Published on February 13th, 2018 | from CAMH

Let’s talk about mental health in South Asian communities

By Dr. Gursharan Virdee, CAMH Researcher and Psychologist (Supervised Practice)

As a researcher, clinician and immigrant woman of colour, it’s been encouraging to see diverse experiences of ethnic communities included in important conversations about mental health as of late. These stories often influence the ways in which mental health is understood at a grass roots level, and ultimately how our services and approaches are designed to meet specific needs.

Over the past few years, I have worked with colleagues at CAMH, community partners and influences to better understand this experience for South Asian communities in Canada, specifically (I’ve blogged on the topic before). Our research has shown that pathways to mental health services are shaped by communities of origin, cultural identity and collective stigma.

You can then imagine my excitement when I saw diverse stories of lived experience shared as part of this year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day campaign, which raises awareness for mental health across the country. I was particularly moved to see the story of Shreya Patel, a South Asian woman based in Toronto. Shreya courageously opened up about her experience with anxiety and depression as part of Bell Let’s Talk Day, and I was fortunate enough to sit down with her to talk more about mental health in South Asian communities.

A candid conversation with Shreya

Shreya first spoke publicly about her mental health issues about a year ago. This was difficult, she noted, because she herself was “trying to break the stigma” related to mental health. She shared that in South Asian communities, the elder generation tend to think mental health issues are “just in your head” and instead of being supportive might say things like: “come on get up, get going, we never had this in our era.”

Throughout my conversation with Shreya, we repeatedly came back to a common theme of needing better education within families so we can identify the signs and symptoms at a younger age. As Shreya learned more about her own anxiety, she realised it had been there for a number of years and progressed; “I didn’t even think about it, I felt like fish out of water, I didn’t realize what was going on.”

Shreya expressed immense gratitude towards her family who was open to understanding and learning more about anxiety, but she noted this is not the case for many young South Asians; “I am lucky, I’ve seen worse, (people) being put down by family, they don’t know how to react…they don’t feel accepted, they will shut down, lock down, express through anger and go into a spiral.”

She attributes her recovery to family support, and knowing that “(they) are in it together, which made (her) feel stronger.”  When I asked what was helpful during her recovery journey, Shreya came back to family and their support being critical to her getting back to work and doing the things she enjoys. This reiterated for me the importance of family involvement in mental health care, particularly with South Asian communities valuing collectivism and being family centred.

Shreya shared her call to action for South Asian communities:

“I wish that even during the dinner table (family would) just talk about it, just a conversation about mental health, like (asking) how are you feeling, that I don’t think a lot of us really ask? Or if they (family) do ask (and the response is) I am feeling a bit low or (have) anxiety or breakdown, to be kind with their words, and understand, and not judge, this is a real thing. That would solve so many issues. So many people could be saved. Some express suicide because they feel like nobody understands.”

South Asian communities are one of largest visible minority communities in Canada. As we move forward and develop equitable mental health services it is imperative we consider the nuances of mental health, some of which Shreya speaks to.

A recent studied showed great promise, with South Asians experiencing better outcomes upon discharge from specialized mental health services compared to other communities. This really speaks to the need to engage communities in a way that enhances pathways to mental health care, ensuring cultural relevance, and that account for other important factors such as gender and age.

All communities deserve to receive the right care at the right time.

Introducing the Roshni Project

An understanding of different cultural perspectives and experience is vital to how we shape mental health services for specific populations of people. As part of CAMH’s work with the South Asian community and as part of this broader effort, my colleagues and I are excited to introduce The Roshni Project, a research program that aims to enhance the mental well-being of young South Asian women.

The first cohort of participants engaged in a series of art-based focus groups and explored their experiences of mental health issues and associated service use. In the second phase we drew on data from phase one to inform and inspire the co-creation of a suite of culturally driven tools aimed at families, educators, faith institutions and mainstream mental health service providers to support them with meeting the mental health needs of young South Asian women in their care.

A series of short films will be launched in May 2018 and accompanied by a series of infographics and tip sheets. Learn more on The Roshni Project web page and stay tuned for more to come!

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