“Punjabi Communities Have The Potential To Do So Much Amazing Work Around Mental Health Because We Have Such A Collectivist Attitude To Life” Shuranjeet Taraki

shuranjeet

 

Who is Shuranjeet?

Shuranjeet is someone who often finds himself caught in-between. Whether this is in terms of identity, interests, practice, or life more generally, I have grown up constantly uncertain and indecisive. Shuranjeet is someone who appreciates those who try and do things differently, those who can imagine their world in a unique way, those who act based on their interests rather than the preferences of others, and those who can be comfortable in their uniqueness despite what society might tell them.

 

How was your trip abroad, and what were you doing there?

So, I was recently in Toronto where I started my Masters in the health policy field. I was there from August until March and will be going back in September; it’s the longest I’ve been away from family and was definitely difficult at points as I struggled with loneliness and social isolation. Overall, however, I connected with such amazing people there and was able to gain valuable perspectives on how to approach problems in imaginative ways based on understanding existing strengths within a community. It was a really amazing journey and it’s definitely not finished yet, so I’m excited to go back!

What are your hobbies?

It depends where I am and what I have access to! Since being home, and in lockdown, I’ve mainly been running and reading whilst I’m not working. I managed to do a half-marathon going up and down Soho Road in Handsworth (Birmingham), which I’m mega proud of! I am always trying to better live my life through the frameworks and tools we are given through Sikhi: the keyword here is ‘trying’
When I was in Toronto, I would say my hobbies were cooking, gymnastics, walking, and reading! When I go back to Toronto, I want to try and keep up with my running and gymnastics, whilst integrating swimming – but let’s see how that goes.

Who were your role models growing up?

Honestly, I don’t really think I have any living role models. I don’t think I really looked to anyone and thought ‘they are doing things that I want to do’. Is that strange? Probably! But I just like to keep my head down and focus on my actions rather than championing people in that way – there are definitely people who inspire me, but they aren’t really role models.

What is your favourite book & song is there a memory behind it?

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My favourite book, or series of books, is the Series of Unfortunate Events. It was 13 books on this group of orphans who are basically trying to understand the mysteries behind the death of their parents. My main memory of this book was how dark it was; I was reading this between the ages of 9 and 10, I remember walking around the playground with the book held in front of my face, I just loved its dark humour and cynicism. It has definitely shaped me now, for the better or worse.

 

What were the main reasons you set up Taraki Oct 2017?

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I set up Taraki because of my experiences of mental health challenges when I was transitioning from home to university. Being the first in my family to leave Birmingham, live out, and start my university journey, it was tough as there were a number of things I didn’t account for. I developed a pretty debilitating social anxiety where I found it difficult to go out and meet people, sustain conversations, and I felt overly visible within such a difficult space. I found support through my house-mates, which I am so grateful for, but I realised that others weren’t so lucky. So I wanted to create a space where people could approach mental health in a different way, more likely to find others who can offer support and a setting where they can be themselves without feelings of shame or negative stigmas.

 

Were your friends and family supportive of your decision of setting up Taraki?

My family were so supportive of the decision, they helped, and still, help, so much! I could never have done this without them and for me, it shows the extent of the unwavering love and support that they have shown to me and my siblings throughout our life. My mum actually came up with the name ‘Taraki’, so shout out to mum, who always seems to kick forward the brilliant things happening in our household.

 

During your second year at University you suffered from social anxiety, can you touch on that little bit for me? What were your experiences?

So, I was born in Handsworth where there are so many people from different cultures, faiths, and backgrounds. I felt pretty ‘normal’, being a dastaar-wearing keshdari Sikh (a Sikh who keeps their hair). But when I went to university there were very few people who looked like me and came from a similar background. Everyone seemed to know each other already and that made me feel even more like an outsider.
I was already self-conscious and this just made things so much worse, so I started isolating myself more and more, which wasn’t good for my mental health. I used to really overthink situations, often to a point where I couldn’t actually do anything. I used to engage in conversations but whilst talking I would be so self-conscious about what I was saying, whether I was being judged, there was just a constant feeling of being alien/strange.
The point where I realised that this was something I needed to look into further was when we had our first meeting of the Punjabi society, which I helped to form. I couldn’t actually speak to anyone in the room and I just felt so lonely even though I was in a room full of others from a similar background. This is when I realised I needed to seek support, and that’s when I started speaking more with my housemates.

 

In our Asian culture, Mental Health is not spoken about. It is more brushed under the carpet and never really addressed. Do you agree?

