Jessie initiated The Mental Health Spotlight (MHS), a project which shares stories about mental health, mental illness, and self-care from and for the South Asian community, in the hopes of erasing the stigma surrounding the subject.
A chocolate lover, Bollywood dancer, Bhangra enthusiast and a mental health advocate, Jessie Brar is a lot more than just your regular gal!
Her journey has not been easy, “After struggling with my own mental illnesses and seeing the effects of the stigma around mental health first hand, I realized that there was a lot of work that needed to be done in this field. I started volunteering with different organizations that were geared towards mental health advocacy. The one that really stands out is Jack.org. It’s a national Canadian youth-oriented charity that aims to help educate youth on mental health and promote youth leadership. Working with them was amazing, but I realized that there was a big gap in the South Asian community. We were still struggling with even speaking the words mental illness.
“My father was an alcoholic and his parents were verbally, emotionally and sometimes even physically abusive towards my mother, my siblings and myself. We suffered there for a very long time until my mother found the courage to take us out of the situation. It was something very hard to do for a single, Punjabi mother of 3. Even after we left, a lot of the feelings of being scared, anxious and nervous stuck. For me, this translated into bouts of depression and anxiety. It was undiagnosed at the time, but I always knew it was there. When I moved away from home to go to Queen’s University, which was 3 hours away, things got worse. I no longer had the support system of my mom, Nana (maternal grandfather), Nani (maternal grandmother) and siblings with me at all times. My depression and anxiety got much worse to the point where it was affecting every single aspect of my life.”
“I was too scared to reach out for help. I had the classic log kya kahenge ingrained into my brain. I feared that diagnosing these illnesses would somehow make me less than and that others would view me as weak. I suffered in silence for a very long time. Then one day, I attended a presentation where a South Asian male spoke openly about his mental health and healing process. He inspired me. I thought, if he can go through all that and still be standing here today, I can get better too! The next day I made an appointment to see a therapist.”
“It wasn’t all easy from there either. I would see the therapist for a while and it wasn’t really working so I gave up. Then my mental health would get worse and I would go back. It was a struggle. Then I saw a doctor and over the course of a few months, we tried several medications until we found one that worked. It took a long time to figure out what sort of combination of therapy, support, and medication worked for me, but once I found it, life slowly, but surely started to get better.”
“I realized that talking openly about mental health was the best way to erase the stigma around the subject. If we talk about mental health and mental illness openly and stop treating it as some sort of dirty secret, we will all feel more comfortable reaching out for the help we may need. Also, there is such a lack of education about the subject. We need to talk about it and tell each other what resources are available to us so that if a time does come where we require some outside assistance, we will know who to reach out to.”
“I started sharing my own story through different magazines, mental health projects and articles. Soon it evolved to be this amazing project called The Mental Health Spotlight which I now run. I wanted a place where all South Asians could feel comfortable talking about their mental health.”
Her family has been very supportive. She says, “My mother and my Nani are probably the two people I am closest to. They are always there for me and support me in whatever I do. Also, my boyfriend! I can’t thank him enough for all that he does and a number of times he lets me cry on his shoulder. And of course, my best friends. I’ve been friends with these girls for nearly 10 years. They’re basically family now. I could never have done what I am doing now without them.”
Jessie feels that the opinion of South Asians on mental health is improving,“I think this generation, in general, is tackling issues head on and is throwing log kya kahenge to the wind. We want to live our lives unapologetically, and that means being open about who we are. However, there is still a lot of stigma around the subject of mental health, specifically. We are still told constantly that mental illness is something to be ashamed of.”
“The media portrays people with mental illness as being weak, dangerous or not ‘normal’. They are called names like ‘crazy’ or ‘psycho’. We see people make light of situations by using mental illnesses as adjectives, for example, saying ‘the weather is so bipolar’.”
“In addition, we have people who see mental health struggles as something that is not serious. I have people tell me that my depression is a phase or that I am doing this to myself. They tell me that if I just tried to be happy the depression would go away. They tell me a therapist is a waste of time. If someone has diabetes and they go to the doctor, they have no problem telling others where they were. However, if someone had to go see a therapist for depression, we often times will make up lies and pretend because we don’t want anyone to know. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people will struggle with a mental illness in their lifetime.
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide with over 300 million people in the world who live with depression. The thing about mental illness is that it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter your gender, age or religion, anyone can have a mental illness.”
“Mental illnesses come from a mix of biological, social and environmental factors. We can’t make a generalization about an entire population. However, many people with mental illnesses go undiagnosed or without the proper care because of the stigma associated with mental illness.”
Her journey with MHS is another incredible story, “We started in March 2017 and have been slowly growing ever since. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing people around the world. We’ve had people from Canada, United States, Australia, UK etc. It’s amazing to see how many people are passionate about the subject and want to be a part of the solution.”
“I’ve worked with doctors, artists, filmmakers, models and regular everyday people. Each story brings so much to the table and the response has been overwhelming. Followers of The Mental Health Spotlight are loyal and always want to learn more. I have people constantly reaching out to me asking what they can do to help.”
“I’ve had people reach out to me and tell me that the stories we share have given them the push they needed to reach out for help or has taught them about the resources they can use. Even if we reach one person, that’s a difference made.”
Jessie hopes to create a world without stigma. “It’s an ambitious goal, I know, but that is what I want. I want mental health to be something that South Asian’s feel comfortable talking openly about. My goal is to help educate South Asian’s on the various resources that are around them as well as make them understand that it is okay to not be completely okay all the time. Our mental health can sometimes be good and bad, just like our physical health. If we take care of ourselves properly and seek out support, we can make it through.”
She believes that someday South Asian families will completely understand mental health issues. “If we keep this idea in our mind that our parents or other South Asians will never understand, we are only furthering the stigma. We have to be open and honest with what we are going through and have the patience to explain it to other people who may not have had the same upbringing as us.”
“It won’t happen overnight, but if work together and have these conversations that may be difficult or uncomfortable at first, we can definitely create an environment where we can be open and accepting of our own mental health problems and those of others.”
“For example, my mother and I never used to talk about mental health. When I became more vocal and let her in on the conversation, she was all ears. We are now able to openly talk about my depression, her struggle with anxiety and reflect back on how our past influenced us. This has been incredible for our family. We’ve become closer and now my siblings, who are both younger than me, are comfortable talking about their problems and reaching out for help when they need it.”
“Yes, without a doubt! When you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t feel like work. When I’m volunteering and talking to people about mental health, I am enjoying every minute of it. It’s fulfilling to me. This has always been what I wanted to do. I used to work a desk job that paid the bills, but I was miserable all the time. I decided to take a risk and quit that job to work on mental health projects full time. It’s scary, but this is what I love and I believe that I will find my place.”
She has a simple yet effective message for everyone, “My favorite quote is by Dr. Seuss. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind!”
“Be you. Unapologetically.”
“If you want something, if you have an idea, if you want to make a change, just go out and do it. You don’t need permission and you don’t need to worry about those around you. Those who love you will be there for you.”
Be sure to check out The Mental Health Spotlight on: https://jessiebrar94.wixsite.com/mhspotlight
Not competent enough to sit idle and stare as the world goes by, Pallavi is optimistic to a fault and believes in building her world on her own rather than depending on others to make things right.