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Asian Mental Health Project amplifies collective voices

Understanding Mental Health accrues answers: Mehwish Mughal (Massey News Photo)

From Massey News, Palmerston North, March 25, 2023

Mehwish Mughal, who gained her Master of Arts (MA) in Sociology in 2022, has been working for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as a Project Lead on Asian mental health in Aotearoa.

The Asian Mental Health Project is a response to the growing and urgent need to address the marginalisation of Asian voices in the mental health space.

Ms Mughal said that she has been an advocate for mental health and the prevention of family violence for a long time.

“The work I have been doing is born out of necessity. Our communities have shown the need clearly and consistently over the years, so our project is about amplifying our collective voices. The objective is to generate visibility around Asian mental health and promote a nuanced understanding of mental health,” she said.

Voice of Asians

According to Ms Mughal, people involved with the Asian Mental Health Project have developed a specialised zine, Unravelling Threads, which centres the voices of people from diverse Asian backgrounds.

“We created a six-part video series that highlights the individual work of people from diverse professional backgrounds and establishes the multiple ways in which mental health is conceptualised and supported,” she said.

Ms Mughal’s work also involved organising the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, a space where people gathered, reflected and connected. She is working on the project with Dr Grace Gassin, Curator, Asian New Zealand Histories at Te Papa and all of the work can be found on the Te Papa website.

Before working for Te Papa, Ms Mughal led a project developing best practice guidelines for family violence intervention in migrant communities.

The academic journey

Ms Mughal started University hoping to do medicine, which she said was the only prestigious subject anyone talked about at school.

“Around that time, I had been battling many things, including leaving an abusive home, resulting in a decade-long mental health journey. I could not even get through the first semester of medicine at university. After several changes and challenges, I completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in biological anthropology and statistics from the University of Auckland. Even though I gained valuable knowledge, and to some extent, my love for learning allowed me to enjoy these subjects, I could never make sense of my world.

“One day, to fill my timetable, I randomly took a sociology paper, and it made some sense in my world. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do sociology. It was hard to shift from a certain way of knowing and doing and I struggled immensely. The more I struggled, the more it made sense. I think this shift was necessary. I had been engaged with advocacy work since coming to Aotearoa, but I lacked the language to articulate. Sociology, to some extent, gave me that language,” she said.

After completing her BA, Ms Mughal was determined to continue to study sociology, but it came down to financial survival or study.

She was aware that Massey provided a distance learning option, so she enrolled for a Graduate Diploma in sociology, which was followed by an MA in sociology.

“I learnt valuable research skills, but most importantly, I gained a sort of closure,” she said.

Ms Mughal said that she was transformed at the end of her thesis.

“I want to share this excerpt from my thesis: Through this research process, I found a way of understanding mental health that has given me answers to my own journey of seeking to understand my past challenges with mental health issues. Through this research process, I am able to put to bed the labels that have defined and haunted me for so long.”

Research and Employment

“My research allowed me to start thinking about challenging the dominant narratives around Asian mental health that reproduce cultural stereotypes and hence block Asian peoples from meaningfully engaging with important questions. I brought this criticality to The Asian Mental Health Project and aimed to challenge these dominant narratives that fail to examine the problems within the systems, institutions and structures,” Ms Mughal said.

She hopes to continue to do advocacy work.

“I also hope to continue to seek and produce knowledge. I do not know what form it will take – whether it is more formal education or research projects,” she said.

Ms Mughal is from Karachi, Pakistan and has lived in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland for 20 years.

“I am a daughter to a strong mum and sister to five siblings. My mother and two younger siblings are in Pakistan, which is an equal home for me. I believe in the value of my study. I knew that my research was necessary. I think I got through because I believed in what I was doing. I also want to emphasise the pivotal role of many people, friends and mentors, in grounding me and who continue to do so. Graduate studies can be very isolating, especially if you have a lot of things happening in your immediate environment. It is, therefore, imperative to have your community of care. My inspiration for the work I am now doing is directly related to my personal experiences and the experiences of those around me. My drive for social justice is what makes me show up,” she said.

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