TORONTO — In many cultures around the world, mental illness is still rarely talked about.
That’s how Karandeep Gill grew up, in a Punjabi community in Brampton, Ont., outside of Toronto. Having a mental illness wasn’t just something people were expected to keep secret in her community, she says — mental illness was treated as if “it wasn’t real” at all.
So when her symptoms began when she was 15, she didn’t know what to do.
The first time she had a panic attack in school, the sensation was so alien that she told her twin sister she felt like she was having a heart attack, tears streaming down her face.
“Back then, the thought of a panic attack — I didn’t even know the concept,” Gill told CTV News.
“I started having panic attacks about every week. And then slowly but gradually my energy went down. I experienced extreme fatigue. And then the depressive thoughts came in. Just the thought of getting out of bed seems like too much work.”
The high school student struggled — unable to tell her family — as she planned her own death.
“I had a suicide note that I put in my backpack,” she said. “I went to school the next day, went to the washroom and took a bottle of pills. At the moment, it was a euphoric feeling because I’m like, ‘Oh my God my misery is going to be gone.’ But then I broke down crying.”
A flood of regrets immediately poured in, she said. Thoughts about her family, how this would affect them; thoughts about the experiences she was never going to get to have, the people she would never meet; thoughts about recovery and a better life that seemed so out of reach now.
But luckily, Gill survived. In the hospital, her mother told her that they had found her suicide note.
“She was just broken down crying,” Gill said.
Gill was hospitalized seven times over a decade, and was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when she was 24.
Now, she speaks out about her experiences struggling with mental health, in the hopes of bringing awareness to her community.
But the road to get there was far from easy.
SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE
Coming to terms with what was happening to her was a struggle at 15, Gill said, particularly due to the lack of communication around the topic.
“My mom and a lot of my family members used to say, ‘This doesn’t happen in India, when we were growing up this never happened,’” Gill said. “I’m like, ‘No, [the] suicide rate in India is very high, it’s just not something we talked about.’”
But although she couldn’t talk about it at home, while she was trying to stay afloat in high school, her plight caught the attention of one of her teachers.
Carissa Corsaro told CTV News that Gill always “had this light in her.”
“She was really determined to find a way to live with what was going on,” she said.
Corsaro asked Gill to tell other teachers at the school about her struggle. That’s when Gill first found her voice.
“I stood there with so much vulnerability, expressing every little thing that happened throughout my life,” Gill said. “I wanted them to understand why I couldn’t come to class, why my grades may have been [down] at the same time, because they all knew I had the full potential to do well.”
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” Corsaro said. “I was so incredibly proud of her, because at that moment I felt she finally felt the empowerment that she deserved to feel.”
This was only the start of Gill’s advocacy for both herself and others struggling with mental health.
She began talking about her struggle on Instagram, such as posting a list of 100 reasons to stay alive. Things as small as crunchy leaves in the fall were reasons to keep going.
“I would say, ‘Why should I stay alive today,’” Gill said. “I savor the moments where I’m OK.”
She said she used to think that she just needed to find the right medication to work as a “miracle drug,” and solve everything. But now she feels there is no one solution.
“It’s not all about medication,” she said. “We’ve learned coping mechanisms like meditation therapy, art therapy, music therapy, exercising everyday. So it’s all about changing your whole lifestyle around, and that’s what I had to do.”
REACHING OUT TO THE COMMUNITY
One of the things that keeps her moving forward is helping others in her community.
In 2018, Gill became aware of a local group called SOCH — a word that means “to think” or “a thought” in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi — which aims to promote mental health awareness to the South Asian community.
Gill volunteered to share her story to help the two nurses who founded it to spread that important awareness.
“It’s really starting to break that stigma, shatter those norms that we’ve created about mental health,” Jasmeet Chagger, one of the founders of the organization, told CTV News. “She’s no longer being hush-hush about it, and she’s breaking doors and breaking barriers by saying, ‘Hey, this is my experience and if you are struggling, there are resources available to help you and you are not alone.’”
Chagger and co-founder Maneet Chahal held their first workshop for SOCH in 2015, called “Addressing Mental Health in Brampton.” Since then, they have held numerous events, and even have a series on Sikh Channel called Apni SOCH, where they discuss mental health.
“There definitely is a lack of knowledge and research, as well as clinical applications for the South Asian community,” Chagger said.
“With our personal and professional efforts, we thought we had to target this community.”
Discovering that others in her community were equally committed to opening up the discussion was exciting for Gill.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, I’m not the only South Asian individual who wants to advocate for mental health within our community,’” Gill said. “There’s these two mental health nurses out there that want to have a huge opportunity in advocating for and diminishing the stigma within our community.”
According to Chagger, some of the key issues affecting the South Asian community in Canada are substance abuse, depression, anxiety and intimate partner violence. The group runs workshops that address these topics.
“Things are starting to look forwards towards a holistic approach, implementing a cultural avenue to mental health nursing,” Chagger said. “So things are looking up.”
She said many people in the South Asian community don’t know how to ask for help or where to go. Sometimes SOCH would work with families where one member had an official diagnosis for their mental illness, but the family was still uncertain how to address it.
“The overall community doesn’t recognize mental health as an essential component of their wellbeing, so they don’t realize that mental health is something that needs to be taken care of,” Chagger said.
“And that kind of perpetuates the stigma within the community. So then if we do end up getting a mental health diagnosis for ourselves or in the family, because there’s already such a huge stigma that we don’t talk about it, we’re struggling, we may not know where to go get access to resources.”
Part of the goal of SOCH is empowering the average person with knowledge that would help them understand their own mental health, and also aid those around them.
“You as a neighbour, as a community member, are going to be the first one that is probably going to recognize some warning signs in your family and friends,” Chagger said.
“We need to recognize it because everyone’s going to have ups and downs in their life. We’re not just talking about a diagnosis but you might be dealing with grief. In terms of physically losing somebody you might lose a job. Now the pandemic is going on and everyone’s mental health is being challenged in different ways.”
She said it was important to have people who are willing to share their experiences so openly, the way Gill is, particularly within a community that has difficulty confronting these issues.
Gill is now a student at the university of Waterloo and is one of the “Faces of Mental Illness” for a campaign run by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. It’s been a year since she was last hospitalized. She still has days when the world seems greyer, but it’s not slowing her down.
“People think you’re in recovery and your illness has gone away,” she said.
It’s rarely that simple, she explained, but that doesn’t mean anyone should give up.
“I just want to have hope within myself to keep going. I just want to take it day by day. Yesterday may not have been great, today may be great, tomorrow may not be. You got to live with uncertainty, you got to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Those who are battling mental illness should know that it’s not their fault, she said. And they’re not alone.
“Strength is about being alive,” she said. “While you’re living with any illness. Living with a mental illness.”
Resources are available in communities across Canada for anyone struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns.