Nilam Chhetri, Making Mental Health Matter

ProfileI came to Canada with my family in 1996 with big dreams and aspirations. Four years after we arrived in Canada, my brother committed suicide and shortly afterwards my sister was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It took me and my family 15 years to overcome grief and start talking about this openly. In 2012 I finally understood that silence makes things much worse for those struggling with mental health, and it affects their families similarly. This is when I created a blog site called Side by Side, initially as a personal blog to share my feeling and thoughts. In less than six months my blog had more than 3000 followers. I found each post received dozens of comments and active discussion. This is when I realized that I was not alone and that my simple blog had the possibility of serving as a much needed platform for support, open conversation, and empowerment. It has now grown into an online magazine whose purpose is to create positive change in the field of mental health. Currently I’m studying to become a Psychotherapist. This is my story as a young immigrant to Canada where I learned to move from deep loss and grief to becoming an active mental health advocate.

 “The utopian fantasy of my new home began to crumble as soon as I stepped into the airplane”

I am the youngest in my family and I grew up looking up to both my siblings. We didn’t have many opportunities growing up in Nepal, and my dad had left so we could have more. When I received news that we’d be migrating to Canada, there was no doubt in my mind that we’d be unimaginably happy. Unfortunately, the utopian fantasy of my new home began to crumble as soon as I stepped into the airplane. School was difficult to begin with, but it wasn’t the learning that was hard; it was social situations that I found challenging. In Nepal, there were no rules for making friends; here, it felt different. It also didn’t help that we moved around a lot in Toronto as my dad tried to find suitable employment. Although the transitions were hard, they were also opportunities to begin again, to make new friends, learn new things, and to explore my own identity. In many ways, Canada also gave me more than I could imagine. Here, I learned to speak up for what I believe in. To speak up as a woman, as an immigrant, and to value my differences. Here, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue a higher education in Psychology, and an elementary teaching degree. For my older siblings, the journey to Canada was a different story.

We had never suspected my brother was depressed nor could we pinpoint a specific stressor in his life that could explain his choice. In addition to the natural disposition towards mental illness in the family, social isolation, I assume, would be the culprit. Whatever it was that led to his decision; it was too late for us to fix it. In our inability to understand his death, we chose to remain silent with our grief. Little did I know at the time, the silence, although comfortable at first, would begin to fester and claw at me from within.

Although many people are afraid of mental health labels, I saw it as a blessing when my sister was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Without the diagnosis, we would have struggled deeply to understand my sister as a person and misunderstood her unjustly. Her diagnosis was an opportunity for us to help her in her struggles: a chance we never had with my brother. Receiving my sister’s diagnosis; this was the moment where I felt most thankful that we lived in Canada. We could receive appropriate care and education here regarding her illness. In Nepal, the stigma is even more rampant, and the support is hugely lacking.

P 2
Side by Side Blog

Side by Side started out as a very small blog, with me sharing my own personal insights on the mental health struggles surrounding my family. At first, I found it difficult to share such a personal story; to put myself on display for all to see. I worried what others might think, if my writing was good enough, whether I was doing the right thing. There were many doubts in my mind about my blog but my dedication to my ultimate goal was unwavering. Here is a topic that is difficult but it needs our immediate attention; with my personal experience, I felt it was my responsibility to start talking.

In just four months, the blog (and my Facebook page connected to my blog) was followed by 3,000 people. I quickly learned that there’s an overwhelming amount of support and solidarity within the mental health community on the web; one that is hugely lacking in the offline world. I received an endless amount of emails, comments and messages from people from all walks of life: from people struggling with depression to psychiatric nurses, healthcare professionals, artists, activist, bloggers, and pedagogues. I also began to notice that the blog was making an impact on people in their own life. Good friends and acquaintances began sharing their own personal struggles with mental health and provided encouragement for the project. Having noticed the benefits of speaking up and sharing my story through the blog, the next step became very clear: I needed to create a platform for others wishing to do the same. Today, the blog is a web magazine. The focus of the magazine has also evolved quite drastically. The magazine now centers on raising empathy and awareness for mental health through honest, insightful writing by individuals living with mental illness or those that are close to them.

Artwork by Loretta Luzajic
Artwork by Lorette Luzajic

I am glad to share that the magazine has currently hosted articles by Mark Freeman, the editor-in-chief of Everybody Has a Brain (an online community devoted to generating dialogue around personal stories of mental illness), Renjie Butalid (a social entrepreneur with a personal history of depression), the thoughtful advice of Dr. Sandy Seton-Browne (a child and adolescent psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience), among others. I just recently interviewed Dr. Eleanor Longden, a renowned research psychologist and TED speaker who has learned to thrive with “schizophrenia”. We also collaborate with visual artists who live with a mental illness. See for example, artist profile of Lorette Luzajic (a mixed media artist who lives with bipolar disorder). The site also features books, films and resources on mental health.

Nilam with Chef Mark Ewan at Food Court Social event to raise awareness and funds for youth mental health.
Nilam with Chef Mark Ewan at Food Court Social event to raise awareness and funds for youth mental health.

But most importantly, the magazine has managed to create change for those who live with mental illness. The comments of support under every article or blog post are incredibly encouraging. There is no doubt that people, silenced by stigma, are ready to share their stories. Not too long ago, Sarah Lindsay, a young woman in her mid-twenties, wrote the story of her grandmother who lived her life unaware of her mental illness. Celenia Delson, whose son committed suicide, reached out to share her painful story of healing and learning to ‘look on the bright side’ of life. Each story is a powerful tale of adversity but also resilience, and there is no reason why they should be silenced.

I truly believe that expressive, honest writing and art created by individuals living with mental illness not only provides cathartic relief for those suffering, it also is a starting point to build understanding and connection where it is severely lacking. I can see that the magazine is in its early stages of creating a real and necessary change in the field of mental health. I hope to continue on this journey as a passionate mental health advocate, online and offline. I have never been more grateful to be here, in Canada, and to have this opportunity to pursue my unique goals. It was for this reason why we left a home we knew so well and started a difficult journey of migrating to a new country. We started that journey because we wanted a change, and change is what we’re creating.

The Guest Editor for this post is Dilyana Mincheva, PhD.

Pop Po

Sources: Statistics Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada

If you or anyone needs immediate help for mental health related issues, contact these helplines (most of them have language interpretation support in over 100 languages):  

Innovative Initiatives to overcome mental health stigma

  • Opening Minds Initiative by Mental Health Commission of Canada. See also their HeadStrong initiative, a national youth anti-stigma campaign.
  • Strength in Unity Project focused on training community mental health ambassadors to help overcome mental health stigma. Funded by Movember Foundation.
  • Elephant in the Room campaign by Mood Disorders Society of Canada.
  • Touched by Fire network: a non-profit peer support and recovery program to celebrate, support and inspire the work of artists with mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Additional Resources and Services

Further Readings:

8 thoughts on “Nilam Chhetri, Making Mental Health Matter”

  1. Dd, Thank you for sharing your story with us. I completely agree with all your points. The stigma that people with mental illness are weak needs to be addressed; especially within our community.

    I did struggle with grief and depression for past half-decade. It is better now especially with treatment I have had. However, I have been realizing it is not something that can be curable with medicine or something. It stays with us forever. With time, we just get better at adapting the emotions and situations.

    1. Hi Ravi,

      Thanks for sharing that with me. I’m happy to hear that you’re getting support and are able to discuss this openly. Medicine can help, but there are also other options you can explore (therapy, nutrition, exercise). You’re right that this is an ongoing challenge. Make sure you’ve always got some support (from yourself and others)!

  2. I’m so happy you decided to share your story because mental health does matter. I just started my blog last week to share my past and present journey with OCD, Tourette Syndrome, Anxiety, and Depression. Mental health isn’t taken as serious as it needs to be, and suicide is often thought of cowardly, when in reality, it feels like the only choice for that person. I suffered with suicidal thoughts when I was 13 due to medication, but met so many people that suffered with them from their depression. Some are no longer here to continue their fight though mental illness. Beautiful post! Stay Chipper!

    1. Thanks Chelsea for your message! So happy to hear about your blog!! I wish you luck with the blog and on your healing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s