Graduate students break taboos around mental health in South Asian communities
Mar 12, 2018
Above: Maneet Chahal and Jasmeet Chagger
When Maneet Chahal and Jasmeet Chagger started holding free mental health workshops in Brampton three years ago, they both knew they were breaking longstanding community taboos.
“Of course there’s stigma around the subject in mainstream society as well, but in the South Asian community, nobody talks about mental health,” says Chagger.
Since then, that conversation has started, thanks in part to these two friends. In the past three years, they have expanded that discussion from the local community to South Asian communities around the world through online activities and an international television show.
Chahal and Chagger are registered nurses and Masters students in the McMaster University School of Nursing. Working as mental health nurses for Assertive Community Treatment teams in Brampton, they have both seen people suffer in silence and wait until a crisis to get help – if at all. “If you can get support early, it can really change the cascade of events that follow,” says Chahal. But people often don’t recognize the problem, and if they do, they don’t know where to get help. “As community health nurses, we know how to navigate the system. We’re able to connect them to the services,” Chagger adds.
A few years ago, after a traumatic incident with a woman who had lost her housing and had to move into a shelter, Chahal phoned Chagger. The two talked about how they needed to do something to better help their patients and to help those who weren’t even connected to the health care system. That’s when SOCH Community Health Promotion Inc was born.
SOCH stands for “Supporting Our Community’s Health”. It is also a word in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi (three South Asian languages) which means “to think” or “a thought. The pair had no budget, no boss, but a lot of passion for their cause... and Chahal just happened to have a cousin who had recently opened a co-working space called Lab B in Brampton. He offered them space to host the workshops. They presented their first workshop in April 2015.
Since then, they have gone on to host workshops in several other locations.
Their workshops are open to everyone, Chagger emphasizes, not just people coping with mental illness. “Everybody has mental health. A lot of people think mental health is mental illness. These workshops are for everybody. You can bring your family. It’s a way to get the conversation started. If you can change your thinking, your SOCH, you can have an impact on your life.”
They lead the workshops using a method they learned at McMaster: PBL, or problem based learning. Participants sit in a circle, ask questions, share knowledge, and the leaders are there to fill in gaps, not to lecture.
“To date, we have done 20 workshops in Brampton focussing on various mental health topics and taking a holistic approach,” says Chagger. “Our lens is nursing but we’ve brought in specialists in other topics. We’ve done mental health and hip hop, mental health and yoga. We started a collaboration with the Brampton Library. Now we have partnered with two major Sikh temples in Brampton. ”
Getting into the temples took a while, mainly because of the taboo about mental illness. As Chagger explains, “We wanted to go into the temples because our community is very communal-based and going to the Sikh temple is not just about worship. It’s where you go to be with the community. Even if you have an illness, somehow people always make it out the temple. We wanted to be there to provide information.”
Getting their own television series was never part of their plan. It happened by accident. They were giving a presentation at the temple and the Sikh Channel found out and came to cover the event.
“That show was broadcast across Canada, the US and the UK,” says Chahal. “It got a huge positive response and they wanted us to start our own South Asian mental health tv show, Apni Soch (Our thinking). So far, we’ve done three episodes. They want more, but right now, we’re in grad school, so we’ve signed up for once a month.” The exposure is great, because as Chagger explains, “People don’t always have the chance to make it out to our workshops, but people always watch tv.” The show is in Punjabi and English.
The global outreach is attracting questions from around the world. Online, SOCH is active on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube. “We’re constantly getting people reaching out for support on how to navigate the system, and we connect them to therapists or online support,” says Chahal.
One of the things that the two have learned is the power of action. As Chahal says, “In our undergraduate studies, we heard about these pioneer nurses who initiated social change... people like Cathy Crowe with her work in Toronto street nursing. We believe, if you see a gap, and there needs to be change, you can push forward. We want to encourage other nurses to do the same. As nurses, you are leaders and you can actually bring change. An organization called Basics of Sikhi reached out to us to partner with us to raise awareness of mental health. Projects like this bring the community together. It’s not just the doctors or nurses who are going to bring change. It’s going to be when everyone works together... leaders from different faiths, teachers, employers.”
In addition to running SOCH, Chagger and Chahal are working hard on their Masters degrees.
Dr. Janet Landeen is Chahal’s supervisor. “Maneet Chahal is an outstanding graduate student, and a passionate advocate for the South Asian community and for psychiatric mental health nursing. She has demonstrated this commitment through both her innovative grassroots SOCH initiative and her nearly completed master’s thesis, Exploring the South Asian (SA) Punjabi Community’s Experience of Having Accessed Mental Health Services for Depression in Canada,” says Landeen.
Dr. Jeannette LeGris is Chagger’s thesis supervisor. “Jasmeet Chagger is a highly committed and well respected mental health nurse developing and delivering a range of innovative approaches to foster the recovery of patients and families experiencing mental health challenges. She is about to embark on developing her thesis proposal which aims to explore alcohol use within the South Asian Punjabi community in Brampton,” says LeGris.
To maintain balance in their own lives, Chahal and Chagger are starting to involve placement students and other volunteers in SOCH. “There’s evidence that there is a huge need for what we’re doing. So we’re learning to get more hands on deck.” Involving more people can only help with the cause of spreading the message that mental health concerns everyone.
Find SOCH on Facebook: SOCH