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Mental Health in Post-Colonial Societies

Smiti Modhurima

Bangladesh is a post-colonial state. The Indian sub-continent had been a colony of Britain for over a hundred years, and under British influence for a hundred before that. Nearly two hundred years of colonial rule have left their effects throughout our subcontinent, ranging from a weakened economy to the very partition of India (and therefore indirectly, the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war). One issue that is seldom discussed, however, is the effect South Asia’s colonial past has left on our collective mental health as a society.

Discussions on mental health everywhere are often modelled around a strictly Western narrative. Issues that are unique to people of colour are often ignored and under researched in nearly all fields, ranging from medicine to literature, but this problem is especially prevalent when it comes to mental health– so much that the idea of a unique mental health approach for post-colonial societies is something many of us haven’t even considered. Colonial rule in the subcontinent may have been 200 years ago, but its effects are very much present in our psychology today. In fact, common mental health issues in South Asians that at first sight seem completely unrelated can often be boiled down to our colonial roots, which have remained present long after the tree of British rule was chopped down.

Colonial rule relied upon the complete subjugation of the people of the colony. This complete subjugation looked like locals being treated as lesser in terms of beauty or intellectual prowess. Simply put, we held lower value in society than the white coloniser, and it was only when we put all our efforts into becoming more similar to the white coloniser that our value would increase. British Indian society was so indoctrinated into this idea of the colonial ideal that it continues to persist even today. We see it in the supermarket shelves lined with fairness creams so we can be one shade closer to white. We see it in parents who force their children to pursue careers in medicine or engineering rather than the arts, because to them, it ensures a life of safety and respect for a people who have been denied both, time and time again. These issues may seem insignificant, but when they come from a source of feeling lesser than as a race, they can be symptoms of a deeply rooted colonial trauma.


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But why is it important that we understand that so many of the mental health issues in our lives link back to our colonial past? When a brown person walks into a psychologist’s office and talks about being forced into a career they don’t want, the best advice we can hope for is to “talk” to our parents- and any brown child can tell you how well that would go. The same methods that work for white, western societies don’t work in a unique, post-colonial setting. This advice could result in misunderstandings, bad blood within families, and at the end of the day, no solution at all. It is important to first understand the cause of the issue before addressing it- otherwise, all we have is a misdiagnosis.

It is only when we study behaviour in post-colonial societies and devote resources into truly understanding the colonial mentality and the various ways in which it manifests itself, that we can address issues in our community. If we consider our previous scenario, of a brown person being forced by their parents into a career choice, we can see how looking at it from a post-colonial lens would allow better mitigation of the issue. Understanding why parents in South Asia desire the safety and financial stability of their children above all else, given the recent colonial history of our people being deprived of both unless they achieved great heights of success, would allow an open discussion that finally addresses the root of the issue. It does not guarantee success, but it creates an atmosphere where South Asians finally feel understood and not divorced from the concept of Western mental health.

Mental health services in South Asia have a long way to go in terms of accessibility and acceptance, and perhaps one of the reasons why is that it was never catered to us to begin with. Understanding our unique cultural identity and the trauma colonialism has left on us is imperative if mental health services in this region are to be effective. The colonial hangover that has been causing headache after headache in South Asia threatens to turn into a life-threatening tumour– unless we combat it at its root.


Project funded by EMK Center
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