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I think there are so many reasons why this is the case, but I do feel optimistic about how we are moving forward. In my view, mental health is often not spoken about because there is a disconnect between how these topics are understood, and sometimes it’s easier to brush things away rather than listen. Sometimes the person going through difficulties wants to be listened to, heard, and supported but can be met with negativity from others. These are really unfortunate instances where we see how stigma can prevent others from seeking support for their well-being.

 

What changes do you want to see in our community?

I think Punjabi communities have the potential to do so much amazing work around mental health because we have such a collectivist attitude to life. Of course, this can bring forward negatives but it sets a good platform from which we can start to integrate mental health awareness, education and support. We have unique faith institutions where we can have these conversations and take forward our work.
There are so many who are bringing forward the conversation, the main changes I want to see are the priorities in what our communities invest in. We should be wanting properly funded mental health education and support systems which integrate people across the mental health spectrum, from arts-based practitioners to clinicians. We have so many answers already, it’s just about reconnecting with them!

 

Men are seen to be weak and not a man if they speak about Mental Health, have you ever heard these terms?

I’ve definitely heard the term ‘bandha bann’ in Punjabi and the fact that men should stop ‘being weak’ if they are crying or displaying particular types of emotions. It’s really unfortunate because it perpetuates a system where vulnerability is sought as a weakness when in fact it is an amazing thing that can help us build relationships with others and better understand ourselves in difficult moments.
A lot of men need to question the unwritten rules they use when they interact with other men. We need to think about whether we are making a space where people can speak about difficulties openly and be heard, we need to be open to these types of conversations and we need to ensure that we can support each other more effectively.

 

Have you ever received any negativity whilst talking about these topics?

I am pretty lucky as I’ve never really received much negativity! Once after a talk at a university, someone did make a strange comment about my experiences. But I understand that as coming from a place of confusion where they are bringing their own interpretations. When I am met with such situations I try and approach them empathetically, it is okay to disagree, but I just want to make sure that I am heard and I listen to what the other person is actually saying.

 

You also try and give people a comfortable space so they can reflect on what ways does this help?

In our busy lives, we are often robbed of time to reflect. Being able to reflect is a privilege within our society, being able to take time to stop and think, and properly think, about a situation means that we can afford to do so. Time to reflect and think about how we engage with each other is essential to question the rules of life that we assume to be true. We can’t look to better our behaviours unless we have the time to think and reflect on why those behaviours may be problematic.
Time to reflect and time away from the overwhelming race of life is a huge privilege and we are lucky that we’ve been able to create such spaces in Punjabi communities. The work does not end there, though, and we’re always looking for ways to engage others in genuine, meaningful, and oftentimes fun, ways!

 

How has isolation during Co-Vid 19 impacted your health?

It’s not actually been that bad. When I got back to the UK my dad was ill, he had been ill for around 10 days and was ill for another 5 days upon my return. He was never tested but it’s highly suspected that he had the virus. My Bibi ji, mum, and brother were also ill before him, so I am lucky that I didn’t contract anything too serious!
It’s definitely been difficult at points for my mental health as I’m transitioning back home after so long living on my own, but I am so grateful to my family for creating a space where we can have these conversations honestly. My mum jokingly said that “we are a family built for lockdown” and I am beginning to see the truth in that!

 

What changes have you placed for yourself to combat how you were feeling in your own anxiety?

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I tried to slowly develop more of a routine with a calendar I use to plan my days and weeks. I would say that it’s still difficult at points but it’s more manageable. I also did a lot of reading into things like racism, classism, ableism, feminism, and other topics which helped me to understand my interpretations of the world whilst building my confidence in myself. I am not ‘lesser’, but others may see me as so for particular reasons, which I found important to decode.

 

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

I am not too sure, I tend not to dwell on achievements and I just keep my head down and look forward. I hope that at the end of my life I can look back and think that people across society, especially in most marginalised groups, are able to better support themselves and others in living their life to their fullest.
Whether that’s related to me or Taraki, I don’t really care, but I just want to see people who are able to live life how they want to live it, people who can live without fear, people who can live free of oppression, and people who can flourish on their own terms.

 

What is next for Shuranjeet?

A great question that mum and dad keep asking, too! I am going to finish my masters and then I want to continue moving into the health policy space, whilst continuing to build Taraki which I hope will continue to grow as time goes on. I am eternally grateful, first and foremost, to Maharaj for giving me these opportunities. I just want to ensure that I am able to undertake this work to my best with the voices of those I am working with at the heart! Balancing academia and activism is often tough, but they are two areas that are important in their own ways, but often divided.

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