South Asian mental health the focus of new Calgary campaign

A new campaign focused on improving mainstream mental health services for the city's South Asian population has launched in Calgary.

‘Say It Like It Is’ campaign seeks to address gaps in the system

Nitu Purna was one of four panelists taking part in an online forum on Thursday. She says better representation and diversity within the mental health sphere would be a big help in making services more popular with South Asians in Calgary. (Submitted by Nitu Purna)

A new campaign focused on improving mainstream mental health services for the city's South Asian population has launched in Calgary.

Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS), a not-for-profit that provides counselling services and supports to the South Asian community, created the campaign "Say It Like It Is" to provide more culturally aware mainstream mental health services.

In an online forum on Thursday, panelists discussed systemic and social change with mental health professionals and organizations in a series of open discussions.

The campaign comes as more people than ever are struggling with mental health issues due to the pandemic.

The South Asian community represents 10 per cent of Calgary's total population, but has been historically underrepresented when it comes to effective mental health supports and campaigns, according to PCHS.

"It's time for the South Asian community to be part of some of the conversations happening and having that representation in mental health is essential," says Nina Saini, executive director of PCHS Calgary.

"There's ineffective service delivery that doesn't have diverse and unique populations considered. People in the community are suffering and issues are escalating."

A screenshot of an online forum that took place on Thursday to discuss ways to improve mainstream mental health supports for Calgary’s South Asian community. (PCHS Calgary)

Saini said for mental health services to be effective and impactful, there needs to be a better cultural understanding to support those seeking help — as well as a grasp of the unique differences and social considerations.

She said that lack of understanding means many in the community don't access mainstream help available to them. Alternatively, they may try it once, have a difficult experience and never return.

"South Asians are seeking help, they're just not going to mainstream organizations because they don't find it effective," she said.

There are also cultural barriers and stigma in the community around mental health and asking for help, which Saini said mainstream services need to be more aware of.

The "Say It Like It Is" online forum held Thursday brought together experts in the field of mental health to discuss and identify some of the barriers in creating and accessing more culturally appropriate services.

"We recognize that people are struggling with their mental health and we recognize this gap and we're questioning why?" said Nitu Purna, co-founder of The Colour Factor and one of the panellists at the online event.

"Our community doesn't feel comfortable, for so many reasons."

Purna said as a person of colour she's felt uncomfortable herself accessing services like counsellors.

She explained she has entered a space where people didn't understand her, and she ended up working to help them understand her instead of receiving help.

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 said many newcomers want to present themselves as tough and resilient, but the stress of moving to a new country takes its toll and many need some level of help.

"They have gone through a lot so they're not weak. But they saw war and life and death situations," she said.

Purna said there's a lack of diversity in the mental health-care system.

"I've worked in a big mental health organization and I haven't seen a lot of diversity," she said.

"They need to include people in leadership roles who look like us so we can see people who look like us, which in itself is a connection and makes people feel comfortable."

Purna said more diverse leadership can help on the front lines in terms of policy and protocols.

PCHS said talking about making changes and improvements could ultimately save lives.


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