By Jessica Hundal
Toronto, December 18 (CINEWS): In recent years, public discussion on the rise of mental health issues among young people has helped bring attention to the issue and slowly lift the stigma. However, it has failed many people of colour who suffer from mental health issues. Many reports on the mental health crisis were published and nearly every major publication has featured a piece on the phenomenon. Although, it is positive that mental health issues have been given media attention, the problem has been the media representation has been largely white. The reality is mental health does not discriminate. Mental health affects all communities but communities of colour are largely left unsupported.
Mental health has become of particular importance on university campuses as an overwhelming number of students are facing some mental illness. The mental health of university students has also received public attention in recent years due to as many as four publicized suicides at Queens University. The University of Toronto Student Mental Health Strategy and Framework released October 2014 reported across Canadian universities counselling services witnessed an increase in both the amount of students and “in the complexity of student mental health problems.” The university reported students registered with Accessibility Services due to mental health reasons had doubled in the past five years. This type of increase in students seeking help for mental illnesses is not unique to the University of Toronto, university mental health centres across Canada reported seeing sharp increases in recent years.
This week we chose to focus on mental health in the South Asian university student population. We spoke to Urbashi Das, a third-year student studying for her Honours Bachelors of Business Administration degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is also the Lead International Student Ambassador along with being the Residence Life Don.
Jessica Hundal: As the Lead International Student Ambassador and Residence Life Don, you must deal with many undergraduate students. In your experience, what issues do you find affect students the most?
Urbashi Das: The issues that I see on a daily basis are first and foremost, stress and anxiety. Stress is an issue that is plaguing this entire generation; it becomes a vicious cycle of stress, work, study and stress. I mostly work and live with first years, these are students that have just graduated from high school, still 17 or 18 and are transitioning into university. Most of them are experiencing living on their own for the first time, which at some instances means freedom, but in others, they don’t know who to turn to for advice.
JH: In your experience, do you find mental illnesses like anxiety affecting South Asian students in a unique way and/or do you find South Asian students handling mental illness in a unique manner?
UD: Frankly, I don’t know if mental health affects South Asian students differently, but we seem to react to it differently. I say ‘we’ because I am South Asian and I’ve witnessed myself reacting differently. I deal with a diverse group of first year students including some South Asian students. For some reason, I see that the South Asian students either try to brush all their worries and anxiety under a rug or they have meltdowns/breakdowns every couple of weeks and that’s when they let it all out. They feel they can’t speak to their parents about it and they seem reluctant to understanding how a therapist or a counsellor can help. I am trained to a certain extent to talk to them, but the university has plenty of help available for students going through anything. However, South Asian students are extremely reluctant to do so.
JH: What distinguishes the way South Asian students deal with mental health for you?
UD: As I mentioned, the usual thought process of a South Asian student is: they don’t want to talk about it, they’re used to having breakdowns or they blame something they can’t control. For example, this is in contrast to the white students I deal with. I find these students are much quicker in admitting they feel stressed or need help. Also, they usually have already visited a therapist in the past and have been diagnosed with something for which they are taking medication. In cases where they haven’t already visited a therapist, usually, and I’m not saying always, they are also a lot more open to getting help. For instance, and I don’t want to go into too much detail for reasons of privacy, but a few days ago, one of my white students was having a meltdown and by the time I reached her after my class, she was crying in her room, but she was talking to her father on the phone who was calming her down and just listening to her. At that moment, it hit me, not a lot of South Asian students would do that. Not a lot of South Asian students can just call up their parents and breakdown. The parents will either run to come see their child, or over the phone will tell the kid that it’s fine and it’s okay and there’s no need to worry. But in these situations, the number one solution is to just listen to the child. There’s no need to say anything or comfort her, just listen to them.
JH: I think you hit a few interesting points and it’s important to highlight them. For one, the reluctance in South Asian students to call their parents isn’t due to the parents not caring, but it’s because the parents really care. However, the parents didn’t have the privilege to develop the tools to deal with mental health. So, they try their best to help based off of what they know (i.e. they come to see their child right away), but it just unfortunately, ends up not being what the child may need. In other words, neither the parent or child is wrong but both just may not understand how to deal with their issues. On the part of the students, why do you think they’re reluctant to discuss mental health or seek help at a time when so many of their peers are seeking help, as witnessed by the mental health clinics at Canadian universities being overwhelmed by the number of students coming in?
