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

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 often times 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. Read more