Calgary's South Asian residents seeking mental health help during COVID face barriers

Calgary’s South Asian community is seeing a surge in people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, according to organizations that help people in crisis.

Language and cultural factors can make it more difficult to get help

Lending An Ear offers phone support in multiple languages to people in their own community. (Brian A Jackson/Getty Images)

Calgary's South Asian community is seeing a surge in people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, according to organizations that help people in crisis.

Counselling and support groups say many prefer to reach out to local organizations in their own community, but some don't reach out at all due to stigma and language barriers.

They say there have been more suicides in the community, some involving younger people. 

Beena Ashar helps take calls for a small grassroots organization set up last year in response to the pandemic. Lending An Ear offers phone support in multiple languages to people in their own community.

The team of five helps anyone who needs to talk. They connect with people who are struggling largely by word of mouth. 

"Some have committed suicide in our community," said Ashar. "Young people are committing suicide, which is very sad."

"All of a sudden you just hear the news and I wish I was aware of it. I feel bad but it's not possible to help each and everybody," she said.

The Lending An Ear team can speak multiple languages with lived experience of how those communities view and approach mental health.

"We each speak different languages and some speak multiple languages," said Ashar. "We have a lot of people calling us."

"People are very depressed. It's been a long time now and people are going through financial troubles, relationship troubles, and seniors are struggling. Some have nobody visiting them," she said. 

Beena Ashar volunteers with a small grassroots group called Lending An Ear. They take calls from people in the community who are struggling with their mental health. (Submitted by Beena Ashar)

Ashar says they don't offer professional help but can offer a place for people to share their problems and feelings. If needed, they connect people who need more help to other organizations.

She says the South Asian community faces cultural barriers that make it very difficult for those who find they can't cope any more.

"It always has been an issue. Some things are just not talked about. If you're going through mental health issues and depression, you are looked upon with low standards, which is not right," said Ashar.

Ashar says South Asian culture can be particularly harsh on men who find themselves suffering with mental health issues but keep it a secret.

"In our culture, men have to be strong, but some men are calling us," she said. 

Other organizations that work within the South Asian community are reporting the same rise in people needing help with heightened depression and anxiety.

Punjabi Community Health Services is a counselling agency focused on mental health, family violence and addictions.

"We do one-on-one counselling and family counselling and we also have a peer support program," said executive director Nina Saini.

"Definitely, at this point, we're seeing more and more mental health issues," she said. "It's exponentially so for mental health."

Saini says the South Asian community includes newcomers who often don't have family supports. 

She says missing out on important religious and social events like Vaisakhi and Eid at this time of year can compound people's feelings of loneliness and hopelessness as the pandemic drags on into another spring.

"For such a community-oriented population, it's really difficult," said Saini.

Nina Saini, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services in Calgary, says South Asians are best supported and treated when they are identified as unique groups with distinctive differences in culture. (Submitted by Nina Saini)

She says with COVID-19 devastating some people's home countries, like India, it means a lot of people in Calgary are dealing with tragedy and grief while trying to navigate their own pandemic experience.

"Whether it's family members passing away, multiple people passing away, there's a lot of tragedies," she said.

Disruptions in routine can impact elderly people who feel more disconnected from family and their places of worship.

Saini says life in multi-family households can also be stressful. She says people have lived for decades with hidden mental health issues that are now unavoidable as COVID and family situations intensify what were previously manageable conditions.

"COVID has brought many people to a place where they now unquestionably have to have some level of support to function," said Saini.

Saini says that beyond offering counselling, people in immediate distress and people who are suicidal are usually connected directly to the Distress Centre Calgary.

"If suicide is an imminent risk, you can't look at time, you need immediate support," said Saini.

She says they're seeing more cases at that most serious level.

"The Distress Centre helpline offers services in different languages. There's also the Suicide Prevention hotline through Crisis Services Canada, who will have a three-way conversation with a translator. And 911 is the number to call for anyone in imminent risk," she said.

Lend An Ear can be reached at 403-701-4660 in multiple languages including Punjabi, Urdu, Fijian, Hindi, Gujarati, Kachhi, Marathi and English.

Punjabi Community Health Services can be contacted at 587-999-9312.

Distress Centre Calgary's 24-Hour Crisis Line can be reached at 403-266-HELP (4357).

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one may trigger an immediate crisis, call 911.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is focused on the city’s diverse northeast quadrant and sharing stories from under-reported communities. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at