When Gurvaan first walked into the psychiatric emergency unit at BC Children’s Hospital, she couldn’t help but feel overcome by an intense mix of emotions.
She was 17 at the time, and her first instinct was to try to convince her nurse that it was all a misunderstanding—that she was feeling better and was ready to go back home.
But her nurse wouldn’t budge.
“When the nurse told me I was going to stay there, the reality of the situation finally sank in,” she says. “At that moment, I questioned whether or not it had been a good decision to tell my psychiatrist how I was feeling.”
What Gurvaan had told her psychiatrist earlier that day was that she had lost all hope. She’d already been struggling with severe depression for over six months, and she had started feeling like there was only one way out: suicide.
“I had even gone so far as to plan everything out, which looking back is absolutely terrifying,” she says.
Gurvaan couldn’t know it at the time, but telling her psychiatrist about the depths of her hopelessness was an important step in her path towards recovery.
Although she’d been getting help for her mental health since 2014, she’d had spent the vast majority of the past year and a half hiding her most intense feelings from the people around her.
No one in her social circles and very few family members knew she was battling against debilitating anxiety and depression, and even fewer knew that she had turned to eating disorders and self-injury to numb the emotional pain she was feeling.
“I didn’t feel comfortable enough with anyone to share my feelings or tell them about my unhealthy coping mechanisms, so I pretty much just isolated myself,” she says. “The only people I told about the self-harm and the depths of my depression were people who were paid to listen to me.”
This isolation only made the situation worse. By the end of 2015, her depression was getting more and more intense, but talking with her family and friends about it seemed practically out of the question.
“Mental health is frowned upon in my culture…South Asian people don’t talk about it and normally don’t get help for it either…”
“Mental health is frowned upon in my culture,” says Gurvaan. “South Asian people don’t talk about it and normally don’t get help for it either, because they don’t want to be viewed by others as nut cases if they go to see a psychiatrist.”
Luckily, Gurvaan’s parents were forward thinking enough to help their daughter get help, even though they didn’t necessarily know what she was going through.
But that’s not always the case.
Studies show that cultural stigma surrounding mental health negatively impacts people’s lives.
According to the American Psychological Association, race, ethnicity and culture all shape the rates in which young adults receive help for mental health. This means that mental health disorders affecting youth from visible minority groups often go undiagnosed and untreated.
“When this stigma exists, you become really good at hiding things, which is very unhealthy”
For Gurvaan, not being able to talk to her parents about the extent of her depression for fear that they wouldn’t understand her or would be unnecessarily bothered, led to an immense sense of isolation that fed into her depression and anxiety, intensifying them to a point where suicide seemed like the only escape.
“When this stigma exists, you become really good at hiding things, which is very unhealthy,” she says.
Perhaps that’s why when a visit with her psychiatrist ended with Gurvaan being admitted into the hospital, her parents had no idea what was happening.
“When my mom was first told about the situation, she was completely shocked,” Gurvaan remembers. “She even said: ‘you were perfectly normal when we came in’.”
Nearly two years after going into the hospital, Gurvaan is a changed woman.
She’s learned about the importance of talking to others about her mental health, and eventually found a therapy – Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) – that continues to help her deal with her depression and anxiety.
“It’s shocking for me to look back at where I was a year or two ago. Although I still have depression and anxiety […] Now I know that things do get better, and I have a toolkit full of skills that I know really help.”
And she’s not the only one who has developed new skills.
As part of DBT, she attended joint group sessions with her parents, who learned skills they can use in their own lives, as well as when Gurvaan needs help.
“Making my family aware of the problems I hid in the past was a huge part of my recovery,” she says. “And the fact that they learned the same skills as me makes me feel more connected to them.”
As a Youth Ambassador for the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at BC Children’s Hospital, she helped set up projects that educate young people about the importance of reaching out for help, and has started sharing her story in an effort to bringing mental health issues out of the shadows.
With her family’s support and her newly gained skills, Gurvaan has been able to develop a new sense of purpose in her life.
“My experience taught me so much about mental health, and has made me passionate about making it more visible,” she says.
By shedding light on these issues, she hopes to break the stigma that still surrounds mental health within her culture – and in society at large.
“During my moments of most distress, stigma isolated me, which made my depression more intense,” she says. “I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with that sort of isolation and loneliness.”
This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken.
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