Chai, Chat and Changes

It was a weekday evening, the first meeting of the University of Bristol Punjabi Society. A fair deal of planning had gone into this event entitled ‘Chai and Chat’, essentially a small meet-and-greet for both Punjabi and non-Punjabi students at the University of Bristol.

Several weeks earlier, I had co-founded the society with a friend; several months of planning and applications had been invested, and this event was the first time we could really demonstrate the society’s potential. 

As people began coming through the door, I arranged the food and drink, warming up the samosas in the oven. People continued arriving, but I found myself still arranging the logistics of the event rather than stopping and chatting. Something was stopping me from engaging with attendees.

I felt isolated and alone in a room of around fifty people. I soon went to stand outside, frantically checking the evening’s football scores on my phone. Constantly refreshing to see whether Arsenal had scored, scrolling through Twitter, I stood alone outside of the room unable to go in. It was unexplainable, and I only blamed myself.

Was it cowardice? Overwhelming fear? Weakness? I looked to myself for an answer, I looked to myself for something to blame. This level of self-degradation only increased as I begun to engage in, what I know in hindsight, were illogical trains of thought and ways of thinking about this situation.

Eventually, I went back inside, continued arranging the food and drink, quietly cleaning up. I managed to chat with someone for ten minutes whilst playing a game of table tennis, and I really knew that something was up when, afterwards, I was almost in shock at the normality and ease of the conversation. I went home as the event finished, declined peoples’ offers to continue the night, and reflected on what I thought was another social failure in my university experience.

This event was one of many times where I felt absolutely unable to engage with my fellow students, despite being there physically, I was unable to ground myself mentally, unable to be ‘myself’. Looking back, I realise that I had felt this way at least four or five times before this event, at socials with my course-mates and at other social events. This didn’t really impact my studies as that’s where I sought refuge; I felt as though I could commit myself to study which was something I loved, and this showed in the work I produced which really did give me purpose whilst at University. I know some people say the work is secondary, but for me, it was undoubtedly the most important thing.

Alongside the work, I played sports, namely football, every week with my flatmates. Sports, whether rugby or football, have always been an important release in my life, and I noticed the weeks I didn’t play football were the weeks where I felt considerably worse. 

After the Chai and Chat event, I opened up to some of my housemates. I began to think about how I was feeling, acknowledging that something was not quite right. This started a process of open and honest discussion, one which felt like a huge weight was being lifted off of my shoulders.

Over several months, through free-flowing conversations alongside more structured routine in the revision period, I began to unpack the illogical ways of thinking which had consumed my actions. I began to reassess how I felt about certain situations, how I viewed myself, and I moved towards a more positive understanding of my life in Bristol.  

My housemates provided an unrivalled compassion, an attentive and caring listening ear to my difficulties. After many evenings sat on the sofas in our living room, listening to The AvalanchesPrinceand Alvvays, I was able to properly unpack, understand, and come to grips with how I was feeling at University.

I was truly lucky as I was able to confront my difficulties before they took more of a toll on my mental and physical wellbeing. Speaking certain thoughts aloud which, formerly, had only been conceived in my head also helped me to see their apparent absurdity. My housemates normalised conversation about mental health, they spoke to me about my difficulties and opened up to me about theirs, it felt as though this was something we were all individually, but collectively, working through. I felt as though I was supported, I had people to turn to, and I felt as though I could be positive about the future. 

Within several months of honest conversation, structured routine, and exercise, I began to feel a lot better about myself. I acknowledge that my difficulties were managed at a pretty early phase before they became hugely impactful on my day-to-day life; even so, it took a concerted effort from myself to ensure I remained motivated, and my health remained well.

I could not have done this without the support of my friends around me, helping me structure my routine around theirs, sit and chat when I needed to, and offer a mutually beneficial support network.  

I looked at the Punjabi community back home and I saw a community without the proper support structures to help those going through mental ill-health, nor even the basic education to understand what mental wellbeing may entail.

I saw negativity, I saw a stigma apparent in many communities but manifested in a particular way within the context of Punjabi culture. Within the Punjabi community, mental health is tied to notions of shame. It is something which brings shame upon the individual and wider family, impacting their standing within the community at large. Shame combined with a lack of education about mental health means that the topic is viewed negatively and is rarely discussed: a deadly combination which enables people to suffer in silence, and even after they are impacted by serious mental ill-health, that families will not accept its existence. 

I saw a lack of Punjabi men discussing mental health, it felt as though it was something which should be bottled inside, it was the antithesis to what it meant to be a ‘man’, and a Punjabi man at that. I saw some celebrities talking about mental health, but in all honesty, seeing someone who didn’t look like me, didn’t speak from a similar position as I, didn’t have similar experiences, didn’t help at all. 

About six months after these experiences I started Taraki: a movement which wants to change the way the Punjabi community approaches mental health. We started by uploading the mental health experiences of Punjabi men more widely, pushing discussions into a public sphere which, otherwise, would have remained muted. To date, over twenty-eight Punjabi men have shared their experiences with us, and if this has helped anyone feel as though they can speak comfortably and truthfully about their mental health, then it has been a success. 

Moving forwards, Taraki wants to develop more substantive structures of support in Punjabi communities. The NHS is being strangled, mental health does not receive adequate funding, and the current government is overseeing a reduction in services which has led to huge inaction. In such cases, communities should be able to offer support to those who experience hardships, aren’t able to wait for six months on a waiting list, or cannot afford private healthcare. We should be better at supporting those going through difficulties, I think this would aid our personal and community development massively moving forwards. 

Taraki can assist in changing attitudes towards mental health, by educating people in the Punjabi community about the basics of mental health, ensuring they are aware of local services to support those going through difficulties, and to shape Punjabi people as more able to, themselves, support anyone who may be experiencing hardships. 

As a society in such uncertain times, we need to bolster the positive communities around us. Whether that’s a group living in the same area, a religious group, or even your workmates, communities come in all shapes and forms, and moving forwards I am sure we will become better at recognising difficulties and supporting one another through the many challenges life presents us.

It's so good to hear how Shuranjeet looked for help for himself so early and that he had the wisdom to accept he needed some support straight away. All credit to him and his housemates for being there for him. We should all be so lucky. Is your mental health better or worse for the years you spent at University? Does your own culture make it easier or harder (or impossible) to open up about your mental health (or in general)? Let us know in the comments below.

You can keep up-to-date with Shuranjeet on Twitter, where he's @Shuranjeet. You can also follow his organisation, Taraki, over at @_taraki__. The links to all their social media platforms are easily accessible from the homepage.