Known for his activism on issues of gender equality and family violence, Tarang Chawla has marked his ‘Movember’ by being an advocate for men’s mental health, with deeply personal reasons behind the choice.
After his sister Nikita was murdered by her partner in 2015, Tarang Chawla’s activism on family violence prevention was recognised when he was named him Young Victorian of the year in 2017, also emerging as a finalist for the Australian of the Year.
But all wasn’t well for Chawla.
“Earlier this year, I attempted to take my own life,” he tells SBS Punjabi. Chawla is determined to speak candidly about mental health issues and to challenge the associated stigma, especially within Australia’s large South Asian community.
"I spent time at the hospital following that. The team at Ambulance Victoria who attended the scene, the first responders and the nurses at the hospital emergency were absolutely fantastic,” he says, adding that he is in a better place now, thanks to continuing therapy and medication.
Sporting a moustache for Movember and determined to raise awareness - as well as funds - for men's health, Mr Chawla reflected on his recent personal experience.
“People have said to me that you’re so brave and inspirational, but like everybody else I’m a normal human being. So I went through the same journey myself and instead of seeking help earlier, I got to the point of feeling such despair that I didn’t think about how things could get better,” he says.
“There is certainly a pressure one feels due to public standing – for example, Glenn Maxwell has spoken openly about mental health issues and has taken time off from cricket. So certainly, there are pressures for people who have something of a public profile.”
“Another aspect for me was the loss of Nikita under violent circumstances, and the upcoming fifth anniversary of her passing brings up all sorts of emotions.
“But for me, my mental health issues were identified when I was late into my teenage years, around the time I started university. That’s when I first started to see a psychologist, and unfortunately, the first experience didn’t go well for me. I didn’t feel heard or understood.”
“Instead of addressing the issues, I buried them. And that’s what I want to tell everyone – please have the courage to persevere.”
Over the years, Australia's suicide rate has been increasing and men are three times more likely to die by their own hand than women are.
In 2016, 2,100 men ended their own lives in Australia, compared to 715 women. That number is three times the number of people who die in road accidents.
Mr Chawla believes personal and societal pressures can negatively impact one's mental health, reinforced by the stigma attached to seeking help or medication for mental health problems.
“The trap I fell into, like many other men of South Asian background, is that we just want to be high achievers. We want to do great things for ourselves, our families and make our community proud. What ends up happening is we place too much emphasis on those things, instead of looking after ourselves.”
“In my case it wasn’t the external pressure from the community or from people around me – it’s the self-talk that was harming me, that I’ll be OK, that everything will be fine.”
Mr Chawla says he was relieved when he was diagnosed with clinical depression and when the doctor put his actions down to a major depressive episode.
“The doctor told me I had depression, not that I am depression. It is so important to acknowledge that the individual is quite separate from the illness. We often stigmatise and label the individuals facing mental health issues, as if they are defective.”
“Stigma can’t be seen, but it can be felt and can be sensed.”
Mr Chawla says he feels the need to speak up to challenge these stigmas and stereotypes.
“We can’t always see mental health issues. By the time they become visible, its either too late or people fall into the category of those who need very comprehensive support.
“My message is, we have to find it within ourselves to speak out about our problems and those who hear our stories should listen and validate the other person’s experience without any judgement.”
“The noblest thing to offer is compassion and kindness to someone going through a difficult time. And I feel very hopeful when role models like Virat Kohli come out in open support of fellow cricketers like Glenn Maxwell, and openly talk about their anxieties too.”
He adds that seeking help can change lives.
“Please seek help from Headspace, Lifeline, Beyond Blue, Mens Line and various other hotlines. They can even arrange an interpreter for you in a language you are comfortable with.”
More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.