One’s mental health and how an individual may choose to seek help or support can be influenced by many factors, including but not limited to one’s ethnicity or cultural background. For my very first blog post for Healthy Minds Canada, I spoke to my friend Indie about her involvement with Active Minds at York University. For this blog post, I spoke to Indie’s co-president & partner-in-crime Nanthini about how ethnicity & cultural background intersects with experiencing mental health issues & one’s willingness to seek help.
Nanthini is of South Asian heritage, belonging to the Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora. She graduated from York University with a BA Honours in Kinesiology & Health Science this past June 2016.
When asked to describe her involvement with Active Minds at York University, Nanthini related that she “was looking for a club that focused on mental health awareness and education because it was a topic of interest of mine. That’s how I came across Active Minds at York…..I started helping with general tasks, but soon as the club was revamping I got the opportunity to be a program coordinator….. In my third year of volunteering with Active Minds, I became co-president alongside Indie and hence became more involved with the operational side of the club but still contributed to club programming”.
Nanthini describes that she first got involved in raising awareness about mental health because of “ personal interest. But as soon as I had more open dialogue about it with fellow south Asian students, I realized that mental health is a topic that needs more attention in our community and even in other minority groups as well”.
Nanthini expressed the opinion that conferences like HMC’s Bright Futures Conference are helpful, but could be improved in terms of dealing with mental health in People of Colour & minority populations. More specifically, “the road to recovery can be very different. Factors such as cultural, family values, religious beliefs and practices, ethnicity, level and standard of education along with more generally applicable factors (socioeconomic status, age, quality of life, etc.) can play a role. It can be a touchy subject for people belonging to different cultural or religious affiliations because of the lack of knowledge and emphasis put on mental health”.
When asked about how mental health is treated in the South Asian community, Nanthini replied that “there’s really no open dialogue and stigma that is ever present; though that seems to be slowly changing (at least among the younger generations) due to emerging efforts by young, educated individuals in the community….. The importance of mental health and knowledge of different mental illnesses wasn’t something that was exactly taught or explained to our parents’ generation. Usually someone who was going through a mental health struggle was looked down upon or at least just not treated equally”.
When planning mental health symposiums for Active Minds at York University, Nanthini describes that she & the other members of the club “tried to get people who reflected diversity in every way possible: age, cultural background, ability, experience with mental health, profession, etc. We had specific topics in mind and sought after people who could speak to them and add in anything they felt was relevant and important. But it also comes down to who is available”.
Nanthini also noted that “it’s good to survey or do research on your target audience to get a feel for what they feel need to be addressed”.
When asked about how family pressure might influence a young person’s likelihood of seeking mental health support, Nanthini chose to speak about immigrant youth & their struggles. In particular, “students or youth in general from families who have recently immigrated to Canada (especially for education) have a lot more pressure put on them and expectations. There is a lot of demand placed on these individuals to be successful with not much regard for how they may be coping with those demands. The mental health of the person is often overlooked and then they might struggle without knowing who to turn to. The young person may even be told to not falter nor show/express vulnerability outward and taught that if they do it reflects badly on themselves and on the family, which of course can prevent someone from seeking help”.
I found Nanthini’s comments to be really insightful and informative, both for people working in the mental health field & for laypeople who are interested in this topic. Both Nanthini & I agree that “education is key”.
I mentioned some things that might help minority groups be more willing to access mental health supports- culturally sensitive training, counselling/information available in multiple languages, and more diversity in representation when talking about mental health. Nanthini agreed, and elaborated that “those administering any services should receive cultural sensitivity training to develop their cross-cultural communication skills. Maybe people receiving informational resources and services from people identifying as part of the same minority group could help. That way people providing the services probably have a better sense of where (in terms of background) their clients come from and what some obstacles some might face in terms of accessing services. Mental health I think needs to become a familiar topic and part of the daily discourse in minority groups”.
I’m not intimately familiar with the barriers that certain cultural groups may face when it comes to accessing information, support, and services. This is why I felt that it was better for Nanthini’s words to take centre stage. I hope I did my part in helping to educate others about how different cultural backgrounds & familial expectations can affect how vulnerable individuals navigate the world. Making the dialogue around mental health more relatable & accessible can be challenging, but will prove to be well worth the effort in the long run.
About Anna Dinissuk
Anna Dinissuk graduated from York University in June 2016 with a BA Honours in Psychology. She's now pursuing an MEd in Developmental Psychology & Education at OISE/the University of Toronto. Anna enjoys writing poetry, going on walks, snuggling with her cat, and playing Candy Crush Saga.