The first and second generation of Sikh settlers in Malaysia may have been more circumspect about vocalising psychological issues. They probably suffered in silence. It made sense at the time as survival and eking out a meagre existence were topmost priorities. The younger generations, however, signal a shift in attitudes. The same chardi kala spirit of their forefathers has been extended to cover wider areas of living including mental health concerns.
Most Sikh citizens in Malaysia today count themselves as fourth or fifth generation Malaysians. My interviewees for a study on the lived experiences of Sikhs in Malaysia seeking support for mental health all fell into that category. Being in their 20s and 30s, all were independent working women or students raised to be assertive go-getters. When faced with psychological issues, the same can-do spirit is evident and participants were sensible in that they reached out for help.
A very interesting finding was that every single person I had spoken with had first consulted with or confided in at least one family member about their difficulties. Growing up in a Sikh household and coming from a close-knit family myself, I had some idea about our strong family structures but the extent of the family protective factor really became apparent to me after the interviews.
All eventually opted to see professionals because the participants wanted to protect their loved ones. They feared hurting their family members if they became aware of the extent of suffering involved. And some issues were especially heavy involving suicidal ideation, self-harm, substance abuse/addiction and divorce which required professional interventions and techniques their family members were not equipped with.
There is a strong belief among the younger generation to tackle issues with urgency and that there is merit in getting objective perspectives from mental health professionals. One need not wait to go into a downward spiral before doing something about it. There is a trend therefore for more and more clients who contact counsellors for other issues including stress, anxiety, feelings of depression, relationships and careers.
UNDERSTANDING HOW THERAPY WORKS
Foremost on my mind is a poor understanding of the therapy process. A good deal of confusion reigns about what happens in sessions. I want to take this opportunity and space to state that mental health professionals are a highly trained segment of the caring profession who put their clients’ needs foremost. Our oath behoves us to “first do no harm.”
We take great pains to establish a therapeutic alliance with our clients and consider ourselves as partners in making new discoveries. We only venture where you feel safe to go and at all given times our clients are in control of the process. Counselling is not smoke and mirrors. It is an honest attempt by empathetic professionals to leave our clients in a better place than when they first came to us.
I do have some concerns about the Sikh community. To some extent there is a reluctance for some within the community to consult with professionals. The fact is we do hail from a primarily communal society where there is a great deal of emphasis placed on fitting in cohesively with family structures, being a part of the sanggat (congregation) and putting our individual needs aside whilst prioritising others. And this tug-of-war is likely to be playing out wherever we Sikhs are because as much as we have become integrated parts of global and national citizenry, Sikhs anywhere in the world are likely to be straddling the realities of staying true to oneself whilst maintaining collective goals. To them I would like to say – come and talk to us. There are very few things we haven’t seen before and we can together find acceptable middle ground.
I also note with concern an increasing number of our young people trying to find meaning through substance abuse including alcohol and drugs, rising number of deaths due to drunk driving and loss of lives due to suicide. My earnest plea is – please come and talk to us.
PRESSURE TO BE HAPPY
As I see it, I think there is unreasonable pressure to be happy all the time either stemming from individuals themselves or from those around them. I often help my clients to understand that our constant states of being are actually mostly neutral and calm. Then along that line, we encounter hills and valleys – states of heightened emotions like joyfulness or low moods like sadness and these depend on what is happening at given points in our lives. These emotions are part and parcel of the human experience, of being alive and living.
In fact, there is more and more literature which seems to suggest that the pressure to be constantly happy and think positive all the time is a recent Western construct not necessarily helpful to people. It’s ironic that intense pressure to be happy always could be making us miserable instead. Experiencing emotions, even unpleasant ones means that our systems are working optimally. Feeling afraid has kept us safe and preserved the human species. Anxiety means that we care enough about things to want them to go well. Guilt helps us to consider the possibility that amends need to be made. Eastern philosophies are especially rich, insightful and instructive in that they tell us suffering is a normal part of living.
We are all unhappy about something or other at some point in our lives. What is so abnormal about that? We see this abundantly in Sikh teachings as well. Guru Nanak Dev Ji in His furman said to us – Nanak Dukhiya Sab Sansaar (Nanak the world is full of grief). It is by talking to others that we come to the realisation that our emotions are universal and this helps us to understand how commonplace it is to experience suffering, pain and difficulties.
STORY OF RESILIENT PEOPLE
In conclusion, the history of Sikhs in this country tells the story of an incredibly resilient people who came here to earn a living. And we have done well. Of the early migrants who made this land their home, many have left a rich legacy of fortitude and diligence for their future generations to follow. A “minority within a minority” (Bedi, 2003), Sikhs here have achieved much. Within just a generation or two, our children have become professionals and businessmen. Today, the Sikh community has the highest ratio of professionals among all ethnic groups in Malaysia (Bedi, 2013).
Our ancestors once came from lands far and near and settled in the rural heartland of the Punjab. Today, members of our distinct community have in turn diffused and settled across the world. And we are held in high esteem. Worldwide Sikhs have gained an admirable reputation for industriousness and discipline and have achieved remarkable success. Our community is an evolutionary success which boasts not just good community relations with others but also academic achievements, business acumen, exemplary military service and a respectful attitude towards the rule of law. There are extraordinarily low crime rates associated with Sikhs in this country.
The Malaysian Sikh community takes pride that “within one generation, Sikhs were transformed from policemen, bullock-carters, watchmen, dairymen and mining labourers to professionals including doctors, lawyers, engineers and academicians” (Chiew, 2017). The story of the Sikhs then, in Malaysia just like all over the world, is one of numerous journeys and endless acculturation – disparate peoples coming together from faraway lands and then diffusing centuries later to all corners of the world, taking with them the essence of sacrifice, resilience, discipline, diligence and faith where ever they went.
Today, even as we are integrated parts of global citizenry, we still maintain our distinctness with pride. In fact I see a renaissance of sorts happening with Sikhs all over the world. Our past and our present combined gives us our formidable personalities which in turn contribute to our lived experiences and personal journeys. Let us make our journeys here on earth count.
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 email@example.com or +6016-3359209
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