Toronto·CBC Investigates

Bengali community tries to tackle 'alarming' spike in youth suicides with study

Thirteen young Bengali men in the Greater Toronto Area have died by suicide within a two-year span, a figure that has left many in the Bengali community shaken. A small group of volunteers set out to try and understand why this was happening.

13 young men died by suicide over a 2-year span in the Greater Toronto Area, group says

Left to right: Golam Mostafa, Mahatab Uddin, Imam Uddin and Nesar Ahamed. On their own time, these men have been holding focus group meetings and conducting interviews to understand the challenges faced by youth in the Bengali community. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Sazia Rahman remembers Feb. 18, 2017, as an unusually warm winter day. It was above zero — in the double digits — and sunny.

She also remembers it as the day a call from her mother changed the rest of her life.

"She said ... 'I think there's something wrong. Your brother just texted me and he told me to go to his room to find a note,'" Rahman said, her voice faltering as she described the call.

"Basically the note said, 'I can't bear this pain anymore and I need to end my life.'"

Rahman said they tried to call him, but his phone was off. 

For the next six weeks, Rahman searched for her younger brother, alongside her parents, friends and members of the Greater Toronto Area's Bengali community.

Fahmi Rahman died by suicide when he was 21 years old. (Submitted by Rahman family)

On March 31, Fahmi Rahman's body was pulled from the icy waters of Lake Ontario, near the foot of Yonge Street on Toronto's harbourfront.

Rahman was 21 years old, a second-year life sciences student at the University of Toronto, on the dean's honours list. His family remembers him as extremely intelligent and generous.

"To anyone who's ever known him, he was the boy with the golden heart. He was a very different type of teenager," Sazia Rahman said.

Rahman, pictured with one of his nephews. (Submitted by Rahman family)

According to community members, Rahman was one of 13 young Bengali men in the GTA who died by suicide within a two-year span, a figure that has left many shaken.

A small group of volunteers set out to try to understand why this was happening. The two-year study found communication gaps between parents and children as well as academic pressures as some of the major factors that impact young men's mental health in the community.

Underlying everything: a pervasive stigma in the community toward mental health issues and a lack of resources for those seeking support.

The group published its findings this summer hoping to spark broader discussions about mental health in the community.

'It was alarming'

Nesar Ahamed, a social worker and one of the lead authors of the report, said the Bengali community started to notice a disturbing trend in 2016. He said it felt like every few months, another Bengali youth would die by suicide. And there was a pattern: they were all male, young — 23 or under — and often university or college students.

"We see the surface level, maybe only 13 [young men] committed suicide, but we don't know how many people are suffering really ... So it's really prompted us to find out what challenges our youth are going through," said Ahamed.

This summer the volunteer group, with help from Bengali Information and Employment Services (BIES), published this report on the spike in youth suicides in the community. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

He teamed up with Golam Mostafa, a professional mental health support worker, Mahatab Uddin, a legal scholar who works in dispute resolution and mediation, and Imam Uddin, executive director of Bengali Information and Employment Services (BIES), a local non-profit. BIES agreed to support research efforts if the team volunteered their time.

"The number of people who committed suicide within a very short period of time was alarming," said Mahatab Uddin, who is also a board member of BIES.

"It made us believe something might be wrong here."

Communication gaps and pressures

The group conducted focus groups with Bengali parents and young men in the community, asking questions about their lives, relationships and mental health.

Ahamed said in those group discussions some young men said they felt they were unable to talk about their thoughts and feelings with their parents. 

"The major finding was the communication gap between parents and children," said Ahamed.

"Another commonality … is that most of the parents agreed that they put too much  pressure on their children, and most of the youth said, 'Yes, we have tremendous pressure on us.'"

As many immigrants find, some Bengalis settling in Canada are unable to practice their previous profession, so they put pressure on their children to succeed academically and financially, he said. 

The findings of the report stemmed from interviews that this group conducted over a two-year span with young Bengali men and with parents in the community. (CBC)

Efaj Hassan can relate to some of those findings.

"I was just spiraling in this dark place and it's just getting worse and worse," the 19-year-old said, describing a period when he was in high school.

Hassan, now a third year Ryerson University student, said a combination of pressure brought him to that place, including pressure to get good grades and pressure about his future.

"I was just having a lot of mental breakdowns, and it was just getting worse and worse."

He decided to tell his parents about his struggles and later sought a doctor's help. Hassan said by opening up to his parents, he better understood the cultural and generational differences.

"Parents … have these very high-level jobs back in Bangladesh, and then when they came over here, they kind of sacrificed everything for us, our generation. So they kind of want us to live their dreams," said Hassan.

Efaj Hasson, a 19-year-old Ryerson University student, said he was able to open up to his parents during a time when he was struggling mentally. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Other factors including racism, classicism and the struggle between Canadian and Bengali identity also played a role in the mental health of young Bengali men, the study found.

Underlying all the findings: a stigma when it comes to mental health issues

"Mental health is taboo in South Asian countries," said Ahamed, who said it's rarely viewed as an actual health problem.

"They say [someone is] mad, like crazy — those kinds of things."

The group found that in addition to stigma, many in the community aren't able to tap in to existing resources. 

"Marginalized communities — they suffer most because they don't have access to those resources, they don't know how to navigate those resources."

Rahman was part of a close-knit family that remembers him as bright and generous. He would have been turning 25 this year. (Submitted by Rahman family)

Help came too late

Fahmi Rahman was diagnosed with depression seven months before he died, said his sister Sazia Rahman. Up until then, she said, multiple doctors told him his behaviour was common for a young person.

"None of us, to be very honest — my mom, my dad and I — we didn't really think of depression as an issue. We didn't even think that would have been a diagnosis," said Rahman.

After his diagnosis, the family wanted to help him but didn't know how.

"I just feel like we were very late. I think everything — all of our efforts — were just too late." said Rahman.

Imam Uddin, executive director of BIES, said the opportunity to work on this study has taught him a lot about his own family and children. (CBC)

Rahman acknowledged there are stigmas around mental health in the Bengali community, with some afraid they'll be labelled as weak. She continues to share her family's story in hopes people will understand the importance of recognizing mental health issues when they arise.

"I felt that it was our duty to really let these families know what we've been through, because we just don't want anyone else to go through this," said Rahman.

"It rips your family apart."

Next steps

The report makes several recommendations to the community on how it can bridge the gap between parents and children, find better ways to balance Canadian and Bengali identities and for parents to engage with their children in constructive ways. It also recommends creating a safe community space where children and parents can share their feelings and hold events together. 

As a parent himself, Imam Uddin said the focus groups and the findings had a deep impact on him personally and changed his relationship with his children. 

"Whenever any youth takes their lives, it is beyond words. It horrifies us," said Uddin.

"I think this is the time to reach out to the community, to connect with the parents and community leaders and others and say: this is the situation in our community." 

The group acknowledges the problem is not isolated to the Bengali community, but hopes that their findings can spark more discussions about mental health.

The group plans to translate the report into Bengali and has hosted two Facebook Live events during COVID-19 — one about their report on youth suicides and another on mental health in general. They plan to host more.

"If this research can save one life," Ahamed said, "we will say our research is successful."

About the Author

Farrah Merali is a reporter with CBC Toronto with a passion for politics and urban health issues. She previously worked as the early morning reporter at CBC Vancouver. Follow her at @FarrahMerali

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