By Jessie Brar
Many children in South Asian community are struggling due to mental health problems. Most of their problems have roots in a disturbed family life and father’s alcoholic issue. Jessie Brar is one such victim and a courageous survivor. She writes about her personal struggles and how she fought with her depression. She studied psychology at Queen’s University and now works in youth mental health promotion with Jack.org in Toronto, Canada. Her spare time is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health through The Mental Health Spotlight (@TheMHSpotlight), a project dedicated to erasing stigma around mental health and mental illness in South Asian communities through the power of storytelling.
My name is Jessie Brar and I am a mental health warrior. I wasn’t always this way. For many years my mental illness plagued me as my biggest weakness. It caused me to lay in bed for days on end. It made me push my friends and family away. My mental illness even made me feel as though there was no point to the life I was living. However, I am now 23 years old, and I have realized, having a mental illness does not mean I cannot live a happy and fulfilling life.
Growing up, I was surrounded by mental health struggles, but I had no idea. I lived in a house with my parents, siblings and grandparents from my father’s side, as many do in Punjabi households. However, we weren’t one big happy family. My grandparents were abusive, both verbally and physically. They would yell insults at my mother. They would beat me and my siblings, but we would stay quiet, hoping that one day they would stop.
My father used to drink every day. Whenever I saw him, he smelled of whiskey. My mother was constantly stressed out. She was trying to keep a burning building from falling apart. I didn’t know it then, but my mother was depressed and my father was struggling from very sever alcoholism.
We spent 11 years in that home. Constantly fearing for our lives. Not knowing if in the next moment rage would come over my drunk father and he would start smashing the pictures on the wall again. Or if that my grandparents would decide we didn’t need to eat today and tell us to spend the day locked in our rooms. There were explosive fights all of the time. Loud yelling and ear shattering noises of objects being thrown.
This story isn’t an uncommon one. I’ve heard this saga from countless Punjabi households. Alcoholism has been engrained into our culture for generations, from the music we listen to, to the way we look at dealing with problems. Many people get stuck in this story, and never find a way out. I was lucky that my mother was strong. She was able to separate from my father and give us a better life.
However, growing up in that environment had forever changed me. I was 8 years old when I first started to realize that I was different than the children around me. On Canada Day, when fireworks would go off and other children would laugh, I would run away and hide, scared of the noises, often drawn to tears.
When we moved out, I was 11 and felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to help my mother as I was the oldest child. She never put pressure on me, but I felt I needed to step up and try to fill the void that our father had left in our lives.
When I was 18, I moved out of the house to go to one of the most prestigious universities in Canada. I was excited because I was living the great life I had wanted, but so scared to be away from my family and friends.
I got to university and my whole life changed. This was the first time I had been away from my support system. It started off with me feeling sad and home sick, but I ignored it and assumed it would go away. A few weeks later, I was still sad all the time. I was crying secretly so my roommate wouldn’t see. I would lay in bed awake, all night, staring at the ceiling thinking about all the things that were bothering me. Then I would end up sleeping all day and missing my classes. I feel behind in school. I failed one of my courses. I was in a downward spiral, and it only made things worse. I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, because that would make it real.
I struggled in silence for over a year. I barely passed my classes. I didn’t want to tell my mom because she already had so much on her plate. It was costing a fortune for me to school, and I did not want her to worry about my health as well as the fees. Funnily enough, I was studying Psychology. Every day I would go to class and hear about how the brain worked, and how our past experiences can cause struggles in the present. I knew exactly what was happening, and even though I was studying to be someone who can help those who are mentally ill, I didn’t want to admit that I was too.
In my second year, I was attending a presentation with a group of students I was supervising. There was a young South Asian male who went up to the front to speak. There weren’t a lot of people of colour at my university, so I was happy to see someone who looked like me up there. He started to tell a story of his first year of university. He spoke about how he had struggled with his mental health, to the point of wanting to take his own life. He failed so many classes that he was going to have to leave the university, but then he did something. He spoke to someone about it. He spoke to a counselor, talked to his professors, and now he was in his fourth year and going to graduate with honours.
To this day, I do not know the name of that boy, but he changed my life. Watching him share his story gave me the hope and courage I was longing for. The next day, I set up an appointment with my school counselor. I went in and I told her, “I think I have depression”. We went on and spent the next hour talking. I cried, but I also felt relieved that I no longer had this huge secret.
I won’t say it was easy. Going into that counselor’s office was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I was thankful that I did it. It also didn’t help me right away. I went to the counselor a couple times and realized she didn’t understand my culture and it was going nowhere. I went to another counselor that was a better fit, and did a few sessions until I felt better and then quit. 3 weeks later, I was back to thoughts of suicide and feeling hopeless.
Then I went to the doctor. They prescribed me an anti-depressant that I took for the next year. It helped me feel like myself again. Getting help is hard because what works for one person will not work for the other. Sometimes traditional methods such as counseling or medicine, may not be a fit for you. Some people use yoga, or writing. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of trial and error to find what helps ease your mind. However, speaking to someone is often the best first step.
I opened up to my mother about my struggle. She cried. She was upset that I felt as though I couldn’t talk to her. She was scared at the thought that she could have lost me. She wished she had asked me more, but she herself knew nothing about mental health. She asked me to help educate her. She learned with me so that we could have these open conversations and make sure that if I did start to spiral again, she knew what to do.
In this time, I also started researching more about mental illness and getting more involved as a mental health advocate. I finished school with a Bachelor’s of Psychology. I started working full time with a youth mental health charity called Jack.org, but something felt missing. The conversation around mental health was happening, but not in my community. Not amongst South Asians, and I wanted that to change. In our culture, there is so much stigma around mental health. Many people view those who are mentally ill as weak, lazy or that they are lying. We ignore mental illness, or tell people to pray more and it will go away. We mask the problem and refuse to deal with it. This creates a huge culture of silence.
I had seen the effects of this silence first hand. I struggled for almost 10 years in silence, and I’m only 23 years old. Imagine those who are older than me. How long have they been struggling? How long have they kept quiet and not gotten the help they need and deserve? In Canada, 1 in every 5 Canadians will struggle with their mental health, but only 25% of those struggling will get help.
A big turning point for me was when I saw someone openly talk about mental health. It made me realize that it was okay to struggle and that it wasn’t the end of the world. As long as you dealt with the situation, you could live a happy and fulfilling life. This lead me to start The Mental Health Spotlight, a platform dedicated to raising awareness about mental health in the South Asian community by sharing stories from South Asians around the world. Each Sunday, we share stories from members of the community who have struggled with their mental health, have seen a family member struggle, or are passionate about the topic. We are working to educate the community about mental health in the hope that one day, everyone feels comfortable getting the help the deserve.
The topic of mental health is still so taboo, but we need to have these conversations. If we love our children, our families and ourselves, we must make our mental health a priority. It can be very hard to reach out for help, but it is necessary. We must believe our children if they say they are struggling. We must have these hard conversations, because if we do not, our lives are at stake.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, please reach out to a resource near you. This could be talking to a family doctor, a counsellor, psychiatrist or using an anonymous helpline. If this is an emergency, please contact 9-1-1, or the emergency response number in your area.
Mental Health Warrior
Founder @ TheMHSpotlight
Sikh Family Helpline: 1-800-551-9128
Mental Health Helpline Canada: 1-866-531-2600
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Rethink Mental Illness UK: 0300 5000 927