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Aashna features in The Sunday Times Article: "Muslim men buddy up to face depression and anxiety"

Muslim men buddy up to face depression and anxiety - August 17 2019, 12:01am, The Times

Islamic, Hindu and Sikh schemes are addressing male mental-health problems in their communities

A meeting of the Delicate Mind, which is reframing the idea of masculinity

Two softly-spoken young Muslim men begin their workshop on mental health and masculinity with trigger warnings: suicide, depression and anxiety will be discussed, they tell their London contemporaries, some of whom are from different faiths and backgrounds. One of the pair, Nikhwat Marawat, who is 26, tells the group of his brother’s suicide two years ago.

Marawat and Farrukh Abeed, 23, invite participants to consider how culture affects masculinity. “If you’re suffering from anxiety or depression, a lot of people at the mosque would tell you you’re not praying enough.”

A “crisis in masculinity” has been noted for decades in many parts of the world as traditional gender roles have diminished and the appetite for equality has increased. However, there is a new drive to unlock discussions about male mental health among faith-based communities.

Nadia Khan, 24, co-founded The Delicate Mind, a non-profit organisation, with Marawat and Abeed. Khan promotes analysis of masculinity, which she argues has been damaged by some south Asian cultural norms and media stereotyping. Other issues stem from within the community. “I know my community is patriarchal,” says Khan, who is a Muslim feminist. “I felt the way to address this would be to try and teach members of the community about male chauvinism and its harmful effects on men and women.”

Marawat points to expectations about the breadwinner husband and the stay-at-home wife, derived from rural Indian or Pakistani cultures, which force men to mask their emotions and can lead to controlling relationships and domestic abuse. He derives inspiration from the Koran, and the verse “And say, ‘My Lord, increase me in knowledge’” (Sura xx:114) motivates him to tackle ignorance of mental-health problems. The group is building relationships with local mosques and has held talks in ethnically and religiously diverse schools in London and Birmingham.

The Faith & Belief Forum, an interfaith relations group, has recognised The Delicate Mind’s work, despite it having existed for little more than a year. Khan was nominated for the public service prize at this year’s Asian Women of Achievement Award.

Mental health also featured on the agenda of the first South Asian LGBTI Conference last summer, due to the links between “coming out” and mental wellbeing.

Shuranjeet Singh, who is 23 and the founder of a Punjabi-Sikh initiative, Taraki, believes that fears over masculinity make it difficult for Punjabi men to speak about mental illness. He says that the long history of Punjabi-Sikh military culture has delayed discussions about how faith and culture manifest themselves, and how quickly emotional wellbeing can be discussed. Singh gives talks in gurdwaras and universities, encouraging discussion around mental wellbeing and promoting Sikh scriptures.

Alongside these initiatives are longstanding groups, such as the Muslim Youth Helpline and the Muslim Women’s Helpline, that want to normalise requests for assistance with mental disorders within diaspora and faith communities. Myira Khan, a counsellor, founded the Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network to offer clients “culturally matching or faith-matching therapists”. Khan highlights marriage and sexuality as issues that particularly benefit from more cultural understanding.

Although no Hindu equivalent of Myira Khan’s network exists, 18 months ago Pretish Raja-Helm, a Hindu psychotherapist of Gujarati Indian heritage, co-founded Aashna, a network of black and ethnic-minority therapists, partly to address the question of representation. Raja-Helm and Shammi Kohli, Aashna’s other co-founder, have addressed older worshippers at Neasden Temple in northwest London to promote good mental health. Among that generation, Raja-Helm says, there is a reluctance to admit struggles because of the “shame in things going wrong in families”.

While it may be the ideal, is it realistic to expect faith-specific mental-health care from the NHS? The Birmingham and Solihull, and Leeds and York NHS mental-health trusts say that clients are matched with therapists on the basis of ethnicity or faith if possible and appropriate. Both offer staff training in cultural and religious beliefs.

An interviewee who asked not to be named speculates that if isolation and a desire to belong can lead to gang membership — and Islamist extremist groups are viewed as large gangs — then early intervention in mental-health disorders could even help to reduce the risk of radicalisation.

Any community can be a place of support or shame. Faith and culturally sensitive activists want those who need help to have access to it, arguing that seeking help can reveal rather than belie divine providence.

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