'F' Word in Mental Health

'F' Word in Mental Health
This article was written by Shuranjeet Singh and was originally published on BME Voices here.

In this piece, I am going to be talking about the F-word. No, not that F-word, but another which is avoided, a word people tiptoe around, and one that sparks debate just as much as the ‘F-word’ many of us know so well. The word, or concept, or even practice, I want to cover is ‘faith’.

I have been actively involved in the mental health landscape for a few years, both as someone with lived experiences of mental health challenges and someone who is fighting for a more just mental health system for all. I have always been curious about how our knowledge around mental health is produced, how it is projected onto some communities and assumed to be true of all. I have also been curious about how knowledge existing within often marginalised communities becomes repackaged and resold as something new in and of itself.

In this piece, I will present some of these thoughts to offer a point of departure for further developments about the complex role of faith in mental health.

Repackaging and Reselling Faith-inspired Practice

I remember when I first spoke to my parents about mindfulness. My parents are Amritdari Sikhs, which means that they are initiated into the Khalsa Panth. Sikhi has been the core component of my upbringing and life – it has helped form my dynamic ethical and moral compass and shares with me with a framework through which I can make decisions and act in a way I deem in accordance with a said compass. This formulation doesn’t happen overnight and takes the support of family, friends, and the eternal truths communicated by the Sikh’s living Guru: Guru Granth Sahib Ji Maharaj. In short, in my experiences, there is a lot of what many would label reflection, contemplation, and prayer, at both individual and collective levels, all undergirded with a drive towards action: standing alongside Sikh and non-Sikh communities living under unjust conditions whilst speaking truth to power throughout our fleeting experiences as visitors on this planet.

I remember going home one day and speaking to my parents about this amazing concept called mindfulness. They smiled and looked at each other, allowed me to speak, and then helped me understand the link between everything we have been practising as a family through Sikhi and what is now conveniently labelled as ‘mindfulness’. Whether through contemplation, reciting ‘mantras’, and even the importance of breath, I saw the links between millennia-old knowledge and a relatively ‘new’ practice which was being popularised in the mental health landscape.
I’m someone who views these types of repackaging in a cynical way; why was it that the mainstream mental health landscape had space for mindfulness but not for validating the importance of faith-based practices I had grown up with? Had my parents not helped me see the links between ‘old’ and ‘new’, I may have detached myself from my faith and invested myself into mindfulness; a concept and practice which is not devoid of co-option by large corporates, mindfulness consultants, and those who use the practice to exploit others.

Mindfulness has close links to many faith-inspired practises which are now being ‘validated’ through being tested in the ways in which conventional knowledge is produced in the West. However, what I also observed was that the role of action within mindfulness narratives was also being erased. I was confused as to why we would learn about ways of managing difficult situations without ensuring that such situations do not happen, therefore reducing the overall likelihood of ourselves or others experiencing distress. Here, I saw faith-based knowledge being actively re-packaged to preserve the status quo.

The linkages between faith, mindfulness and mental health are complex and everything I recount here is drawn from my personal and lived experiences of each area. It does, however, help us to understand that faith, faith-based practices, or faith-based knowledge are present in the mental health landscape, yet we are still scared to discuss it properly.

COVID-19, Punjabi Communities, Mental Health + Faith

In October 2017 I founded an organisation called Taraki which works alongside Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health. Our key workstreams are awareness, education, support and research. In August 2020, we released our report into Punjabi communities, COVID-19 and mental health which was undertaken by a team of volunteer researchers with both academic and lived expertise of mental health challenges. Largely focusing on the UK, 60% of respondents reported that they experienced a self-rated decline in mental well-being from before to during COVID-19 and lock-down. Of this, the largest decreases were reported by Punjabi LGBTQ+ folks, first-generation migrant Punjabis, and Punjabis with co-morbidities, all of whom identified as having previous mental health challenges.

Regarding support, interestingly, 41% of respondents reported that they used faith as support during COVID-19 and lock-down. Faith was defined as either involving contemplation, reflection or meditation, whilst it was separate from engaging with faith-based communities which were done distinctly less. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amritdari [initiated] Sikhs accessed faith-based supports the most during COVID-19 and lock-down.

One respondent stated:

“Obviously I have my low moments, being in lock-down is difficult, but I think overall it has impacted me positively. I’ve started to practice my religion more, take up new hobbies, I have more time for myself and more time to do things that I never had time to do before. It’s helped me find myself and be able to appreciate everything I have a lot more than I did before.”

Other respondents stated the importance of using faith-based practices to approach the uncertainty of COVID-19 and lock-down; the importance of collective prayer with friends and family; and even the use of digital technologies to undertake virtual recitation of prayer with other community members. Evidently, faith or faith-inspired practices have been an important part of how Punjabi communities have approached COVID-19 and lock-down, specifically around how they have themselves accessed support. In contrast to faith, state-based healthcare and private healthcare services were almost consistently the least accessed supports, which encourages further questioning about how statutory services do/do not seem adequate for those from ethno-racialised and faith communities.

Next Steps

The complex role of faith, whether attached to a particular religion, belief system, group, or type of spirituality, needs to be best understood in relation to mental health support. This initial research showed that people have been engaging with faith in a variety of ways, meaning that it is a resource that people use to support themselves and others around them.

Researchers, funders, and healthcare commissioners need to invest in understanding how faith relates to mental health support. Oftentimes these are essential components in how communities understand their collective selves and their relationship to the wider world, so why is this not higher up on the agenda?

I am from Handsworth, Birmingham, where Soho Road houses at least seven different faith centres for Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and other groups. People go in and out of these buildings for a number of reasons, so their place within the mental health conversation must be taken in to account: what can we do and how can we work with these community assets more effectively to meet the mental health needs of our society?

These questions aren’t easy but they are imperative if we want to move towards a more meaningful, recognisable, integrated and ultimately beneficial health and care system for all.

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