Shuranjeet Singh: Mental Health In Punjabi Communities Beyond The COVID-19 Pandemic
Moving forward, our view of mental health in Punjabi communities must be intersectional in responding to factors that exacerbate inequalities in mental health outcomes
January 28, 2021 | 3 min. read
Rather than being the ‘great leveler’ the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated latent social inequalities which have resulted in increased risk and differential health outcomes within and between social groups. Some of these relate to hospital mortality, neighbourhood infection rates, and mental well-being amongst other metrics.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged us to reflect on how we approach mental health in Punjabi communities?
To explain differences in COVID-19 health outcomes, narratives around South Asian communities focused on a perceived increased risk through the prevalence of existing health challenges as well as 'cultural norms' like intergenerational households. However, they failed to recognise the social and systemic factors which shape challenges in the pandemic.
South Asians occupying public-facing and precarious employment have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or losing their source of income, which has wide-ranging impacts on mental health. If diagnosed, those living with COVID-19 can experience long-term mental and physical health challenges, the extent of which is largely unknown.
An individual whose employment is not protected by furlough or sick pay, particularly in the gig and temporary worker economies, may experience increased financial uncertainty, impacting themselves and those they are supporting.
Finally, some sectors have lost revenue and decreased their labour force, leading to a reduction in demand for employment. These challenges can present heightened levels of anxiety, sleeplessness, and low-mood for those seeking work.
While biological and ‘cultural’ explanations pathologize South Asians to place blame on individual and community behaviours, they entirely ignore the gaps within our social and healthcare systems. It is imperative that we approach mental health beyond a biological framework to understand the causes of mental health challenges and how to develop targeted and relevant interventions.
Punjabi communities have experienced hardships during COVID-19 resulting from the distinct lack of disaggregated ethnic and racial data which varies between and even within national contexts.
A lack of disaggregated ethnic and racial data means that it is much harder to quickly gauge how COVID-19 has impacted communities across a population; it is particularly difficult to fund and formulate earlier intervention strategies. Similarly, for mental health during the pandemic, if data collected were disaggregated by race/ethnicity there could have been more effective arrangements to respond to emerging challenges. Rather, the lack of disaggregated data on the pandemic has meant that difficulties can only be faced when they are more obviously presented.
In December Brampton, in Ontario, Canada, created a South Asian COVID-19 taskforce which is certainly welcome, but comes almost ten months after the pandemic started. To learn for the future, it is key that disaggregated data is collected by statutory and governmental bodies to best inform preventative strategies to best protect all of society’s well-being.
Existing reporting methods in media and academia rarely undertake intersectional analyses.
The term ‘South Asian’ encapsulates a wide variety of people who are, themselves, diverse in language, faith, sexuality, income, immigration status, employment, and health status. By bundling all these communities together we risk reducing their identities and erasing the realities of particular sub-groups. Usually, those who benefit most from such terms are the majority who, despite being platformed, do not represent the breadth of these groups.
Disaggregated data is a first step but its reporting must speak contextually by taking into consideration the multiple factors which may influence one’s health outcomes. Recent research by Taraki outlined how important intersectional approaches are, as it reports that Punjabi LGBTQ+ people, first-generation Punjabi migrants, and Punjabis living with multiple morbidities are some of the groups whose mental health is most impacted by the pandemic.
It is imperative that we approach mental health intersectionally whilst including groups often sidelined from mainstream conversations.
Moving forward, our view of mental health in Punjabi communities must be intersectional in responding to factors that exacerbate inequalities in mental health outcomes. These challenges go beyond an individual’s biology and are deeply connected to their social, economic, and political realities. Advocacy and awareness are important, but unless we speak to the impact of precarious working conditions, trauma and discrimination, and access to healthcare services, amongst many other factors, we will ultimately fail to capture these complexities and merely reproduce the inequalities we seek to reduce.
Shuranjeet hails from Birmingham in the United Kingdom and is the founder and director of Taraki, an organisation working with Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health. Shuranjeet also works as a consultant in mental health research and is an Oxford-Canada scholar studying for a masters in health policy at the University of Toronto. If you want to message Shuranjeet, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him directly on Twitter (@shuranjeet).
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