Taboos and therapists who don't understand: Mental health struggles more complicated for BIPOC youth

Zaid Baig, 23, said he found himself in need of urgent mental health care at the beginning of the pandemic but didn't know where to turn. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Zaid Baig, 23, said he found himself in need of urgent mental health care at the beginning of the pandemic but didn't know where to turn. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

Warning: This story contains mentions of self-harm.

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult for Zaid Baig.

Though he'd felt unhappy long before the pandemic, the 23-year old Carleton University student said he found himself lonelier than ever. Online school felt unreal, he couldn't see his friends anymore, his daily routine was upended.

"It kind of felt like a Black Mirror episode," he remembered. It all came to a breaking point during the first lockdown.

"The isolation really created this whole idea in my head that things are not going to get better," he said.

"And because of that, I tried to harm myself."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

He went to the ER where he spoke with the psychotherapist on-call. Baig said after that, he realized he needed long-term mental health help, but like many youth, particularly those from BIPOC communities, he didn't know where to begin.

From cultural stigmas, to finding someone to talk to who understands your background, he says BIPOC youth face unique obstacles to getting mental health help and is sharing his experience to help others.

'It's just taboo'

Drayton Mulindabigwi Jabo also felt at a loss, when the 21-year-old University of Ottawa student found himself struggling with his mental health in the pandemic's early days.

Back then, Mulindabigwi was in Grade 12 and had big plans for graduation and beyond, including a school trip to Costa Rica and applications for pre-medical school.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

When everything was suddenly cancelled, Mulindabigwi said he found himself feeling helpless and anxious about his future.

"I felt overwhelmed … it was like a sense of paralysis," he said.

But Mulindabigiwi, who moved to Canada with his family from Rwanda in 2009, said he chose not to tell his parents about his struggles.

"I didn't understand it as a problem to be shared," he said. "It's just not something that's brought up."

He said being newcomers to Canada meant his parents had to worry about a lot of things — from employment, to housing and more.

"That doesn't leave space for talks on mental health," he said. "The cultural perception of mental health is, like, of people being crazy."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Baig, too, said his immigrant parents never spoke to him about mental health — "it's just taboo."

"They would say 'just pray more, drink more water, eat healthy,' but they wouldn't really tackle why I'm feeling like this."

Even after his visit to the emergency room, Baig says his parents remained hesitant about psychotherapy.

"It was really hard for them to believe that a person could go through this … and [I] felt really invalidated."

A cultural divide

Baig eventually connected with a therapist who diagnosed him with anxiety and depression, and prescribed him medication.

He said though this helped, he faced a new challenge: His therapy appointments left him feeling uneasy.

"I had to explain myself, about why I felt certain emotions and where they were coming from, given the fact that I'm a person of colour," said Baig.

"Like getting approval from my parents and how important that was … to be a good student and not think about having fun. And if you do start to have fun … the guilt that comes with it."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

He said he found himself wishing his therapist was able to understand him.

"The stigmas within the South Asian community … it was no news to me," he said. "But when I was talking to my white therapist, it just seemed like she lived in a different world."

Baig said he felt increasingly anxious after each appointment, and it took a while for him to "recover" afterwards.

After nearly five months, Baig decided to stop. He said the cultural divide was too wide for him to bridge while grappling with his own mental health.

Lack of access to 'culturally responsive' care

According to psychotherapist Bruno Jung-Millen, who specializes in racial minority stress and trauma, BIPOC communities have always faced additional mental health pressure.

Known as "minority stress," he says it's the result of being "othered" through societal discrimination based on race, religion, gender and more.

"There's a lot of pressure as a BIPOC individual to succeed. You need to do more because it feels as if there's always catching up to do to get to the more dominant group," he said.

But, he says the pandemic "poured gas into a fire pit." A sharp increase in racial discrimination paired with social isolation meant he began seeing a jump in the number of requests for his services and a leap in the severity of clients' needs.

"We saw, at my practice, BIPOC youth and their families …  reaching out and saying, 'We are isolated. We need someone who understands how we feel, without having to explain over and over … we just need someone who can relate to our struggles."

To help BIPOC youth with these struggles, Jung-Millen says a "culturally responsive" mental health care approach is needed — rooted in cultural awareness, sensitivity, humility and BIPOC lived experience that "responds to cultural needs" to feel understood and validated — otherwise therapy can do more harm than good

"When the therapist doesn't understand the youth … it creates another invalidating experience where they feel like they're not being heard and it solidifies their belief that 'no one gets me,'" he said.

But, Jung-Millen adds that accessing culturally responsive care is difficult because of stigma, a lack of awareness, affordability and just the sheer lack of BIPOC therapists available to meet the rising demand.

Jung-Millen, whose practice is now fully-booked up, finds himself having to turn people away.

"There's not enough supply to meet the demand," he said.

'It's OK to share'

After his own struggles with mental health began, Mulindabigwi created an initiative called HealMind — which connects youth with mental health supports, including a QR-coded sticker which links the user with online resources.

"HealMind turned me into a mental health advocate," said Mulindabigwi, adding it allowed him to broach the subject more freely with his parents and break cultural barriers by educating them in the process.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

But to date, he has not sought out the help of a mental health professional. He said it's partly because he's worried he won't find a therapist who understands.

Meanwhile, Baig said instead of therapy, last summer he joined a cricket club near his parents' house in Mississauga.

"To heal my inner child after I stopped going to therapy, and accept my cultural identity, I had to find a place," he said.

"A group of individuals that really allowed me to be myself and not be ashamed of my South Asian identity."

At the cricket club, Baig said he began to feel more like himself — and got closer to his parents, who started to understand his struggles as he opened up.

He also began posting videos online about his journey with mental health — many targeting a South Asian audience.

"Why I decided to be vocal on TikTok is to simply let more people know that what you're feeling is normal. It's OK to have these thoughts. It's OK to share and be vulnerable because this is actually part of the process," he said.

In the meantime, Baig said he is still on the lookout for a therapist — one who, perhaps, looks like him and has been in his shoes.

"[BIPOC] mental health is a real issue that needs to be given attention," he said.

Need help? Here are some mental health resources: