A new report has uncovered a culture of stigma, secrecy and shame surrounding mental illness in South Asian communities.

The report by 'Time for Change' also cites consequences for those with mental health problems including reduced marriage prospects, lowered community status and social exclusion.

Entitled 'Family Matters: Attitudes towards mental health in the South Asian community of Harrow, North West London', reveals that mental illness is a taboo subject for people in South Asian communities and that misconceptions and misunderstanding about the causes of mental health problems are barriers to reducing negative attitudes.

Other obstacles include pressure to adhere to social norms, fear of socialising with someone with a mental illness and the view that those with mental health problems are ‘stupid’.

Family Matters also highlights the role immediate family inadvertently plays in perpetuating negative attitudes towards mental illness; while generally seen as responsible for and caring of relatives with a mental illness, families can also cause feelings of isolation and exclusion in their efforts to protect loved ones from the gossip and stigma that may come from extended family and the wider community.

Local mental health co-ordinator, Chandrakant Shah, who works with members of the Harrow community with mental health problems and assisted with research for the report, said he regularly hears about the damaging effect stigma has on people with mental health problems in the local area.

“The stigma is so profound and ingrained, and many members of this community are suffering in silence,” he said. “We need to address misconceptions about mental illnesses and people affected by them, bringing the issue to the heart of the community".

Filmmaker Azeem Khan, whose award-winning short film Open Secrets explores the stigma of mental illness within a British-Asian family, agrees: “From my experiences I am not surprised by the Time to Change report, but it does make me sad. However, making my film and talking about it publically has taught me there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“We really need to start changing attitudes and support one another – with 1 in 4 of us affected by a mental health problem at some point, it’s an issue that could affect any one of us at any time. The stigma and ignorance surrounding ‘madness’ really has no place in today’s society and it’s time to put an end to it.”

Time to Change is drawing on key findings from the Family Matters report to design a pilot campaign that aims to change the attitudes and behaviours of 3000 members of the Harrow South Asian community towards mental illness.

The pilot campaign will launch in April and will be delivered by local partners and those with experience of mental health problems.

Learnings from the pilot campaign, which will be evaluated by the Institute of Psychiatry, will provide a basis for future work to end mental health prejudice within South Asian communities across England as well as other Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups.

Harrow resident Chandrika Patel said: “The South Asian community needs a campaign like this to bring mental health into the open and stop hiding it away as it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s the only way we can make change".

ITV television presenter and mental health advocate, Sameena Ali-Khan, is also supporting the work Time to Change is doing in the South Asian community.

She said: “Mental illness affects so many people but it particularly affects people from BME communities. Mental illness has been an issue in my family - my grandfather had mental health problems - and I know I’m not alone.

“The biggest problem people with mental illnesses face is discrimination and I think a big cause of that is ignorance.

"There is a lot of this in the South Asian community as there is a deep-rooted misunderstanding of mental health problems passed through the generations. We need to have a different reaction to mental illness rather than just feeling fear and reacting badly to it. There is hope and thanks to campaigns like Time to Change things will get better.”

Time to Change Director, Sue Baker, said: “England’s BME community is large and diverse, and while there is a strong sense of community within all cultures, unfortunately negative attitudes towards mental health problems can divide family groups, friends and the community at large.

“When it comes to dealing with mental health problems, however, the South Asian community has some advantages over the rest of the country. The immediate family plays a valuable role in caring for relatives with mental health problems, and faith is an important source of support for some people with a mental illness. Furthermore, there is a much stronger sense of community and people’s place as part of the community than in the population more widely.

“Regardless, we need to start normalising mental illness for South Asian communities and get positive, factual messages about mental illness out into the community, such as mental health problems are not shameful and people can recover from mental illness with the right treatment and support".