left to deal with their own issues. It is uncommon to talk about negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, stress, abuse, disorders – which are all reasons for therapy.”

Amna, UAE:  “If you are feeling anxious or depressed, they [older generations] would automatically connect it to your lack of religious values.”

“Mental health is very taboo in the UAE, as someone who’s part of the society, I notice that a lot of people in my generation find it difficult to seek for help. You often find that they’re afraid of what people, their family in specific, might think of that. So while the majority are afraid, you find a minority who go without informing anyone and don’t usually speak about it. However, I do believe that with time, people are becoming more open to speaking about mental health. It all really depends on families – the more open they are to discussing mental health at home, the more likely you find that a household will be considering of it. Older generations tend to completely ignore mental health. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, they would automatically connect it to your lack of religious values.”

Kaja, Poland: “People do not treat it here as a real illness, until it’s often too late.”

“In Poland, the mental health is almost like a ‘taboo’ subject – not a lot of people talk about it and is aware of what mental well-being even is. When someone feels mentally ill or distressed, others just think you are either crazy or you overthink over stupid situations. People do not treat it here as real illness, until it’s often too late. In terms of schools, we are not provided any mental support from any institution. Technically we have a psychologist at schools, but once your schoolmate sees you attending the session – they call you crazy. People think it’s something shameful to go to psychologists at school.”

Anonymous, U.K: “I’m hopeful that maybe in the next 20-30 years, it [mental health] will be something that is taken a lot more seriously.”

“Mental health, in the UK, is still considered to be a taboo subject – especially for men. There’s a big divide between the younger generation of people who place a lot of focus on mental health and consider it to be important and the older generation who do not see it that way. People have said that therapy on the NHS is not the best but private therapists are very, very expensive so it is not something you can do on a long-term basis. I think it should be taught more in schools; there are, however, positive steps as there are a lot of campaigns and it is being spoken about. I’m hopeful that maybe in the next twenty or thirty years, it will be something that is taken a lot more seriously.”

U.S, Azerbaijan: “After the most recent war and of course the pandemic, things are changing.”

“Mental health in Azerbaijan is a constantly growing and changing topic. You can definitely tell that the youth, particularly in the capital are aware of at least the most common mental health problems, however this doesn’t match up to the amount of resources there are available. Culture and politics play a big role in the way mental health is perceived. Being a post soviet country, which has lived through so many tragedies, the Azerbaijani society are a tough group of people who push through everything, even if they aren’t happy. Going to therapy is seen as a last resort, and something you can only achieve after passing through all the hurdles of families, relatives, and even friends understanding why you feel the need to go to therapy. However, after the most recent war and of course the pandemic, things are changing. People are more aware of the effects PTSD can have on those who served in the war, beyond their physical health. They’re also becoming more aware of the silent suffering the people around them are battling through during the pandemic and isolation. You can definitely see more psychologists voluntarily coming forward and offering their services publicly, and you can hear and see more people accepting that therapy is a useful and helpful way of dealing with some of the most “incurable” problems. I always wonder how different and happy the Azerbaijanis could be if mental and health and therapy were given enough priority. I am excited to see how the next generations will reshape the discussion, and I’m confident that they’ll manage to do it right this time.”

Eight people, seven countries, and one clear message: “We need to do more.”

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