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Found In Our Mother Tongue: Thoughts On Mental Health, South Asian Languages and Poetry

Posted: June 28, 2018

The following was written by and from the perspective of The Aerogram contributor 

Not so long ago I wrote an open letter on mental health in South Asian communities which was rooted in my own experiences with anxiety (“We Need to Talk About How Mental Health Affects South Asian Men”). After some time, spurred by questions and comments from readers and my own research, I began to have doubts about one element, summarized as this argument:

"Languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati do not have adequate terms to communicate about mental illness. As a result, derogatory terms are used."

This argument was derived from a study of UK South Asian communities which presented findings that some South Asian languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati, do not have adequate terminology when it comes to mental health illnesses, and therefore oftentimes derogatory terms are used such as ‘pagal’ (‘Breaking Silence’: A Consultation on Mental Ill Health in South Asian Communities, 2008). Other writing like this piece called “Finding a word for ‘mental health’ in Urdu and Punjabi” refer to this point too. The author writes:

"At that time I didn’t know it was referred to as a ‘mental health’. Why? Because there is no term for what ‘mental health’ is in Urdu or Punjabi."

"In its literal translation it means something like ‘problem with the brain’, which implies ‘being mental/crazy’. In my experience there was a lot of stigma, ignorance, discrimination and oppression against those that were identified as ‘mental/crazy’."

Such derogatory terms and attitudes stem partly from a lack of understanding in regards to these South Asian languages and their capabilities to provide terms to discuss mental health illnesses. To move forward towards being able to tailor mental health services for South Asian communities from a perspective that enables mutual learning, that perception of the languages requires some challenge.

One way to challenge this perception is through poetry in south Asian languages, shayhree very much included in this. Over the generations, South Asian writers have used poetry as a means of providing expression to the vast human experience, including mental health experiences.

Mental Health In Urdu & Hindi Poetry

Urdu poetry presents Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984) who explored mental health through his poems. One such poem was “Tanhai” which delved into loneliness with these words:

Put out the flames, my poor, sad heart, and empty the chalice

It’s time to bolt the doors shut

No one will visit here anymore

Read the rest of “Tanhai” in English and in Urdu online here. Similarly another one of his poems explores emotionality through the Urdu language — “Gulon Mein Rang Bhare” in which Faiz wrote:

‘Qafas udaas hai yaro sabaa se kuchh to kaho

Kahiin to bahr-e-Khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale’

‘My caged body is cheerless today,

Someone please fill hope in the morning breeze.

For god’s sake! don’t let it not go empty,

Let it carry with it the story of our friends.

(Read a full English translation online here.) The context of the poem is a plea directed towards a beloved and the sorrow that existed without their presence. In other words, Faiz’s poem can be understood as expressing states of mind such as clinical depression following a ‘heartbreak’. This particular poem is also decorated in words such as ‘udaas’ (translation – sadness, sorrow, heavy-hearted), words which are linguistically relevant and ultimately useful in discussing mental health illnesses and their symptoms.

The use of poetry written in a South Asian language to express the experience of living with mental health illnesses can also be found in contemporary use. Take for example “Living With Schizophrenia” by Dr. Seema Mehrotra. A Hindi poem that that explores living with schizophrenia through the experiences of a sufferer, it reads in part in its English translation:

They say I have schizophrenia

But by placing the label upon me,

Why do they deny my humanity? My character is far from schizophrenia….

Allow me, too, to live with dignity and self-respect

Don’t deny me my rights…

Mehrotra’s poem gives expression to living with schizophrenia in a society where the sufferer feels encapsulated by imposed labels due to their mental health illness. Labels which ultimately according to the poem’s author rob them of basic human rights.

Encouraging Mental Health Discussion

In poetry, South Asian languages have been able to provide a way to express how mental health illness sufferers feel. There are other practical avenues which can be implemented for South Asian communities with South Asian languages in mind, avenues which might ultimately benefit those suffering from mental health illnesses. For instance, the re-introduction via religious centers, community centers and libraries of keywords in South Asian languages relatable to moods and emotions experienced in mental health illnesses would benefit sufferers, providing the ability to give wider expression to how they feel.

Being able to give expression to your symptoms in all the languages you speak could be quite useful for a number of reasons. One important reason being the fact that it would help the sufferer and the mental health professional in being able to obtain the right diagnosis. For example, there is a significant difference between generalized anxiety disorder and anxiety stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder. The strengthening of communication methods for bilingual users may help in obtaining the right diagnosis and ultimately the right course of treatment.

Likewise, the re-introduction of key terminologies in South Asian languages may also be useful in family and community settings when people wish to discuss and explore mental health illnesses and their causes. According to the 2008 UK study mentioned earlier, ‘Breaking Silence’, causes of mental health illnesses are often misunderstood, resulting in the use of religious or spiritual leaders rather than qualified professionals.

While this article is centered towards counter-arguing elements from my initial piece, there’s one significant fact that remains:

Mental illness does not discriminate, and its impact on South Asian communities is as prevalent as it has ever been.

This means that there’s much to be done, and I firmly feel that using South Asian languages will play a key role in strengthening and ultimately empowering the communities and sufferers.


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