Depression: Shamed into silence

Published: August 7, 2011

Studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men.

In the dictionary, the term depression is defined as a ‘severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy’ or as a ‘condition of mental disturbance, typically with lack of energy and difficulty in maintaining concentration or interest in life’. However, nowhere in the above definitions, have we come across the words ‘weakness’ or ‘illness’.

So, why do our people of South Asian origin consider depression as something disgraceful?

Studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men are and, from the list of ethnic identities, South Asian women – whether they are Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan – suffer more from the disorder than their counterparts do.

From this point onwards, I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that depression is not a sign of laziness or incompetence. Unlike in the West, research about South Asian women and their mental disorders is scarce. Perhaps, because our patriarchal and extremely ignorant culture is responsible for this. South Asian women are somewhat reluctant to talk about their depression and the factors that have caused it. Some, maybe many more, are probably unaware that it is the case of depression that is plaguing their health and mind.

Anjali Dixit, from the Palto Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), says that there are biological, social and cultural factors that contribute to a woman’s depression. She says that hormones and other issues relating to miscarriages, pregnancy or menopause affect women more. If a woman is under pressure from trying to maintain the home and family or earning money to run the household, depression is more likely to occur. In a patriarchal society, such as ours, women are pushed right to the breaking point. Typical things such as being the perfect mother, sister, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and/or career woman, bearing children (especially boys), being subservient and submit to their husbands are just crushing the minds of us females.

What’s worse is that our people not only push women right to the limit but also teach them to bottle up these problems. Blackmailed emotionally with disgrace or loss of family honour, women are more reluctant to confide in someone such as a friend or a health professional.

Research has also established that suicide rates are higher amongst South Asian women than any other ethnic identity and this stems from the depression problem.

A young woman whom I talked to, and requested to remain anonymous, actually revealed to me that she attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills after unable to cope with the building stress that becomes fatal for us women in the end. The attempt turned out to be unsuccessful as the pills did not show their lethal consequences and the 30-year-old was left sleepless for the entire night. This attempt, she says, remains a secret from her family to this day with the belief that she will suffer even more should they find out.

The tragic truth is that, despite living in the 21st century, our people and their minds are still stuck in the Middle Ages – an era where ignorance, lack of knowledge and logic were common. Just ask yourself – how on earth is confiding in someone about your inner problems and mental health disgracing your family? Even though Pakistan has narrow-minded people, there are liberal-minded people too. Nevertheless, those people on their part failed to contribute to removing the stigma that is associated with depression.

It is true.

Have you ever seen a campaign that is trying to create awareness for depressive disorder?

Very few people would say so because we never have anything as such. Many generations of young women have been through this painful and tough ordeal in the past and it won’t stop here. Lots more women of forthcoming generations will be pushed to go through this trial if we do not put a stop to it now. It is still not too late – better late than never, they say.

Let’s look at it this way: depression and cancer are both illnesses and prove to be fatal for humans if nothing is done to cure it. Nevertheless, patients who are terminally ill with cancer receive so much more love and support from others that depressed people do not.

It is very much similar to what legendary writer David D. Burns once said:

“Depression can seem worse than terminal cancer, because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem.”

We all salute the bravery of cancer patients who are putting on a courageous face during such a difficult time. So, why do we point fingers of suspicion at our poor, young women when their minds are driven right to the breaking point rather than acknowledge the pain and suffering they are being put through?

People need to close off all these intolerant ideologies and look at the issue of depression through a new perspective. Our perspective. The female perspective. Perhaps, then, things may become better. A new sun may rise on a new day for a new future for us women.


Aneka Chohan

The author is a freelance journalist and human rights activist. She tweets as @anekachohan (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ilmana Fasih

    I agree to most of your write up related to dogmas of depression in South Asian society. Being a medical professional and working for women, I know very well how hard it is to make a woman realise that she is depressed. Their first reaction is ‘I am not mad’.
    However, I disagree in comparing depression to cancer. This would serve as a worsening the mindset of those who are already apprehensive of this ailment.
    Depression should be taken as any medical illness as a flu, pneumonia or tuberculosis. It is not life threatening, unless one has suicidal tendencies, and it is treatable like the above mentioned diseases. And since it is a medical ailment, it needs a definite treatment in the form medications or psychotherapy. Just love will not suffice.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    Good work!

    As a medical student with keen interest in psychiatry, I understand how hard it is to treat psychiatric illnesses in Pakistan.

    You wouldn’t feel embarrassed if a family member were to fracture his leg in a car accident. Concerned, but not humiliated.

    But if a family member were to develop a mental illness, it becomes a matter of shame for most Pakistani households as ignorant people start to gossip, “Suna hai falane ka bhai pagal ho gaya hai?”

    There’s a taboo associated with psychiatric disorders that no matter how hard we try, we simply cannot dispel. Because an injury to the mind cannot be directly visualized, people find it hard to believe that the person is suffering from an actual disease, and not acting in an awkward way deliberately.Recommend

  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos

    Thank you Aneka Chohan for writing an article on dpression. It is a poorly understood illness and the patient in this case does not get the understanding that patients with other illnesses get. It is treatable if you are lucky to find a good doctor.

    Ilmana Fasih thanks for clearing up certain points mentioned in the article.

