Sandeep Saib is a lived/living experience (‘expert by experience’) mental health advocate, National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) Lived Experience Influencer, philanthropist and public speaker. She travels far and wide, sharing her story with thousands across the nation with the goal of spreading hope and awareness of mental health and suicidal ideation.

But Sandeep’s path to the success has not always been bright. In fact, there was a time when a future was not in Sandeep’s long-term plans, let alone one that was filled with hope and promise.

Born into a Sikh family and tight-knit community, Sandeep grew up around strong-minded people who had worked hard to get to where they were, following a past of adversity, oppression, trauma and struggle.

“My dad was born in Mombasa in Kenya and then moved to India at the age of seven, before he then resided in the UK in his early teens,” Sandeep shares. “My mum on the other hand, and her family, had a bit more of a challenging time. My mum was born in Kampala in Uganda and at the age of three in the early 70s, my mum was part of the Ugandan Expulsion, where the President of Uganda Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of his country’s Indian minority, giving them a certain number of days to leave the country.

“My mum and her entire family had 90 days to pack up their stuff and leave the country. They didn’t have many belongings or any money and as you can imagine, there was a lot of trauma, PTSD and mental health issues for everyone who experienced that.

“All in all, our Sikh community and Sikh culture has been challenged in history, and that brought about the community to adopt this stiff upper lip to move forward. The community has a lot of strength and grit, and they didn’t let what happened to them waiver them; having that strength within them to move forward and provide for their family meant their mental health was put on the backburner.”

In the Sikh community, mental health is not a topic many talk of. As a community, relationships are strong and supportive however, the subject of mental health remains difficult to approach. Sandeep feels lucky to have a family who have stood by her every step of the way in life.

“Mental health was not discussed at all; it was a sign of weakness and shame; people would look at you differently and with disgrace. It just didn’t get spoken about as you’re seen to be a tainted individual.” Sandeep adds.

In 2012, after moving house for the first time with her family, Sandeep’s mental health began to deteriorate in ways which impacted her self-image, her mood, and her relationships with others. She began fixating on her physical activity, which in time developed to obsessive patterns and behaviours which in time consumed her daily.

Sandeep says, “I kept going even when my trainers worn in and even when I sprained my ankle – I just kept on going. No ifs, no buts. The fear of guilt, outdoing and competing with myself and others kicked in. I was not about to stop.

“I had anger outbursts and I started withdrawing from the world. I stopped wanting to see my family and stopped absolutely everything that I had a passion doing. In my culture, turning up to family events is very important and shows who you are as an individual – but I was losing myself. I felt that I was becoming something that I did not like. I didn’t want to be selfish, but I felt that I was becoming so. And that was my life for two years – until my dad noticed something was wrong.”

Recognising the drastic changes in their daughter, Sandeep’s parents sat her down to express their worry. They gently confronted her and asked the questions she had been avoiding answering for the last two years, “‘How are you? How are you really feeling?’. In this moment, Sandeep says it was like a balloon had popped, and suddenly she was faced with the external impact on her loved ones. None of them had any knowledge about mental health at this point, but shortly after, following a GP appointment organised by her parents, Sandeep was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder – forcing the family to face such issues head on.

In the months following this, Sandeep was offered professional support which included six cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions to help her navigate her thoughts and struggles. While she committed to attending these sessions, she admits this was mostly to keep her family happy.

“Therapy was the most daunting experience.” Sandeep says. “It is a simple concept but back then I did not know where to start. Yes – I feared being judged or saying the wrong thing; but I began to slowly but surely open up.

“Why was I punishing my body? Being so self-critical? Allowing this monster, this bully in my life to take over me and ruin me for the worst? I began to peel these core beliefs back like an onion and came to the general consensus that I felt I wasn’t normal, that I wasn’t right or perfect or beautiful or thin, but it was more than that.

“I also realised that some parts stemmed back to my childhood. I had these problems and thoughts since I was three or four years old, but it had only been exacerbated over the years – during my early teens, through my adult-years and to the present day. I had negative comments and name-calling, which stuck to me like a leech until this day. I will always remember their words. Words hurt.

