Maneet Chahal still feels goosebumps when thinking back to the first grief support group she facilitated in the fall of last year.
Among the group was a community of South Asians that had experienced tremendous loss, some of whom with no experience communicating about their mental health.
Chahal recalls that there was someone who had lost their son, someone who had lost their partner, and someone who had lost a sibling. There were also those who had been seeking out grief support for years -- one person waiting for four years, while another had waited 15 years to talk about their loss.
Though Chahal was one of the facilitators, she had been dealing with her own grief since her father had passed away nine months earlier.
“We’re all sitting here in our pain, and I’m like this is such a privilege to sit here and not only go through grief and still be grieving, but to know people’s pain and try to help them,” she says.
Formally known as Healing for Loss, this was the first grief support group put on by Soch, a not for profit mental health initiative founded by Chahal and her best friend, Jasmeet Chagger.
Aimed at the Punjabi-South Asian community but inclusive to all ethnic groups, Soch’s purpose, Chahal says, is to change people’s minds about the way they talk about mental health — a topic that Chahal and Chagger both felt was not being discussed enough, especially within the South Asian community. The two work at trying to eradicate stigma and educate the community through workshop facilitation and speaking engagements at spaces such as schools and libraries.
Initially starting their careers as mental health nurses, Chahal and Chagger eventually landed opportunities to work in Brampton, which is home to over 260,000 South Asians. It was this experience that made the Soch founders realize that the existing mental health services were not being targeted towards the South Asian community.
“It became clear that our South Asian clients, who had been in the mental health system for five, 10, 15 years, still had no idea what they had. Their families had no idea or inclination of their mental illness, and I think that kind of blew our minds in a sense. How is it that, yes, we have our individual experiences and, yes, the community doesn’t talk about it but when somebody has been connected with services how do they still not know?” says Chahal.
“Our focus is to get to the everyday individual whether it’s Brampton, or now globally, to have a conversation about mental health, to understand the importance of it in your life, and to know that there is support available,” says Chagger.
Chahal says the goal was to start a community conversation surrounding mental health, but in a way that fostered an inclusive learning environment and wasn’t lecture-based.
“Dictation doesn’t work; storytelling is very powerful in our community,” she says.
Whether somebody has experience with mental health or not, Chahal says Soch welcomes all participants, “you come around and share what you know and we kind of plug in the gaps.” Chahal says this is all self-directed learning based on the problem-based learning model (PBL) that she and Chagger both adopted during their time studying nursing at McMaster University.
One way the pair promote sharing their stories is by making sure their work is accessible to a wide demographic within the community. The initiative has been able to reach out to many through social media but they have also created partnerships that have allowed them to communicate with some of our more stubborn elders who may not be well-versed with the online world. That includes working with a local Brampton gurdwara and a collaboration with the UK based network The Sikh Channel that saw the creation of the series Apni Soch.
“They’re actually willing to learn but you also gotta think about it, how often is somebody facilitating a workshop in Punjabi on mental health? It’s not very common for them,” says Chahal.
The ability for Chahal and Chagger to communicate in Punjabi helps create more access for not only the elder Punjabi community, but for any non-English speaking Punjabi people that may get overlooked by the Canadian mental health system.
While they can communicate in Punjabi, Chahal says she knows her shortcomings are speaking to the rest of the South Asian community, which involves languages such as Urdu, Tamil and Gujarati among many others. This may be a limitation for Soch, but there are organizations such as Aadhya Canada that speak to the Tamil community in particular.
Also part of this conversational education is Chahal and Chagger being open about their experiences with mental health. Chahal says she grew up witnessing her father’s struggle with depression, while Chagger continues to deal with her father’s alcoholism.
“In our experience it’s been, ‘If I don’t tell you I’ve seen suffering or I’ve seen pain, how are you gonna tell me you’re dealing with pain and suffering’? Why would you come to our conversation if you don’t know you can approach us. So really taking away that power dynamic, being inclusive and just open. I think that has really built credibility for us,” says Chahal.
This level of transparency has been key in facilitating particular workshops.
