In 2010, Kulpreet Singh founded the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA) – initiative to get BC’s South Asian communities talking about mental health and wellness.
Openly speaking about mental health remains hindered by generational gaps, stigma, and lack of cultural awareness for many members of the South Asian community.
For Singh, empowering a younger generation to help break barriers for mental health awareness in South Asian communities has always been a goal.
“It was always one of our missions to empower youth with the skills to become ambassadors,” Singh told Daily Hive.
Nine years later, SAMHAA has taken its outreach and has expanded it to include a group of South Asian youth ambassadors who will be working to bring awareness and end stigma around mental health in their communities.
On Monday, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions announced that SAMHAA will receive $112,900 in year-end funding to train 100 mental health youth ambassadors in BC by spring 2021.
The training includes the mental health first aid certification course from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, as well as overdose education, cultural safety, health care navigation skills, and learning how the arts can promote healthy discourse around mental health.
More culturally competent and language specific services needed
The province says that South Asian communities are “one of the largest ethno-cultural groups” in BC but tend to access mental health and substance support services less than the general population.
Singh notes that there is a lack of culturally-specific services available and this prevents many from seeking help.
“We do recognize that there is a broken system and there are a lot of gaps in the system. At the same time as training young people… we also want them to be advocates for better services,” he said.
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For Singh, access to therapy and councilling services in a specific language or with a provider who personally understands someone’s cultural background is crucial because it leads to better overall care.
“We need better culturally competent and language specific services,” he explains.
“Because if we are telling people ‘let’s overcome stigma, let’s start the conversation, please seek out help if you need’ and when people go to seek out help there’s no Hindi, or Punjabi or Urdu speaking individual available or local agencies have waiting lists, or they’re not taking clients, then that defeats the purpose.”
Ambassadors meet for provincial announcement
The first group of ambassadors were on site on site on Monday at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary School for the announcement.
They were joined by BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy.
“This exciting program will empower young people to become mental health advocates, and they, in turn, can help more people to open up and find the supports they need to begin a pathway to healing and hope,” said Darcy in a statement.
After the youth ambassadors complete their training, they will lead projects and workshops, to raise awareness and increase participation in mental health and wellness initiatives in South Asian communities around the Lower Mainland.
The group will also work alongside the SONG Creative Mentorship Association of Greater Vancouver in order to learn how art-based outlets like dance, music, and poetry can be used in their advocacy.
‘Sometimes it’s better to listen’
Being able to help people open up about mental health is one of the reasons Arjun Sran says he applied to be a youth ambassador.
“I like listening to people,” Sran, a grade 12 student at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary School.
“Sometimes it’s better to listen than give advice because some people need an ear to listen to. Because of that, I felt like if I do this I’ll have some knowledge of how to professionally take care of something like that.”
Sran, who has dealt with his own school-related anxiety issues, recognizes how his role as an ambassador can help spark conversations about mental health with his own family and friends.
“One thing I notice in our community is when we see someone doing something positive– we try following it. This is a good initiative to break barriers and it will get the talk started.”
‘There are people who care’
The program is so much more than youth volunteering for a few hours to talk about mental health.
Sharan Kaur Sandhu, one of the organizers behind the youth ambassador program and a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, explains it is an opportunity for the young people involved to come together and experience their own healing by connecting with their peers during training sessions.
“We’re not just encouraging our volunteers to help others. We are also empowering them to self-empower themselves.”
Sandhu says the volunteers will be given plenty of opportunities to share coping strategies and explore techniques that help them deal with their own challenges.
Sandhu and Singh have both worked closely to launch the youth ambassador program and they understand the importance of collaborating with like-minded individuals who are able to empathize and provide support when it comes to personal mental health challenges.
“When we started SAMHAA, it was 12 directors that came together. There was something pulled them together and for the majority, it was either lived experience with mental illness or experience being a caretaker for someone with mental illness,” said Singh.
“Sometimes, we feel like we are alone or there aren’t individuals out there who care enough to help us. But all of those are misconceptions there are people who care.”