STRENGTH in Unity is a research project funded by the Movember foundation that is aiming to reduce stigma related to mental illness among South Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian men and youth between from ages 17 and older.
The study is testing two training programs that are aimed at helping people understand mental health and address stigma. It is the first project of its kind in Canada and is being conducted in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Vancouver is very unique because Vancouver and Surrey especially has one of the largest groups of Sikh men and youth in Canada.
Why Asian men and youth?
Although stigma cuts across all cultures and backgrounds, research has shown that stigma affects people from different cultural backgrounds differently and many people will not seek help because of it. For example, from my experiences as a school counsellor and Registered Clinical Counsellor in dealing with South Asian families and men especially from Punjabi families: saying you are depressed is seen as self-centered.
To this community, mental illness is associated with negative social and cultural values, and such a diagnosis is likely to meet with denial and a breakdown in communication. The control of personal feelings especially in men and youth are important since the ‘self’ needs to be let go in order to gain closeness to God. Therefore, men and youth are taught not to express their emotions and control themselves. Seeking help will bring shame on the family.
Within many Asian religious or spiritual backgrounds, it is often the case that families are taught to strive towards a surrender to divine will – to accept their lot in life, be thankful for what they have and not to feel downhearted about difficulties or gaps in life. For many, religion is often a central part of family life. For Indians living outside of their country of origin, worship has taken on an additional role – that of maintaining identity and sustaining a social network within their community.
It may be that a man may be shunned by his religious circle if he admits to having mental health problems. After all, depression in lay terms is about unhappiness, and this opposes the religious ideal. What trust have you left in God, if you have lost hope? How can you be a believer, if you do not believe God knows and does best? Such internal dialogues are likely to influence not only internal judgments about the self (internal shame), but also judgments about the view that others in the community hold.
Evidence suggests that the mental health needs of Asian immigrants are seldom met; they are among the least likely group to seek help for mental health problems and this has frequently been attributed to social stigma, shame, blame, and saving face. Stigma contributes to low self-esteem and social isolation and acts as a barrier to other social determinants of health, such as employment, housing, and education
What will the project do?
The goal of this project is to mobilize men and youth to become champions of mental health and to address stigma in their cultural communities. We will engage Asian (South Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian) men and youth who have direct experience with mental illness and community members in two types of workshops: Acceptance Commitment Training (ACT) to reduce internalized stigma and Contact-based Empowerment Education (CEE), an approach which facilitates dialogue and collaborative learning to facilitate knowledge building about mental health / illness and stigma reduction.
What are the expected outcomes of the research?
We hope to spark a conversation in Asian communities about mental illness and stigma and to increase strategies in communities for addressing stigma and maintaining mental wellness. We would like to emphasize that all communities experience stigma but we are focusing on Asian communities because stigma affects communities in different ways. Our focus is on involving South Asian and East Asian communities in a long-lasting dialogue on mental health with the goal of developing community-based approaches that address stigma.
Please come out and help us to assist your communities to address this important issue. We are holding information sessions where you will be compensated ($10) and we provide $55 compensation for attending each workshop (altogether $500).
Rodrick Lal is a former teacher and school counsellor with the Vancouver School Board. Currently he is a co-investigator for the Movember Strength in Unity Project and completing his PhD in the Faculty of Health Science. The Director of the Vancouver team is Dr. Marina Morrow, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU. For further information please contact:
Sukhdeep Jassar, MPH
Vancouver Site Coordinator
Strength in Unity, Reducing Mental Illness Stigma (R-MIS) Study
Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU Harbour Centre
3277 – 515 West Hastings Street
Email: [email protected]