Mental Health Ambassadors set to tackle mental illness among South Asians

By Pradip Rodrigues

Mississauga, January 29 (CINEWS): Three years ago the Movember Foundation, a global organization committed to changing the face of men’s health announced a $3 million dollar grant to study and find a solution to the stigma of mental illness among Asians. Last year the Strength In Unity project was born and has since trained close to 500 Asian men as Community Mental Health Ambassadors. Among them are Shanjot Singh and Gurnish Tiwana who spoke passionately about their experiences helping and supporting South Asians suffering a mental health crisis at a press conference recently.


(From L-R) Shanjot Singh, Gurnish Tiwana, Mandeep Grewal, Jaideep Kailey and Faiza Rab

Now it is no secret South Asians often refuse to accept they or someone they know has a mental illness. There is shame and stigma attached to accepting that reality.
At a press conference last week, Faiza Rab, a Research Intervention Associate said the Strength In Unity project has been going on in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver and the organization has partnered with universities and other community organizations. In Toronto,
In less than one year, the Strength In Unity project has trained almost 500 Asian men and empowered them to become Community Mental Health Ambassadors. These men are engaging their families, friends and communities in open dialogue about mental health to debunk misconceptions about mental illness. They are addressing stigma of mental illness that negatively affect Asian communities. In Toronto the partnership is with Ryerson University, UFT, Peel Multicultural Council (PMC) and Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS)
According to Mandeep Grewal, Team Leader and Case Manager of Mental Health Services at PCHS, the stigma of mental health in the community is huge. “We are hoping to start an anonymous help line for youth and adults who aren’t comfortable discussing their problems. We see cases of elder abuse, youth having problems with their parents over dating, drugs and sex. These are all factors that lead to mental illness,” she said.
Stigma and taboos about mental illness often contribute to other social problems such as domestic violence and elder abuse. Many South Asian families suffer in isolation. “Family counselling is an important model for improving mental health in South Asian communities,” said Mandeep Grewal, Team Leader and Case Manager of Mental Health Services at PCHS. Another important community need highlighted at the press conference was mental health promotion among newcomers to Canada.
Jagdeep Kailey, Settlement Services Program Manager at PMC commented on the training offered by Strength In Unity, “These workshops bridged the existing gaps in programming; they help increase our awareness about the impact of untreated mental illness in the community and the importance of accepting individuals living with mental illnesses as full members of our society.’
It is now clear that stigma is a key barrier to early diagnosis and timely treatment of mental illness in South Asian communities. Many individuals and families experience so much fear and shame that they delay seeking help until the illness become extremely severe. Gurnish Tiwana and Shanjot Singh joined Strength In Unity to become Community Mental Health Ambassadors because they want to help normalize mental illness as part of life. “Stigma makes men living with mental health challenges feel ‘weak’ or ‘unworthy’. This is largely due to the way our community views or look down upon individuals who have mental illness,” said Gurnish.
Another barrier is the lack of awareness about mental health resources. “Most South Asian families that have a loved one living with mental illness are either not aware of helpful resources in the community, or do not know how to access these resources,” said Shanjot Singh. Both Community Mental Health Ambassadors reiterated that the training provided by Strength In Unity helped them work on their own issues with stigma. After the training, they were able to engage others in their social networks and community to open up and look at mental illness as any other chronic diseases.
It is hoped that with the training these Mental Health Ambassadors will be able to identify a friend or family member displaying classic signs of stress and mental illness and help them. According to Faiza Rab, it is quite possible that most South Asians who suffer a form of mental illness may not end up visiting a mental health professional and also language and cultural barriers may come in the way of a person finding effective treatment. “These ambassadors will step into that void and make a difference by helping the person going through their mental health illness as well as educate the family and friends about strategies to deal with the mental illness. Strength In Unity has trained so many seniors who live in joint families who could then help members of their own extended family,” she added.
Strength In Unity will be conducting its last wave of training sessions in February 2016. To reach as many Asian men as possible, the team is holding two information sessions at the Peel Multicultural Council (6630 Turner Valley drive in Mississauga) on 29th of January 2016 from 6:00 – 8:00 pm. Asian Men, over the age of 17, who have experienced mental health challenges or illness, or Asian men who have family members, friends or loved ones affected by mental health challenges or illness, are invited join the Strength In Unity team at the information sessions.
For more information about the project visit the SIU website at: or call them at 416-979-5129. You can also email Faiza: or Angad:

Pradip Rodrigues started out as a journalist at Society magazine, part of the Magna Group in Mumbai. He wrote extensively on a variety of subjects. He later moved to the Times of India where he was instrumental in starting the now defunct E-times, a television magazine. He conceptualized Bombay Times and became its first assistant editor where he handled features and page three. Since coming to Canada in 2000, he has freelanced for newspapers and magazines in India and written autobiographies for seniors.

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