Mental health lessons from Sikhs in Malaysia

Malaysia got what may be the first full-blown study on the lived experiences of Sikhs in Malaysia seeking support for mental health when counsellor and therapist Heeran Kaur interviewed six Sikhs who had made avail of therapy. In the first column entry at Asia Samachar, she shares some insights from the study

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By Heeran Kaur | MENTAL HEALTH |

I was beyond excited looking at the results of the research. Three central themes emerged prominently and presented a detailed picture of the personal journeys of Malaysian Sikhs seeking psychological assistance for themselves. I was delighted that every single person I had spoken with had experienced growth on their journeys. It is a testament to my belief that the therapy process, when done correctly, has tremendous potential for leaving clients in a better place than before they embarked on their voyages. That belief guides my work ethic as a licensed counselor. 

Ancillary to that was a deep interest in self-discovery because gaining awareness about themselves created avenues for clients to acquire better coping and management skills. Participants saw positive changes in how they viewed themselves post the event of getting mental health support. Participants described how they felt more confident and stronger after seeking professional help. Interestingly, findings showed that the young people I interviewed had a keen sense of the intricacies of the many layers and complexities of their identities – individual, ethnic, cultural and religious. 

This is noteworthy given their assertions that acquiring psychological assistance complemented their religious beliefs. In fact, they went so far as to say that whilst faith in the Guru and Shabad were central to their spiritual beliefs, Sikh scriptures and philosophy also encouraged them to approach mental health issues as they would any other ailment – by getting necessary treatment. Against that backdrop, these Sikhs believed that their religion enabled them to find interventions and techniques to function optimally in the world. In that sense, Sikhi functioned as a catalyst for them to tap into resources that empower them to become more authentic and genuine in living their best lives. They felt supported, that they were not alone because they had both their religious beliefs and available mental health resources to fall back on to help them grow.

I think it’s one of the best examples to embody the concepts of Miri Piri in the increasingly complex world that we live in today. Guru Hargobind Sahib empowered Sikhs to face adversities without engaging in unnecessary conflicts within ourselves. The visionary Sikh Gurus recognised the importance of both the worldly aspects of our human existence and the spiritual needs of our souls. That our young people today feel supported and empowered by their 500 year old religion to pursue modern ideas and treatments like counselling and therapy pays homage to the universality and timelessness of Sikhism. We must leverage on our rich traditions and philosophies to empower Sikhs to rise to the pinnacle of human endeavour. 

Having said that, it is also imperative that we recognise the many challenges facing the Sikh community here and around the world. Sikhs, an ethnic and religious minority group in the United States, have seen a significant shift in their social standing since 9/11. They have experienced harassment and violence, even death due to their distinct visible markers like the turban and beard. Not too long ago a video went viral showing a Sikh boy in the UK being attacked by his schoolmates as he walked home from school in what was later classified as a hate crime. His turban was pulled off and he was repeatedly assaulted as other students around him were heard laughing in the video. And closer to home here in Malaysia, most of us have experienced some form of bullying growing up, usually in school. In fact, I myself was singled out in primary school when kids wouldn’t want to sit next to me because I looked funny with my hairy arms and two braids or my hair smelt bad to them because of the oil in it. 

Much as we laugh at these incidents as adults and say, “Oh well, it happens”, our experiences have left the best of us feeling at least resentful if not downright furious to be singled out for picking at an age when all we want is to fit in and be liked. Despite the progress that we Sikhs here have made economically, our attitudes need to be explored to determine whether or not individuals and families tend to hide or distort diagnoses, delay treatment or worse, sweep issues under the proverbial carpet. For those in the community who have grown up straddling distinct and disparate cultures, who have battled difficulties like suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and self-harm, major mental health issues can emerge because of constant push-and-pull factors. With unique experiences like historical community-level and race-based trauma, being a visible religious minority group and given our prominent and distinct features, psychological assistance is uniquely positioned to benefit Sikhs. Which brings me to other findings in the study.

SOME HESITANT, SOME ASHAMED

There was some hesitance in seeking out professional help, for two major reasons. Participants felt ashamed approaching mental health professionals. Most had a tendency of comparing themselves to family members and friends within the Punjabi community including people they knew from gurdwaras and samelans (a general reference to Sikh camps) which made them question their own competence at managing their issues. For instance, they highlighted how they perceived themselves as weak and judged themselves harshly for considering professional support. They wondered how it was that the people they knew were seemingly able to cope with challenges without resorting to consulting professionals. 

What participants were not able to pinpoint with accuracy was whether these people they were referencing were actually coping well or had sought some form of support that participants were not aware of. The people I interviewed also reported feeling afraid going into therapy. The findings revealed that while a few were apprehensive because they feared the unfamiliar, others felt fearful of what might happen in therapy like being forced to face things they may not want to address. Some reported discomfort at opening up to strangers while others elaborated how frightening it was to confront their issues. Meanwhile, others were afraid of changes that may follow after therapy. A few were concerned about showing their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and inadequacies while others feared being cornered and attacked.

I felt saddened by the level of self-stigmatisation that seems to be present in the minds of those seeking help for themselves. We often talk about the fear of stigma arising from others but feeling disgraced by your self for considering support is particularly heart-breaking to witness. It also means that there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to reach out to and normalise mental health within the Sikh community. I was taken aback by the depth of mystification in the minds of those I spoke with. The entire body of knowledge ever known to mankind is at our fingertips to access and yet there is misunderstanding about what happens in a process that offers such potential to save lives, to bring out the best in people, to self-actualise. 

It is precisely for these reasons that awareness must be created about mental health and the therapy process. And mental health professionals are the best positioned to help make that happen so that processes related to psychological health become less of an enigma to the general public. Counsellors like me, by virtue of our scope in covering generalised conditions, are the front-liners of mental health in that we are likely to be the initial point of contact for clients wishing to access psychological support and are therefore uniquely positioned to demystify counselling and therapy.

Heeran Kaur is a Malaysia-based counsellor and therapist. The lawyer-turned-mental health advocate had presented a paper on her research on Sikhs at the International Seminar of Counselling and Well-Being (ISCWB 2020), organised by Universiti Malaya, in November 2020. She can be contacted at heerankaur1@gmail.com or +6016-3359209

 

RELATED STORY:

How Malaysian Sikhs react to mental health? A new study has some answers (Asia Samachar, 20 Jan 2020)

Dr Sangeeta powers formation of mental health foundation (Asia Samachar, 20 Aug 2020)

Police launch hate crime probe into British school attack (Asia Samachar, 26 Nov 2020)

 

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |

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