When it comes to mental health support, community is key

As the country approaches Canadian Mental Health Week – taking place from May 6 to 12 –
residents, governments and organizations are taking the opportunity to highlight the many challenges Canadians face when addressing mental health. To that end, one Vancouver-based organization is aiming to make a difference, bringing the conversation, and support, for South Asian communities throughout B.C.

Since its very first mental health conference in British Columbia in 2010, the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA) has been hosting workshops, seminars and skill-building programs to empower South Asian British Columbians to prioritize their mental well-being.

With support from the BC Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, the organization has been working with various clients young and old, as well as community groups, youth groups, women and those impacted by substance abuse. While all of these groups face mental health challenges, SAMHAA founder Kulpreet Singh says different communities require different strategies to face their own unique sets of challenges.

SAMHAA members like SOUDA founder Gurkirat Nijjar Singh (pictured), are helping to build community as a way to help improve the mental health of South Asians in B.C. | Photo courtesy of SAMHAA

“The generation that moved here in the 60s and 70s encountered a lot of racism and they raised their kids in Canada. But they had a lot of language barriers and experienced different traumas… but they never had an understanding of mental health,” Singh says. “They may have also had stigma and shame and guilt around mental health.”

Understanding and addressing generational mental health challenges

Singh says it’s important to keep the diferences between generations in mind when tackling mental health challenges. He adds that newer generations of immigrants and international students, while more aware of mental health and less stigmatized while seeking help, face different sets of issues than their parents and grandparents.

“These students have a totally different experience. Some don’t have a family to sponsor them. They’re leaving their parents in India. They’re coming here and working on the frontlines and in labour jobs during the pandemic. And then after the pandemic, struggling with high cost of living and isolation,” Singh says, adding that this seemed to have pushed many into substance abuse.

To respond to this, SAMHAA has created programs like the South Asian Youth Mental Health (SAYMH) retreat program and the Students Overcoming Substance Use Disorder and Addictions initiative (SOUDA) to help the people they serve navigate substance use disorders, and better understand harm reduction practices. For the last few years, SOUDA has led community outreach efforts and workshops on harm reduction, overdose prevention training and Naloxone training to share more information about the toxic drug crisis.

Meanwhile, through programs like SAYMH, Singh says participants are able to gain not only valuable information, but also form meaningful connections with peers and community groups, fostering a crucial sense of camaraderie and support.

“In these retreats for young people, they go for a few days to [our] campsite to learn about mental health first aid, suicide prevention, crisis intervention and substance use response. And they engage in fun activities, become good friends and then go out into the community to share what they have learned,” says Singh.

SAMHAA leads lessons in topics like overdose prevention training as part of a broader effort to help South Asians in B.C. tackle mental health issues and substance use. | Photo courtesy of SAMHAA

A multifaceted approach: Advocacy, outreach and expansion

In addition to its community engagement efforts, SAMHAA is also actively involved in advocacy and policy work, collaborating with local governments and community stakeholders to advance policy changes in mental health and substance use.

They’ve also led workshops and outreach beyond B.C. in places like Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and even California. Singh says their work has led to other organizations taking inspiration from its model and replicating their own version of the SAYMH retreat program.

But while much progress has been made, Singh says there’s still much more to be done when it comes to getting things to where they should be.

“We are looking to expand the retreat programs to other demographic communities. We have found success in targeting the retreats, according to language or culture, because it allows people to build camaraderie or to build connections based on culture or faith,” Singh says.

Building upon their understanding that each community has its own challenges, Singh hopes that SAMHAA can expand to get an even greater understanding of the issues facing South Asians in B.C. help them directly, and get the conversation going in their own communities as well.

“With Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian communities from South Asian backgrounds, or from different nationalities, like Sri Lankan or Nepali or Pakistani or South Indian, we’re looking at targeting different areas and trying to do some targeted retreat opportunities for those demographics so that they can get to know people in their community and the support available within their community,” says Singh.

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