    Lets hope with more awareness about what “Depression” actually is, more people can get the right treatment. When I hear stories about the patient being beaten with sticks to get rid of the jinn, I am both horrified and sorry (for the patient).Recommend

  • Naveed Farooqi

    A very well written artcile, here I wudl like to inform you all that we have been running a Facebookgroup, a website and a cummunity, its a support group where we have been trying to create Awareness about Depression, and related issues. We provide group therapies, educational material, medical camps, seminars, workshops, one on one sessions. (all for free). We have very well reputed Psychiatrist, Psycologists and other members on our core group, from Pakistan and United States, We have provided help to several individuals in terms of depression, stress, anxiety, mental disorders and relationship issues all, related with the curse of Depression. Our compaign is called: CABEW: Creating Awareness for Behavioural & Emotional Wellness.
    Please read all about ourselves, our aims, objectives, profiles and future plans.
    Please promote the cause and spread the word and join the group.
    Best regards,
    Naveed farooqi.!/groups/depressioncentral/

  • Adeela Farooqi

    A very helpful article , there is definately a need to educate people about depression and particularly in our culture, people are not open because there is shame attached to it. what most people don’t know is that depression is caused by chemical imbalance in the body and like any other illness requires the intervention of a medical professional. I believe the reason why women dont talk about it or confide in others is because they think that talking about it would give away their inner most thoughts and feelings which are somehow not socially acceptable. There is a community on facebook ( depression central..join in to change) which has been set up for creating awareness and helping people with depression. There are psychiarist/ psychologist available for free consultations and free group therapies are conducted everyweek at the southcity hospital. Recommend

  • Abdul Razzaq Dogar

    It really a remarkable effort by the author.

    In most of the cases women’s are suffering from the awful dilemma of Depression in south Asian society as the writer has given the reference of certain case study. Mostly the symptoms are common and the effected numbers are from the lower/middle class women. Although there are certain cases in upper class and working women class particularly they are facing such situations which leads to their height of depression because of the sexual harassment, unfavorable working environment and there social surroundings. I personally feel that in number of cases although I’m not a researcher but as per general perception and observation it is learnt that women are personally responsible for such situations as they are not capable to cope with the social inequality, status consciousness and the sense of inferiority complex. As in many examples women feel insecure as they don’t have adequate exposure to the society in handling problems and above all the capability to handle different crunch situation. As a result both the categories are facing the problem of this serious illness of “Depression” And this ultimately badly effect the particular family at large. Recommend

  • B

    It’s not considered disgraceful. It’s just under-diagnosed. Most depression patients that I have come across have very supportive families.

    Well-written though.Recommend

  • Sumera

    Not only is depression under-diagnosed, but often in some families ignoring the issue results in far more lethal consequences such as suicide (which I have blogged about here: .

    We can only change attitudes through education, and try to remove the label “pagal” from anyone deemed to be having mental health problems.Recommend

  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos

    @B: Glad that you experienced thisRecommend

  • WhoWasThatMaskedMan

    @B Those with unsupportive families don’t surface with their depression tag&almost never reach the professional help.Recommend

  • Naveed Farooqi

    I request you all please join hands to support the cause and help those who might need it. If anyone is suffering from Depression or any other related disorder, please join our group. Lets eliminate the taboo associated behind depression, its all right if anyone seeks help and if someone visits a Psychiatrist or Psycologist, its normal. Nothing wrong Recommend

  • Mastishhk

    After Going through this Article ” Im Depressed n Proud” :)…Fun Apart…Amazing insight and a very good Article……

    @ B..Thanx bro/sis for carrying on our Pakistani culture of Denial !!!!Recommend

  • Neutralist

    I am depressed, and I feel too depressed when I’m not depressed.. I seek it and I feel too filled with objectivity for this pursuit. It is not a “disorder”, but an extremely profound intellectual state, an elevated sense of connection to a world beyond our reach, and more that that, a curiously lively perception that imparts you with life on one hand, and consciousness on the other.Recommend

  • The Only Normal Person Here.

    Feasible. ReallyRecommend

  • pardesi

    @ aneka chohan

    my feeling is, women are prone to depression mostly due to their state of helplessness and self pity.

    Women is south asia should try and stand on thier feet, economically. Then they can come out of this viscious state of affairs. Yes, I mean they should do jobs and earn their own money and respect. I am not saying that the problem willl be eliminated 100%. But will go a long way in solving it.Recommend

  • Arslan

    good article…Recommend

  • Tia

    This article is so well written and it touches an issue that everyone turns their back upon. I suffered through depression for a long time and all the time i would hear taunts about how lazy and incompetent I was. My family would call me as the black sheep of the family who got bad grades and would always be in a bitter mood. They didn’t seem to understand that my life was filled with unexplainable sadness and darkness. Its only with growing up that I realised something wasn’t right with my life and I was about to eventually get myself out of this by proper treatment. I wish my family had looked into this matter earlier and I hadn’t spent so many years in misery. After reading your article, I hope that people will try and look at the female relations in their lives and see if anyone needs their care and attention.Recommend

  • Cynical

    I am glad that you came out of those dreadfull experience.It’s a fantastic achievment. Trust me because I know.
    One request. Please help those around you who you may find in similar situation,with your experince and understanding. Wish you sun shine all the way.Recommend

  • Anees


    you have very well pointed about the issues regarding "WOMEN AS UNDER PRESSURE " perhaps specially in south Asian region, culture, man dominant society rolls at its peak.
    Need to look at the matter with rigorous policies and change mind set, to overcome issue.

  • Irfan Anwer

    These Kind are issue are related to Pakistani Society, I think we need change the mind set up of Pakistani People…I am sure will be a change in the society..But we need more time for the kind change….Oh O..will be …..soon are later…..Recommend