‘Talk openly about mental health to break stigma’

Myira Khan was awarded the Mental Health Heroes Award by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in February 2015 for her work to break down the stigma and barriers around mental health issues. The founder of the Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network, was the only Asian and Muslim winner chosen out of 900 nominations.

Mental health has also become a hot topic in politics where all the major parties has included it in their election manifestos, which suggests that the issue is been spoken about which needs to be tackled, she tells Anjana Parikh.

 AL: You’ve been working on issues related to mental health for a long time. Why do you think Asian families still carry the stigma associated to mental health?

Myira: There is huge stigma around mental health, within all communities and cultures, and not just within Asian communities. Mental health and well-being is an issue that is not spoken about openly due to its stigmas around shame, poor understanding and not knowing where and what help is available. There is also a lot of misconception around mental health that people may feel that they will be labelled as ‘crazy’ or put on strong medication. So there are a lot of factors around mental health and why it is not openly spoken of and this creates the vicious cycle of stigma still being attached to it. And it is this cycle that needs to be broken, by talking openly about mental health, educating people on what it is and the help they can get.


Myira Khan
Myira Khan

AL: Have you been able to break this stigma?

Myira: Stigma around mental health is something which is starting to reduce and be tackled by those who work to get rid of stigma around it. In particular charities such as Mind, Time to Change and Samaritans do great work of speaking and educating communities of what mental health is and by talking about it, getting rid of the embarrassment and shame for those to speak up and step forward to talk about their own mental health issues. I work a lot through social media like Facebook and Twitter to raise the visibility of mental health issues and the support available through counselling and therapy. Mental health has also become a hot topic in politics, where we are seeing all the major parties have included it in their election manifestos, which suggests that the issue is been spoken about that needs to be tackled.

AL: How did you get specialising in mental health issues? Was there some kind of a turning point in your life?

Myira: I got trained in counselling for five years to become a qualified counsellor. I started of doing a 10-week introductory counselling skills course at the University of Leicester back in 2007. I enjoyed the course and found the subject interesting, having previously graduated in a Psychology degree at Brunel University in 2001. After the introductory course, I decided to continue and do the 2 year Certificate in Counselling course followed by the 2 year Diploma in Counselling.

The turning point came when I was doing the Diploma course and having started to see clients and recognising the impact and help I could offer another person that I felt that I wanted to do this as a job and from then on that was my goal, to qualify and work as a counsellor.

AL: How difficult is it to tell a client that he/she’s suffering from mental health problems?

Myira: I see clients when they realise they need support or help in any issue that they are currently dealing with, whether it be a specific mental health issue, which is diagnosable, such as depression, or an issue or conflict that they are having in their life and is impacting on their well-being, such as a relationship problem, bereavement or trauma. It is not my role to ‘diagnose’ them with a mental health problem but instead offer them the support, help and space to work through their issues and concerns.

AL: Why is it difficult for an Asian family to accept that one of their family members has mental problems?

Myira: This partly goes back to stigma, which I spoke of earlier, but also around the lack of awareness and education of what mental health is and what help/support/treatment is available. If a family is dealing with someone who they believe has a mental health problem in isolation of any mental health professional, there can be a lot of assumptions of what they can do, what help is available and whether the person will be believed and get the help they need.

There is also the factor of how the family deals or behaves towards that family member and this could be in an inappropriate way, such as believing the person is ‘crazy’ or ‘mental’ and needs to be kept isolated from others or they have fears that the person may end up in a ‘mental hospital’, for example.

There may also be cultural influences upon accepting the person has mental problems, such as believing the person has ‘evil sprits’ within them that is causing them to act ‘mental’. So there are many reasons why families may find it hard to accept that a family member has mental health issues. One reason cited numerous times is that the words such as ‘depression’ and ‘mental health’ just do not exist within Asian languages and cultures and so people just don’t have the words to express what is going on with them, which can lead to the individual struggling to even be able to share with their family what is going on with them, as they are unable to understand it for themselves let alone explain it to someone else.

AL: What type of counselling do you provide to your clients, and how long are the sessions for?

Myira: I was trained as a Psychodynamic counsellor, which means that I use particular understanding and theory to explore and address the issues which clients bring to me, and to be able to look at the underlying (and/or unconscious) concerns or conflicts, which may be leading the client to experience their current conflicts/issues. This means that for some clients I work long-term with them, up to two years, so that we are able to address some deep-routed conflicts, which may stem from childhood trauma, for example and are having an impact on the client’s present day well-being.

For other clients, I work with current conflicts, such as a relationship problem or marriage breakdown and I work with the client for them to explore and understand their current difficulties. So each client is very individual and unique and this is reflected in how I work with them. Each session lasts for 50 minutes but how long the contract is with each client, depends on them.

AL: You also have an experience of working with university students. What are the main reasons that lead them to seek your advice?

Myira: Students being with them all the same concerns, issues and difficulties that most other clients bring with them. The only difference is that for many university students, this is the first time they have lived away from home and/or are living a more independent life and so this has an impact upon how they cope with their issues and difficulties. It is also a time where emotionally and developmentally they are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, which is something they need to cope with and understand. It may be that moving out of home is the issue itself and this brings with it its own challenges and difficulties, which the client has come to counselling for. For example, homesickness and being away from family and friends (i.e. a support network) is a big factor in a student’s well-being and ability to settle and cope with university life, which can lead to them feeling isolated, sad or depressed and this can have major impact upon their studies. So when working with university students, we have to look at and be aware of all these factors which are impacting upon each other.

Students are also under enormous pressure and strain of their studies and for some the jump from college to university and the expectations around having an amazing university experience both academically and socially can put a lot of pressure upon students, leading them to feel not good enough or not making the most of their time at university. Students also bring issues which they had been dealing with prior to university, so for some students counselling at university may be a continuation of support which they had at college or from their home town and which they still need whilst at university. This could be for many different reasons or issues such as a mental health issue (depression, anxiety) or a recent bereavement/loss or a relationship difficulty. A key factor to remember when working with university students is that they don’t live in a bubble and that they are bringing with them some of the same difficulties and issues which they were dealing with right before they started their degree.

AL: You also provide online counselling? How do these virtual advices help a person to recover from such health issues?

Myria: Working with clients face to face and online is the same in terms of the support I provide and how I work with clients to explore and understand their issues within a safe and confidential space. The difference with online is that I may be ‘speaking’ to the client either via email or Skype (telephone, instant messaging or video), which has an impact upon the communication style and therapeutic relationship between myself and the client. I have been specifically trained as an online.

I also make it clear that when working online there is the possibility for misunderstanding or miscommunication in something I have said and so it is important for the client to be able to ask for clarification on what I have said. Online counselling is a much more flexible and available method of accessing counselling for many clients, particularly if a client works shift or unsocial/late hours or if they are unable to physically get to my office. It also means that clients have the comfort of accessing counselling from their own homes without needing to factor in any travel time to/from my office.

In particular, if a client is a Muslim and/or Asian and they want a Muslim and/or Asian counsellor and one is not available to them locally, they can access online counselling with me. This is something which I have seen an increase in, from clients contacting me.

AL: If you hadn’t been a counsellor, what would you have been?

Myira: A difficult question as I can’t see me doing any other job with such passion and enthusiasm although my other passions in life are reading and baking, so running my own bookshop and a tea-room (preferably along a beautiful coastal background), sounds lovely.