UD: I believe it might have to do something with our culture. As a child, I doubt South Asian parents really stress the importance of mental health. To be very honest, I doubt South Asian parents themselves know the true importance of mental health. We stress on physical health a lot more than we do on mental health. Especially these days, parents need to understand that until and unless their child’s mental state is stable, they won’t be successful in any other field, be it academics or extra-curricular activities. The problem lies in the fact that back in our parent’s generation, they struggled to levels that we can’t even imagine and in ways we can’t imagine. However, they were struggling in ways where there was no time for mental health concerns, when it came to health concerns, it was more physical. They also weren’t surrounded by technology, the same levels of competition and expectations, and the world was in some ways simpler. Thus, the issue of mental health did not come up as much as it should have, even though I am a 100% sure that people experienced tremendous amounts of depression and stress even in those days. Regardless, it is important for South Asian parents to understand that their children will be going through some kind of mental health issue, either minor or major, and that going to a therapist isn’t a bad thing. I also find our “society culture” plays a factor. This means we care about our society quite a bit. Sometimes more than caring about our family. What other people think means a lot more than what people within the household think. Therefore, as a community, we need to become more aware of mental health and learn to respect it as well as learn to cope with it.
JH: Can you highlight some practical ways in which not addressing mental health will put students at a disadvantage in a university setting, and some advantages in addressing mental health?
UB: Sure, take for instance, a case where a student is diagnosed with anxiety: if they experience anxiety the night before an exam, to a level which impairs their abilities, the student will not have to do the exam the next day, given they have a note from the Student Wellness Centre. It is the same as being physically ill. This is basically how universities should respond to students going through a difficult time. The student should not be forced to write an exam when they are mentally unstable. On the other hand, we have a South Asian student experiencing the same thing, but in their case, they are scared and helpless. They are unable to turn to their parents and they don’t want to go to a counsellor because they don’t know how that will help. Instead, they may think going to a counsellor will mean that there is definitely something wrong with them, and they don’t want to deal with that or want their parents to deal with that. So, the student tries to sleep at night and is unable to sleep well, forces themselves to write their exam and does not do well in it, to say the least. Not dealing with mental health issues will affect grades/academics and will affect every aspect of a student’s life because at the end of the day, it’s our mind that runs everything, not our physical body. If we addressed mental health issues in South Asian students, there are several advantages. Firstly, the students themselves will know how to deal with it if they undergo an ordeal. Secondly, they won’t guilt themselves into thinking that a mental health issue is making them weak and that they aren’t being a strong person. It’s not mental health issues that weaken a person, it’s them not addressing it and going to the right people who can help that weakens them. Finally, as mentioned above, there are academic advantages and just a better life. Just the way we take pills when we have a headache, mitigates the entire situation and we’re able to get back to work in a jiffy, if a student that is suffering from any mental health issue, takes their medication or speaks to a counsellor, soon enough they’re well enough to get back to work, whether academic or extra-curricular.
JH: Finally, what are some ways you think we can address mental health within the community?
UB: Within the community, I think something as simple as just talking about it, is quite helpful. Mental health needs to stop being a taboo in South Asian households. Therapists and counsellors need to stop being unheard-of professions. This is the first step. To anyone reading this, start talking to the person next to you at home, maybe your sister, your mother, your child, your father, your grandparents, anyone. Maybe you’re eating breakfast and reading this, but after you’re done, talk to whoever’s in the vicinity and ask them what mental health means to them. Begin a discussion. This will ultimately encourage children and make them realize that homes are a safe and open space to talk about their lives. Not only homes, but also parents are a huge resource and huge pillars of support that are untouched mostly because parents don’t know of the support they can offer and children don’t know that they can take complete advantage of it. Let’s start talking about it everyone, because believe me, mental health is not just a phase.