Connection, conversation, change: the three C’s of mental health journeys

Photo courtesy of Shilpa Narayan

Mental Health and Social Justice Activist Shilpa Narayan will be a workshop facilitator at the City of Surrey’s annual Social Innovation Summit on Sept. 6 at Surrey City Hall.

Narayan’s workshop, entitled “How a Struggle Became a Journey: The Importance of Connection & Conversation for Youth and Mental Wellness,” is based on her personal experiences with mental illness.

“Connections and conversations lead to change. Those are the three C’s that I run on,” says Narayan.

The workshop

Narayan’s 1 1/2-hour workshop is divided into two sections: a presentation on her own mental health journey and a hands-on discussion of mental health education, which includes ways individuals can benefit their own mental wellness as well as what can be done to create inclusive environments in different workplaces, schools and organizations.

“I get participants to close their eyes and think of one person they could go to if anything were to happen to them,” she says.

If they cannot think of anyone, Narayan encourages them to start thinking about people they can create a connection to.

“Even that one person can make a world of difference,” she says.

Using case studies of diverse groups, including foster children, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ youth, Narayan explores what it looks like to enhance mental health literacy and inclusivity in schools.

Narayan suggests that teachers make their classroom a safe space by having daily five to ten minute check-ins with their students and by talking with students about mental health and wellness throughout the year, not just at the beginning or end of term.

Connection, conversation, and overcoming stigma

Narayan says that the first person to reach out to her regarding her mental wellness was a teacher.

“That was the first time I realized that there was a strength in vulnerability. She was the first person to make me feel like it was okay to not be okay,” she explains.

The teacher told her that they would go together to the school counsellor. According to Narayan, her teacher’s inclusive language gave Narayan a sense of belonging that encouraged her to continue to seek counsel.

“We often forget that it can be quite intimidating for someone to come up to you and say ‘you need to go do this,’ especially if you’re already at a stage where the anxiety is at a level 100/10,” she says.

Before seeking help, Narayan found herself feeling isolated due to the stigma associated with mental health challenges. Narayan believes the lack of mental health education at the time also hindered her understanding of her illness.

“Why can’t we talk about mental health in the way that we talk about diabetes or cancer?” she says. “I look at it as a universal topic that we all hold some sort of responsibility for, in terms of holding a conversation that is trying to work against the systems that are pushing that stigma.”

It’s a journey

Narayan states that she had an epiphany during a therapy session in which the counsellor challenged her to call her illness a journey instead of a struggle.

“When we put the title of struggle on it, we tend to give it a negative connotation. I turned having struggles into being a struggle: I’m struggling, therefore I’m a bad person,” she says.

After that pivotal mental shift, Narayan explains she was better able to put her recovery into perspective, accepting all the twists and turns that come with a personal mental health journey.

“I wanted to be okay by accepting that everyday I may not be a 10/10 on the happiness scale,” she says.

It was around this time that Narayan got involved in her mental health advocacy.

“I ran out of that office thinking that people really need to hear this because if I think this is moving, I’m sure someone else will think that too,” she says.

At the end of her workshops, Narayan likes to challenge her participants to go out and ask one person how they are doing. As Narayan explains, this simple gesture gives that someone the opportunity to talk, and it might be the only “how are you” they are getting all day.

“We are so busy in our lives, but we need to be able to connect with one another. That connection piece is the biggest part of mental wellness,” she says.

For more information about the Summit, visit www.surrey.ca/community/19760.aspx

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