Of stigma and ornithophobia

How one woman’s fear of birds controlled her life – and affected those around her. By Shila Nair.

Warning: this story talks about self-harm.

Green trees under blue sky and white clouds during daytime, 2020. Photo by Mike Erskine / Unsplash

A few years ago, I worked with a young mother who suffered from a fear of birds. The clinical diagnosis for this type of phobia is ornithophobia. She also suffered from a fear of being stigmatised on account of it, for which there is no clinical classification.

From my experience of working as a therapist of Indian origin, I believe the fear of being stigmatised on account of a mental health issue is far greater than the mental ill-health itself. This fear is more pronounced among immigrant collectivist communities, as having a family member with a mental health issue can cast an ugly shadow on the entire family when seen through the lens of society. If a family member is deemed to have a mental health issue, it is promptly seen as ‘madness’ and the member is generally kept out of sight, at family gatherings at home as well as outside of home. The stigma around a person seeking counselling, for something that could be no more than a mild depression, is so strong that going for counselling is considered equivalent to the person going to address their ‘madness’. Families worry that if they have a member with a mental health issue, the stigma from it can affect the future of other children, especially around marriage prospects of females in the family. Community suspicion over the family as potentially having a genetic disposition to madness will be rife.

The woman I worked with felt so deeply stigmatised that it often drove her to the realms of self-harm. For the purpose of recounting this case, I will change some aspects that identify her.

Zara was a young mother of a three-year-old girl. She had recently moved to Aotearoa New Zealand to be with her husband who was studying for his doctorate. She was referred to me by her family doctor.

Back in the Afghanistan, where Zara came from, she had not ventured out of home on her own for over 19 years. She experienced an extreme fear of birds, even of little sparrows. She could not bear to look at them, her heart raced when they chirped and she felt short of breath when she saw them hop along her bedroom window sills. Her fear had grown to such heights that she often fantasised being dead and resorted to cutting herself. Adopting a curious stance, I enquired what the act of cutting had done for her in such a situation. She said she felt she could calm herself down. That was how she had coped back home, particularly when her family ridiculed her for ‘catching’ a mental illness that had brought shame on all of them. They were embarrassed to take her out with them to attend public events. They would not go out with her during the day, because she would freeze at the sight of a bird and stand rooted to the spot, unable to move. Zara thought she was condemned for life. Her family did not take her to the doctor, apprehensive that she may get diagnosed with a serious mental disease, the stigmatising repercussions of which they would have to socially endure over generations.

So, they decided to get her married.

Zara entered married life with a man studying in Aotearoa New Zealand. The marriage was organised quickly. Her husband did not know of her debilitating fear of birds until well after they were married. Initially very considerate, he tried his best to help her overcome the fear. Eventually he gave up and took her to see a doctor. Her fear of birds had grown worse, to the extent she could not even walk a few yards from home to the nearby kindergarten to drop off her child.

My sessions with her began, not with addressing the issue she presented, but in destigmatising what she though was the devastating illness of ‘madness’. She said she knew that her fear of birds was irrational as she did not know of anyone else around her who had a fear such as hers. She told me that her family’s taunts at her ‘madness’ kept ringing in her ears. With tears in her eyes, she expressed how deprived she felt, from spending precious time with her little girl. She and her husband often took her to the park, to play, but Zara would sit back in the car, windows rolled up and watch her daughter run around with her father. The sight of birds outside the car would make her tremble and her mouth would turn dry.

We worked together over a few sessions. I informed her that what she had was something called ornithophobia, which was a type of extreme anxiety related to the fear of birds. I also informed her that such fears often have a background of trauma and that there must be a reason why this fear had developed when she was around eight years old. By our fourth session, she was able to remember an incident which we then realised had triggered off her fear of birds. The traumatic incident had become so entrenched, that she had grown oblivious to it. Until the age of eight, she lived in a large house with her family and extended family. The roof of that house was also home to pigeons that came in flocks at various times of the day and cooed. One day, her cousin brother who was several years older to her, caught one of the pigeons and threw the frightened, fluttering bird at her. She was caught unawares, she said, and she remembered collapsing to the ground in fear and hitting her head on the concrete ground. She had woken up to see her cousin standing over her and laughing.

Once the trauma came uncovered, we spent many sessions processing it.

To cut a long story short, our last session was spent in the park. I sat with her on a bench and we watched the birds hop, chirp, and fly in front of us, around us, as I held her hand. She no longer trembled. She smiled.

About Shila Nair

Shila Nair is a counsellor registered with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors. She has a Master’s Degree in Counselling from the University of Auckland. Besides having a private practice based in Auckland, she has been involved with migrant and refugee communities in Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. She was conferred the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2019 in recognition of her advocacy against family and sexual violence.