“Alongside therapy and taking medication, I began to slowly ‘relax’ my mind and body, so when therapy stopped, my weight was beginning to creep up. I began to self-consume in guilt and being a burden to myself and to others.”

Once her sixth therapy session had ended, Sandeep recalls the fear that loomed over her. Unsure how she was to navigate this journey alone, she once again found her mental wellbeing began to deteriorate.

In August 2014, the day before her brother’s birthday, her family had planned to go to the Gurdwara (the place of worship for Sikhs) to prepare for the following day. Waking up with what felt like a “dark cloud” over her, Sandeep felt depressed and alone.

“When I arrived, I looked to the left and right of me and realised everyone here had a purpose and that then led to me think more broadly as to what my purpose is/was. I quickly realised that I needed to remove myself from the situation at hand and the world,” Sandeep explains.

“I had two conflicting voices in my brain: the ‘angel’ and the ‘devil’. The ‘angel’ telling me that I was loved, that my family wanted and needed me; and the ‘devil’ telling me that I had become a burden to them, that I don’t deserve to live or breathe in this world anymore. Tears streaming my face, all I wanted and needed was for the pain to stop, the pain to end – once and for all. In the moment, the feeling felt never-ending.”

That day, Sandeep attempted to take her own life.

With love and support from her family, Sandeep returned to therapy following her suicide attempt, but this time it was less to appease her parents, and more to help herself.

“It was again fearful and challenging to start therapy, but to move forward you have to go backwards. I was adamant in wanting to get better and I started to unpick and explore my thoughts, my behaviours and challenging those negative thoughts and emotions, and trying to turn them into positive thoughts. It was hard – still something I need to remind myself to do and think today In 2014, I finally had the call from NHS Secondary Psychological Care to start 40-sessions of therapy, so I proceeded with it.”

And in 2016, Sandeep marks a turning point in her life.

Recovery was no longer a journey Sandeep committed to so that others would not worry, but rather a journey she was wanting to be on. She began networking with others in the mental health space and using public campaigns to share her story; from former mental health campaign Time to Change, Mind’s Time to Talk campaign, and work with the Sky Sharma Foundation and their ‘Be My Hero’ events – which offered Sandeep her first opportunity to speak openly about with people within her community and other ethnic minorities.

With this, she discovered an empowerment that came with opening up about her experiences, rather than hiding them out of shame and fear of judgement. Above all, she found her purpose.

“I am a firm-believer that everything happens for a reason – that God kept me alive to go on to try and help others and become a missionary. That is exactly what I did.

“As a person of colour and a woman, I am also always directing my mental health advocacy efforts from a multifaceted identity, so talking about inclusivity, equality, equity and diversity in the world of mental health is paramount to me – independently but also collectively with fellow advocates, organisations and charities – to combat stigma and discrimination for the better.

“Mental health advocacy is my way of life, my way of being – now and forever. I will never stop. Mental health charity and advocacy became my form of therapy. Helping others, helps me – as cliché as that sounds. It is a privilege to use my voice and I think the power of storytelling is unbelievable.”

While Sandeep has come a long way since the start of her journey over 10 years ago, she is keen to disclose that it has been no easy feat, and she continues to have her setbacks and bouts of doubt.

“It hasn’t been easy, and even now – I don’t like to use the phrase relapse – but I’ve been experiencing a period of rest, resetting and recharging the battery, but it is truly the combination of advocacy work, my family and my faith which is keeping me grounded, empowered and motivated.

“Also, as a Sikh, I have learnt that we need to aspire to maintain a mental state of eternal resilience, optimism, and joy; an acceptance that life ebbs and flows with hardship and to rise above that adversity – this is truthfully reflective in the world of mental health today and forever.”

It’s important for everyone to remember, relapse is a normal and often an expected part of the recovery journey, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Each setback is an opportunity to learn, grow, and continue moving forward towards a brighter future.

If you wish to follow Sandeep’s work and watch her documentary film, visit here: https://linktr.ee/ssaib.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide and need a safe non-judgmental space to talk. PAPYRUS is here for you. Call HOPELINE247 for free, confidential advice and support on 0800 068 4141, text 88247 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org. We’re here to support you all day, every day, whenever you may need us.
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