"It took a little bit of tough love and recognizing no one's going to heal for you, there's nothing anyone can say or do that will fix you unless you want to make that change."
Jessie Brar is a public speaker, writer, and mental health advocate from Toronto. Growing up, she struggled a lot with her own mental health and in an attempt to understand herself more, she went on to study Psychology at Queen's University. After graduation, Jessie found there was no space for South Asians to have safe mental health conversations and started to share her story and cultivate that space. She has shared her story with thousands of people across the world, most notably with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when she co-hosted the Child and Young People stream of the Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in 2018. Jessie continues to create change in the mental health stage in both her personal and professional life, with a focus on BIPOC youth mental health.
Watch our full interview with Jessie below:
SWY: Do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself? Like some things you've done and your background?
JB: I grew up kind of experiencing a lot of those things that you talked about. So I experienced a lot of early childhood trauma, I was a witness to a lot of domestic violence. And it took a really large psychological effect. I was officially diagnosed with C-PTSD, which is complex post traumatic stress disorder, which is related to trauma. So before I got to that diagnosis, I had to go through a very big journey of my own just to figure out that 1. I needed help, 2. what that help looked like and 3. actually executing and doing the things I needed to do in order to work on myself. So throughout that process, I had a lot of ups and downs. And I think that's kind of what's brought me here today and I think it was a selfish pursuit to understand myself better. Thankfully, I had a great byproduct of being able to have conversations with other people as well. So I've been super thankful to have shared my story in many different spaces across the world, lots of presentations, lots of talking to people about who I am, how I seem to understand myself, and the importance that culture has had being a minority. And then as well, I guess some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day is I work with Kids Help Phone, which is a national mental health charity in Canada. So my full-time and part-time life are all mental health-related. And I do very different things in that space. Sometimes it's creative, sometimes it's working on videos, or creating art or photos, or writing about mental health. And then sometimes it's my day-to-day of helping people find the resources they need and helping them make sure that they know when they're available and how they can reach out to them.
SWY: Do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and your story with childhood trauma and abuse?
JB: One of the things I've come to realize is that a lot of my life I felt really alone and I felt like the experiences I was having were just happening to me, that no one else had gone through it and so I felt so lonely. And I felt so helpless because I was like no one else is going to understand. And so talking about things, I realized that not only does it open up a sort of catharsis for me, but also opens up that conversation for other people to realize that if they've experienced something similar, that it's not normal, it's nothing that you've done wrong. It's something that you've been through and that you can grow through and you can continue on that journey. So I think that was also something that was very important. My father is an alcoholic and that came with a lot of issues. At that time alcoholism wasn't understood to be a mental health issue, it was just more of a control issue like substance abuse and especially my culture. I'm Punjabi Canadian and so I was born and raised here. My father was raised here, but his parents, my mom, and all of the other people in his life have all come from places like India or Pakistan, or other countries in South Asia where they don't have these conversations. They still aren't having these conversations and it's only starting to become something that they talk about. But through his behavior and his struggle, we got me and my siblings, we got a lot of the kind of fallout that happens when you live with someone who is struggling.
I was super thankful that my mom is a very strong individual, and she was able to remove us from that situation. I'm the oldest of three and by the time we got out, I was already 11. So I had witnessed for 11 years, the struggles that my father had faced with substance use, I had witnessed a lot of domestic violence that he was putting onto my mother, I had witnessed a lot of abuse and trauma from his parents. My grandparents, were physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive towards me and my mom. And so after witnessing all of this stuff, even once I was removed from the situation, it had a really big toll on my mind but I never really realized that toll until much later in life.
I remember the first time I really realized it, I was in high school and it was my first psychology class. I feel like throughout my life, I always had a feeling that I was a little different than everyone else and that I reacted to things in a different way. For example, fireworks are supposed to be this fun, exciting thing for kids but when I would hear fireworks, I would be so so scared that I would run I would be like crying in a corner because I couldn't take the loud noises because it reminded me so much of the horrific situations I'd seen before. In psych class, we would learn about symptoms of depression, anxiety and I’m like ‘these are symptoms?’ And I remember I went home and I told my mom “mom, I think I'm depressed”. And she was like, “you've got good grades, you've got great friends, you're in a really nice home and you're safe. Why would you be depressed?” and it wasn't her accusing me or her saying that my feelings weren’t real - it was a genuine curiosity because everything seemed to be going well in my life. I didn’t have a reason to feel that way and so I pushed it to the side, at this point I was living at home and 16.
