Q&A: Understanding Asian mental health in Aotearoa

What can we do to address the mental health needs of Asian communities in Aotearoa? This is the complex question behind the ongoing Asian Mental Health project at Te Papa.

Launched last year, so far the project has produced everything from zines to blogs and videos, held community events, and manage an ongoing hub of mental health resources

One of the latest initiatives launched under the project is a six-part video and blog series talking to Asian mental health and community workers, platforming their work and expertise. AMC talks to the Asian Mental Health project lead Mehwish Mughal about the mahi behind it all. 

Can you describe the wider Asian Mental Health project and your role in it?

I am the Asian Mental Health project lead in collaboration with Dr Grace Gassin, Curator Asian New Zealand Histories at Te Papa. This project responds to the urgent and growing need to address the marginalisation of Asian voices in mental health. It also amplifies efforts by people and communities tirelessly working to raise awareness of Asian mental health in Aotearoa.

Asian Mental Health project lead and activist Mehwish Mughal. Image: Supplied

Our freely downloadable zine, Unravelling Threads, centres the experiences and perspectives of contributions of diverse Asian heritages. Our blogs and interviews introduce the project’s kaupapa and tease out related issues in conversation with people working in Asian mental health spaces. The video series we’ve just launched includes a mix of profile pieces highlighting the work of diverse Asian mental health and community workers, and broader discussions articulating what needs to change to move forward in this area.

Alongside the aspects of the project, we’ve also been working with community participants to develop Te Papa’s Asian New Zealand collections so these histories and experiences are better documented, recorded and represented for the future.

How does the recent series of videos and blogs come into it? What is the kaupapa behind this series?

The videos and related blogs, which are a crucial part of the project, examine the current state of Asian mental health and explore possibilities for its future. Our aim is to harness Te Papa’s strength as a national platform to highlight the expertise that we know already exists in our communities and bring it to a wider audience. In doing so, we reinforce our underlying message that finding “solutions” to mental health requires listening to us, supporting us and strengthening our efforts. 

Dharshana ‘Dharshi’ Ponnampalam's story, the first in a series of six videos in the Asian Mental Health series

Have there been any moments working on this project that have resonated with you?

I have found myself humbled by the wealth of mental health advocacy work which has been done over the decades by our communities. There have been times when this has also made me feel extremely frustrated and sad, because what we are communicating through the project is not new, though our communities have often been ignored. I am much more hopeful than when I started: this project has connected me with some really amazing people who are so committed to this important work and have provided generous support, guidance and inspiration throughout.

What do you hope people will get out of this?

We hope that, through this project, people will get the message that our communities need support, and we need it now. Ignorance is no excuse — the expertise is already there, as we’ve shown.

Our experiences of mental health have often been portrayed as a monolithic; there are many stereotypes which actively work to misrepresent them and make our struggles invisible. We hope that this project will help spark visibility around this, generate greater public conversation and promote more nuanced understandings of mental health.

To keep up to date on the project and watch the video series, check out Te Papa's website.

Mehwish Mughal is a 1.5 generation Pakistani activist, feminist and researcher based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Driven by a strong sense of social justice, her main areas of interest are mental health and gender justice. She has been a long-time advocate for the prevention of family violence. Recently, she led a project creating best practice guidelines for family violence intervention in migrant communities. She has recently been awarded MA in Sociology. Her Master’s thesis is titled: An exploration of social construction of mental health: perspectives of Pakistani diaspora in Aotearoa.

- Asia Media Centre