Marking the start of the Victoria Mental Health Month, two experts examine the fundamental need to raise awareness within the community.

In July this year, when a bright, young entrepreneur took his life, it left the community in shock. A devoted son, husband and father to two young children and a man described as “the beacon within the Indian community” in Victoria, this was an incident that once again drew the attention on how young members within the community are sadly not able to deal with the stress and pressures of living as a migrant in a new country.

Elsewhere in Western Australia, Suresh Rajan of the Western Australia Ethnic Communities Council has dealt with 12 deaths by suicides among the Indian community of WA in the last 10 years.

While there are cases of mental health issues among migrants and students, research findings on the prevalence of mental health-related concerns in immigrant populations are incomplete and contradictory, although there are reasons to expect that prevalence in these groups will be higher, reports say.

Experts are of the opinion that these deaths could have been avoided and mental health issues tackled well if there is a specialised, culturally appropriate mental health service. But more importantly, there appears to be lack of awareness and understanding about mental health among most multicultural communities.
Prabhat Sangwan, a long-time mental health volunteer in Melbourne and founder of MANAS, an organisation that aims to educate and raise awareness on mental health among the Indian community here, says like any other Indian she had always equated mental health with madness or anyone who appears weird.

“Whereas in truth, mental health has nothing to do with madness, it is a medical issue where you can’t see the visible symptoms. If you come to know about a person, if you know a particular behaviour or why this person is behaving differently or in general if you talk to the person empathetically without judging then you will know that this person is experiencing mental health issues. Then you get to understand the person, reasons behind the behaviour and recommend the person the appropriate medical treatment,” she says.

And volunteering with Mind Australia, which is the one of the largest community mental organisations in Australia, gave Prabhat the understanding and the tools to help others with any such issues.

Prabhat Sangwan

Prabhat was also surprised by the fact that there was a family member of hers who was experiencing mental health concerns from many years and all this while the person wasn’t looked after and cared from the mental health perspective because there was no knowledge or understanding. “After years of volunteering in mental health field, it just joined the dots for me as to why the person was behaving in that particular way and why there is a medical need for treatment. This also gave me the motivation to work in the area and to raise awareness. The more I started working, the more I identified the need as many friends and community members started approaching and supporting me,” says Prabhat.

MANAS was founded in May 2018 with the help of family and friends, says Prabhat, who organises workshops as an individual within the capacity of a mental health volunteer for Indian community in the City of Whittlesea.

On October 10, MANAS released a booklet for communities from India and the subcontinent community. It carries all the information for understanding mental health and the system. It is primarily for the people of Whittlesea but it can guide any Indian and people of the subcontinent anywhere. This is the first big initiative for the Indian community and the book will be translated in other languages too over time.
It took Prabhat about 10 months to come out with this book. “The copies will be available in digital version too besides the hard copies which will be in libraries and community centres,” she informs.

MANAS will also be conducting free mental health education and information sessions for the Indian community residing in Wyndham. Wyndham City council is having the largest number of Indian population in Victoria and Australia. The sessions will be starting from October 19 in the suburb of Tarneit.

Like Prabhat, there are other members in the community who are working in the mental health area. Vasan Srinivasan has been trying to understand mental health for more than 20 years and today as vice-chairperson of Mental Health Foundation Australia, the oldest mental health association in Australia founded in 1930, he agrees that one has to reach out to the communities.

In 2017, Srinivasan undertook the mammoth task of bringing 55 nations together as multicultural ambassadors and created a committee to help connect with the communities.

Vasan Srinivasan

Marking the start of the Victoria Mental Health Month this week, Srinivasan said various workshops and awareness campaigns will be organised. Add to it will be the national campaign launch in Canberra on October 17 where three big awards will be given under the categories – mental health organisation of the year, mental health champion of the year and, mental health volunteer of the year.

It is an impetus to get one and all involved and one aspect of bringing the community together, believes Srinivasan, who has played a key role in implementing many steps to promote mental health awareness in Victoria.

On October 20, a national walk will be held across cities in Australia and a committee will be flown in every state. The first committee that put its hands up was the Indian community and taking the leap, proudly claims Srinivasan, adding, “Everyone will put their hands up for floods in India or for ‘adopt a child in Africa’ but nobody is thinking about the youth of this country. We have issues, there were 3,500 deaths nationwide last year, 600 people took their lives in Victoria because of mental health issues. The youth is struggling in their transition from schools to universities, anxiety and depression is a major factor – to name a few causes.”

Both Srinivasan and Prabhat agree there are major gaps in our knowledge about mental health and that as a community we need to keep talking about mental health. “We don’t talk about it, we push it away and say ‘go to the temple, you will be alright’ or ‘take a Panadol’,” says Srinivasan, adding “It is also the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities who are reluctant or ashamed about seeking help for mental health issues.”

Prabhat says, “In our community the acceptance is only of depression, not of any other mental health issues. In depression too, there is no acceptance of clinical depression. We associate any sadness with depression, whereas it is not that. Sadness could be stress, loneliness, or plain sadness. Our understanding of depression is only limited to sadness, whereas depression is much more and goes beyond sadness. And along with depression there are many other mental health issues as well which we need to understand.”

Loneliness is another big issue here, says Prabhat. “There is the added pressure when you are from a migrant background because there are so many things that you need to take care of. You come into a society where you don’t have any support system like you have back home such as neighbours, parents, relatives and friends who are there for you. Here you need to do everything on your own, you are thrown into the water and you need to survive. It takes a lot of toll on your mental health and the first thing that you ignore is your health and, obviously, your mental health.”

But Prabhat is happy about the outcomes her service is bringing. It is slow but the pace is steady. “We have been contacted by people where we have connected them to the right person/organisation and it is satisfying to know that they got better. It gives me motivation to work more.”

On his part, Srinivasan says, “We would like to send this message to community groups that mental health is not a stigma, mental health issues can be cured. Also, mental illness does not discriminate against culture. Culturally appropriate and sensitive mental health interventions are very important.”

Both Prabhat and Srinivasan are working towards reaching out to the communities in many ways. Looking ahead, Prabhat says, “As a community we need to care for others, follow our instincts and keep asking if we think there is something not right with someone we know. We need to listen in the same way we listen to physical health concerns and in a non-judgemental way, even if we do not have any idea about mental health. We need to look after the person during or even after when he/she is recovering.”

Prabhat would also love to have more volunteers. “There is no glamour but there is surely immense satisfaction. If you think you can do it, we would love you to work with us. People who had or have lived experience of mental health concerns will be given preference,” she appeals.

By Indira Laisram