With my support systems such as family and friends, I was able to get through my day to day pretty easily but once I went to university it was my first time living on my own. I didn't have my family with me all the time anymore, my friends lived a little bit further away than I did as well. And I started drinking for the first time when I was 18. In first year, there's a lot of parties, you're being introduced to substances, it's a new environment, you're making new friends, and the stress of a new place starts to pile up.
Then I really just started to shut down and I had no idea how to deal with anything. I realized that a lot of the behavior I was engaging in was really risky and was starting to scare me. It took for me to see someone else get out of their situation. I went to a presentation one day and these two guys (also South Asian) talked about how they had struggled in first year, how their grades have dropped, how they nearly flunked out and I was like “oh that sounds like me”. Then they talked about how they got better, how they were able to find help and talk to someone. I remember sitting there thinking if they can do it, maybe I can too. I think that's where I really started my journey of healing and recognizing that although I had gone through a lot, I can’t go back and change my past but I do have control over my present and how I want my future to be. So I started learning more about the space and trying to unlearn some of the toxic things that I had internalized for so long.
SWY: You're the creator of the podcast, ‘Presents of Mind’, what inspired you to begin this podcast?
JB: I feel like I've always been a storyteller at heart. I love to dance - I went to a specialized art High School for drama and was doing theater every single day, I was always telling a story in one way or another. I’m also a very chatty human - I love talking and I love hearing people’s stories. My biggest change came when I heard someone else’s story and that resonated with me. The power of hearing yourself and seeing yourself be reflected in someone else’s story always stuck with me. From there, I started to get help and I started to work on my journey of healing. Part of that journey was that I wanted to give back so I started volunteering with an amazing youth mental health organization called jack.org. I started doing presentations with them and I would go to different schools. I would talk about my story and the basics of mental health.
At one of their conferences, they really drove home this idea of making a difference in your community. I spent the whole three days of the conference thinking “what is my community?” and I realized my community was this little niche of South Asian children of immigrants. From there, I started something called the mental health spotlight. That was an Instagram project where I shared my story first and then I invited others around the world to share their story. Over three years, we shared about 200 stories from clinicians, from people with lived experience, from people who are just supporters, and people who just care about mental health. I shut down the project in March 2020 because I felt like it had sort of served its purpose, we had gotten a lot of stories out there and people were starting to care about mental health.
Presents of Mind came from having some spare time during COVID and just having a lot of information that I wanted to share. I wanted to make the information accessible to people, especially when you’re struggling, you don’t have the time or the energy to allocate to finding all of that information. It's a mix of clinical information that I found, plus stories for my own life.
SWY: You’ve also talked about the strange middle ground that second generation immigrants face, do you have any suggestions on what individuals who also feel like this could do to feel a sense of belonging?
JB: I think for a lot of people who grew up as second-generation immigrants, it's really hard to find that sense of belonging. You feel like at home, you can't fully be yourself because your parents don't understand a certain side of you. At school or at work or wherever it may be, you feel like you can't fully be yourself because those people might not fully understand you either. One way is that there are people out there who have been through similar experiences and who do understand you so look for those people. I think right now, there's a great movement going on that the stories that are being put forward are more nuanced, they are coming from places of experience with different intersectionalities. And there's been a real big movement of having more people of color in the mental health space, who can help put forward these stories. As much as social media has its ups and downs, I think it's a wonderful place to find your community because you could have someone who's halfway across the world and you can talk to them about the stuff that's going on, you can follow their journey, you can see yourself reflected in their stories, literally from the palm of your hand.
There are therapists and clinicians who are specific to that type of community and I think the hardest part about mental health has always been that there is no one size fits all solution. For example, if you're diabetic you take insulin but if you have a mental health struggle you have to do the work, you have to work on yourself, you have to do the research and because every single mind is so unique, what works for you is going to be completely different than what works for someone else. That's kind of the hard part of finding a sense of belonging, it does take a little bit of time but it's recognizing and not giving up that hope because it's out there.