After the passing of Chahal’s father in 2018, she says she felt like she reached a low in her life. “I kind of started thinking I understand why people probably get really sick after they experience grief,” she says. To combat these emotions, Chahal, with the help of Chagger, began to design and facilitate the previously mentioned “Healing for Loss” grief support group in collaboration with the Brampton Crematorium.
“I had personal experience — my dad’s funeral was at that funeral home, but it kind of aligned that management there was trying to reach out to a South Asian initiative and they came across us,” says Chahal. She says the crematorium expressed interest in Soch because they have no idea what happens to families once they leave a service at the crematorium.
The collaboration included training the staff at the Brampton crematorium on how to approach those who may be experiencing panic attacks and how to look out for other symptoms experienced through grief. It also included making sure the staff were on top of their own emotions being in such an emotionally heavy environment.
For Chagger, one of the workshops that was most important to her was one that addressed addiction and alcoholism.
“Growing up I found my dad struggling with alcohol issues so that’s something that I’ve always felt very passionate about. Working with Soch and working as a nurse in Brampton and even my personal experiences of seeing other individuals really struggling,” says Chagger.
Titled “You Drink, We Suffer,” Chagger says the workshop looks to reach out to people afflicted by a loved ones’ addiction and how they may feel.
With titles for seminars such as “Your drinking ruined my life,” there was room for participants to share their stories and how they have been impacted by another’s alcoholism. Another day was intended to focus on understanding the basis of addiction clearly named “Why can’t you just stop?”
She says that alcoholism is a rampant issue in the South Asian community. In fact, it often gets treated as a norm. “Addiction in the South Asian Punjabi community is an even more stigmatized topic than I would say other mental health issues because people don’t realize that it’s even an issue. Drinking is celebrated in our community so we don’t recognize it’s a problem,” she says. “When someone is misusing we’re like ‘oh shit, now what?’”
Chagger revisited her experience with her father’s alcoholism once again this past July through an hour long Instagram Live featuring both her and Chahal. Celebrating five years of marriage, Chagger decided to finally open up about her decision to hold her wedding festivities at Chahal’s house in order to avoid issues that were brought on by her father’s alcoholism. The video received nearly 9,600 views, well over their average views which fluctuates from 400 to 1,400.
“It was cathartic and it was a nice experience to be able to share the story with the Soch community and coming from a lens of a family member who’s been impacted,” says Chagger.
“There is a lot of literature on how to help the person who is struggling with an alcohol addiction or abuse but I wanted to specifically focus on the family because that is not always highlighted.”
When it comes to Soch, Chagger and Chahal both see an endless potential in what they can do.
Currently, the two are still both working as full-time nurses alongside running Soch. They are also both in pursuit of strengthening their own knowledge. Chahal recently rapped up her master’s of Science in nursing while Chagger is working on completing her thesis for the same program. Both of them were able to extensively research mental health related to Punjabi communities during this time.
They had many plans for 2020, but COVID-19 brought with it some difficulties such as the need to reschedule in-person events and a pause on growing their volunteer team.
However, Chagger and Chahal only found ways to keep moving and adjusted accordingly. In fact, Chagger says COVID forced them to turn to online platforms which is something they had been planning to do since last year.
“Our initiative is global so we wanted to do more online stuff,” says Chagger.
They switched most of their events to webinars and have well-acquainted themselves with using Instagram Live as a tool to reach out to their 6, 224 followers. And their online presence was necessary; both Chagger and Chahal noticed that since the pandemic hit they were being contacted by many of their following regarding their mental health, specifically an increase in feelings of anxiety.
Not only have they forced themselves into the online sphere, but they have also taken this time to broaden the range of their audience. In partnership with the UK-based mental health initiative known as Taraki which focuses on South Asian Punjabi men, Soch has now created an online men’s mental health forum. The first official event will be held on Sept. 17. They have also made room to have conversations surrounding the mental health of international students in a partnership with Sheridan college.
The two will also be creating a space to discuss Queer and Trans mental health and will be holding an online discussion Sept. 30.
COVID restrictions or not, it is apparent that Soch is continuing to challenge the norms of mental health within the South Asian-Punjabi community. For the Soch team, they simply want to see the conversation normalized — organic and informally. That way, hopefully, nobody else has to wait 15 years to find a place to speak.