By Surbhi Gogia
Kulpreet Singh is marketing professional in his mid-thirties. While talking to him you would not realise that he went through a long struggle of fighting a mental illness throughout college, struggling everyday but not being aware about his problem.
He had been an intelligent student since childhood, but he had always found it difficult to concentrate on routine things like playing, studying or even crossing a road. “I just could not focus . . . even if I tried my best. My overall performance in the school went down. It affected me in my career too and made me more frustrated.”
Due to lack of awareness around mental health issues, he and his family attributed his condition to external stresses. It took him until the age of 25 to seek any kind of medical help. “When I got diagnosed, I was informed that I had ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). I did not know what that meant.”
He researched about ADHD and got the necessary help. But this was a turning point in Kulpreet’s life. It gave him a better understanding of not only what was lacking in his own life, but in his community as well. It was the awareness of mental health issues, how they affect us each day and how easy it can be to ignore the various symptoms that might indicate a larger problem.
He was thus inspired to start the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA) group in 2011, a non-profit network now dedicated to educating and engaging the local South Asian community on issues of mental health.
Not only Kulpreet fought with his disorder, he came out openly to discuss about it in a society that he knew attaches great reservations and stigmas with mental health. The simple mention of the word “mental health” makes South Asians think of images with people running around in torn clothes or talking to themselves.
These are harmful, incorrect stereotypical images created by media especially Indian media. Mental health on the other hand is a parallel concept of physical health. “Mental wellness is a state of mind that allows you to live your best life so that you feel happy, productive and fulfilled,” Kulpreet explains. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her society.
All of us go through tough times in our lives when our emotions are in turmoil. Mental health means striking a balance in all aspects of life: social, physical, spiritual, economic and mental, which will help the brain cope amid tough times. Most of us feel imbalanced in tough situations but carry on with daily lives and things become better with time.
However, for some, it becomes difficult to handle thought pattern and emotions. They lose out on relationships, jobs, and, quite literally, peace of mind. No matter how hard they try to be optimistic and try to take themselves out of difficult situations, they face an uphill battle. “If timely treatment is not provided to help such people they continue to be overwhelmed,” he says.
According to Kulpreet there is a tremendous gap between the understanding of mental illnesses and seeking help at the right time in South Asian culture. “People suffering with mental conditions are being forced by family and friends to be optimistic and use their willpower to overcome their difficult situations. Whereas, they have to understand that one can use willpower to change mood but not body chemistry. Whereas some people require medication, others will benefit from therapy, and most people will benefit from meditation and mindfulness.”
Some of the most prevalent illnesses are anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and substance use and addiction. Kulpreet feels a lot needs to be done when it comes to creating mental health awareness amongst South Asians.
He quotes his own example. In spite of being born and brought here in Canada, being familiar with the country and languages, it was difficult for him to find help and guidance of people to walk him through his condition. He had to find and reach out to resources himself to learn what his disorder meant and ways to help manage it.
“Imagine someone new moving here from India, Pakistan or other countries,” says Kulpreet. The difficulties they would face would be significant. They face barriers in language, little access, if any, to resources,” he says, and asks, “who would help them?”
This is where the role of organizations like SAMHAA becomes important. According to him there are gaps between the community, service providers, and government funding. There are resources and organizations available, some even supplied material in different South Asian languages, he says. But just because something exists, doesn’t mean others know it is there. “It is very hard for them to get the help they want since they know to access it.”
He utilized social media to network with like-minded people, those who thought there was dire need of some sort of mental health awareness group to assist the South Asian community directly. From the beginning there was an overwhelming response, with a group of 12 professionals and leaders coming together to make SAMHAA a reality. They were: Natasha Raey, Nirmal Gerow, Ranjit Kaur, Sukhdeep Jassar, Ramina Kaur, Sandeep Kambo, Harjeet Kaur, Polly Sidher, Tajinder Rai, Raman Khaira, and Harsimran Kaur.
Thereafter, the advisory board was started with two long-time professionals, Dr. Shimi Kang, author and medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health at Vancouver Coastal Health, and Dr Gulzar Cheema, family physician and former Minister in State for Mental Health. Furthermore, its board of directors consists of a handful of social workers, psychologists and community volunteers.
Role of SAMHAA
“Our focus is youth and seniors. We try to educate youth first by having workshops in different schools. They learn about different mental illnesses. They become our ambassadors to spread further awareness about mental health,” says Kulpreet.
There are studies that show children have good relationships with their grandparents and if they tell them something, grandparents are usually ones to listen, Singh adds.
SAMHAA also helps coordinate conferences to bring people, organizations and experts working in the field of mental health, together. Its first conference was organized in 2011 at Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey, supported by the Vancouver Fraserview Rotary Club.
Experts introduced topics like alcoholism, dementia and depression in a simple and respectful forum. Various agencies came to the conference to distribute their material as well. The reception was remarkable.
“It was [a] first of its kind conference since there had been no major event around South Asian mental health in the west or even in the east coast like Toronto or New York.” Astonishing given the cities mentioned have significant South Asian populations. “Since that time, many events have taken place, including the South Asian Mental Health Consortium in Union City, CA in July 2016.”
The second SAMHAA conference took place over two days in May, 2014 at Princess Margaret Secondary School in Surrey, bringing together professionals, agencies, community members, and youth. SAMHAA’s focus for 2017 is online outreach, establishing its YouTube channel with informative videos in South Asian languages for easier access and education.
The prevalence of illness
According to Canadian Mental Health Association studies, in any given year, one in every five Canadian adults under the age of 65 will have a mental health problem. It is estimated that every Canadian will be indirectly affected because a friend, family member or colleague suffers from a mental health issue.
“Anxiety and depression are the most common illnesses that people suffer from across cultures and communities, followed by substance use disorders.” says Kulpreet.
Adding, our community is even more impacted substance abuse because many fail to recognize that it is an illness that requires medical attention.
He gave the example of Punjab, a place where a large part of Canada’s Punjabi population originates. It was one of the most flourishing states of India. But now there is a drug epidemic, fueled by government corruption. “Family life is being destroyed, domestic violence is rampant and it is causing people to go through immense suffering,” says Singh. The community in Punjab took a long time to discuss this issue openly and has suffered economically, socially and emotionally.
First Nations is another example of a community that is coping with mental health crisis. “There have been various studies on how First Nation communities’ trauma from colonialism and residential schools carries on through generations, leading to mental health challenges such as alcoholism and drug addiction. However, those challenges aren’t met because Aboriginal people are marginalized by our society and our system.” he says.
Alcoholism or alcohol abuse may be caused due to many interconnected factors, including genetics, upbringing, social environment, and emotional health. Those who suffer from another mental health problems are also particularly at risk, because alcohol may be used to self-medicate.
Most of the time, a person suffering from addiction is blamed for his/her condition. Many believe it’s just a matter of willpower to fight mental illness and the addictions that may ensue pursuant to the illness. “Once it gets into the system it does not remain a matter of choice. Addiction needs to be treated as a medical issue, not a moral issue. People struggle with pain and suffering and they need support, not condemning. When people do not have safe use facilities and treatment centres, we can see the outcome with the overdose crisis in Vancouver,” he says.
“A disease of the mind is like a disease of the body. If we can discuss physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes or heart problems openly and go out for treatment, why not seek help for mental illness?” he asks.
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with discussing mental illness prevents many South Asians from discussing common problems, like depression and anxiety, with family members, friends and even their own doctors.
Both men and women often accept their mental condition as a product of their given role or duties in society without seeking adequate help. The stressors of achieving financial stability, juggling family responsibilities and fitting into a new society without the support of extended family members can make South Asians who have migrated to Canada particularly susceptible to these types of conditions.
“Anxiety and depression are the most common illnesses and [are] generally confused with common human emotions like sadness. It is natural to feel sad when you lose a job or someone dies in your family. But depression could be the case when you have been sad, withdrawn from normal activities, and unmotivated about life for more than a few weeks consistently.
“When it is preventing you from participating in activities you always enjoyed like going to a movie or playing hockey, when it causes you to have physical reactions like sweating, vomiting, shaking, these are symptoms of anxiety,” explains Singh.
He warns that if someone in your family or a friend has these symptoms, it is time to take action. “Your first point of contact should be your family doctor. If you are not comfortable talking to your doctor for any reason, maybe language or culture, it is time to change your doctor,” he says.
Your doctor can identify the mental illness and can connect you to the right organization and resources working to cure or combat the illness.
According to Singh, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can always help to avoid common illnesses like depression and anxiety.
He says that the South Asian community is blessed with traditions of chanting meditation. Sometimes meditation is as effective as medication, and sometimes they are needed together. “There is abundant scientific evidence showing the correlation of meditation with improvement of symptoms of mental illness.” In 2015, Singh took part in an initiative spearheaded by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries to create resources to train faith leaders on how to discuss mental illness among their congregations. “Initiatives like this will open the discussion and allow people to enjoy the support of their congregation without stigma.”
Teaching children stress management and good self regulation and self awareness skills, early on, is an effective way of avoiding certain illnesses too. Singh currently works at Sikh Academy Elementary School, which, aside from academic and religious education, provides programs to support children’s mental and emotional health. “Our community equips their kids with education that helps them in getting a job, but we do not give importance to teaching them good communication skills that will help them talk about their emotions and feelings,” says Singh.
He thinks there is also need for additional research into mental illness. “Government will make the resources available only if we have enough research to show what is wrong in our community in terms of mental health,” he says. “Institutions, students, and academics should look at this opportunity since there is a wide Asian population in North America and very limited research.”
A disease of the mind is like a disease of the body. No one chooses the illness but with proper assessment, treatment and support, recovery is indeed possible. It’s time to stop treating diseases of the mind with the attention and care they deserve.
(Pick up the latest issue of Desi Today to know more about resources available for the South Asian community)