Also, don't be afraid to ask, a lot of the time I would hesitate because I didn't want to bother anyone or I felt like I was being a burden or my issues weren't important enough. I've come to realize that if it's weighing on your mind if you're thinking about it and if it's taking up space in your head it is important. There's always someone out there who's willing to listen. And at the end of the day, there's literally a group of people who are paid to listen; that is literally their job.
SWY: In your podcast, you talk about not being the victim, taking things into control, and how this was the start of your healing. Why was this first big step so important in starting your healing journey?
JB: I was super young when the things that caused a lot of my mental health struggles happened and so I always felt like I had zero control. This idea of not having control over my life only caused me more anxiety and being so anxious would send me into a depressive spiral. It took a little bit of tough love and recognizing no one's going to heal for you, there's nothing anyone can say or do that will fix you unless you want to make that change. I really had to step out of my comfort zone and realize I didn't want to live like that anymore. The change from having this mindset where everything was happening to me and was out of my control to something like ‘okay, this is happening and how do I want to react to it’ was the change I had to make in order to start my healing journey. I started taking those steps and I’m not going to say it was easy, I still have my days. I think the thing we have to realize is that we will always have ups and downs, even people without mental health struggles have ups and downs, too. Having a great support system around me has helped me and built my confidence up enough that I can shift my mindset from ‘I'm a victim’ to ‘I’m a survivor.
SWY: What advice do you have for individuals who want to get better but aren't finding solutions through therapy or medications?
JB: It's okay if your path of healing is very untraditional. I found for myself, therapy didn't work for me because I was living in Kingston at the time and there weren't a lot of therapists of color there. The people I was talking to just didn't understand the nuances of my story, didn't understand the culture behind it and so the solutions they were providing me weren't actually helpful and it actually made me feel worse. Therapy is like buying a new dress, you have to find the right one that fits and it took me a very long time to find someone like that and the same with medication. No one tells you that medication is different and that there are so many different types of medication and so the first one you try may not be the one for you. With anything in the mental health space it's always trial and error because we are so different. If traditional therapy and medication aren't working for you, I would look into other creative ways to find healing. A lot of that comes from research and self-reflection as well. For example, I have always been really drawn to the arts and dance so I found that sometimes when I’m feeling low I really just need to lock myself in a room, put on really loud music, and just dance for hours just to be with myself in the music. It's therapeutic for me, it lifts all of these negative feelings that I'm having.
There are also so many different examples in the mental health space - you could do group therapy, hearing other people's stories, you could watch a movie that educates you, you could do your own research, and you can figure things out and go from there. Sometimes when you really don't know where to start, the best thing to do is go to your family doctor and they can help give you solutions as well. Talking to people definitely helps with seeing what ideas they have and what other people have done that might be helpful for you. I like to call it my mental health toolkit and the other thing is it changes - what used to help when I was 20 doesn't work for me anymore, necessarily. There are some things that I've kept, there are some things that I've let go, there are some things that I've had to add on so I think it's also recognizing when situations no longer serve you. Whether that be having a toxic friend/family member in your life or a therapist you no longer connect with it's okay to say this doesn't work for me anymore and to try something new. You just have to find out what works for you and that takes some trial and error.
Also being patient and gentle with yourself - if you are a person who is struggling and you have the energy/effort to try and make yourself feel better that is a huge accomplishment. Storytelling is everything to me because that's how we get information around. It's one of the most primitive forms of communication we have, that's what connects us as humans and when you start to realize that you're not as alone as you think, it definitely makes it a lot easier.
SWY: Do you have any advice for individuals who want to heal but don't know how to start?
JB: I would say take it at your own pace. I think we have a tendency to put timelines on things out of arbitrary nuances that society has created. No one is telling you, you have to do this in a day and you can't do it in a day, it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of unpacking and as I said, it's a journey. Who you are today is not who you're going to be tomorrow; you're going to need different things and be patient and gentle with yourself. I think the biggest word of advice I can give is to let people in and when people do come and genuinely want to support you let those people help you out because it will make a world of a difference. I know for myself, my friends and my family have been the biggest supporters and we've come such a long way. I’ve known my friends for 12 years and I remember when I used to push them away. Now if something is wrong, they don't even have to ask me half the time. They're so supportive, they’ve listened to me, given me feedback, and remind me of how resilient I am. All of that stuff helps me build my confidence and in those moments where I feel like I can't do it anymore, they remind me that I've already been through so much and that every single thing I thought I couldn't get through I did.