Jenny Li

Building your own foundation

My experiences with mental health advocacy and support seeking cannot be separated. Whenever I introduce myself, I lead with the statement closest to my heart.

My journey to social activism is convoluted and painful. As a first-generation immigrant and person of colour, I was taunted for my Asian appearance and Chinese accent. As I grew older, both classmates and relatives made hurtful comments about my body, diminishing my sense of control over my body. But what hurt even more was the microscopic analysis of my character and intellect. Growing up, I experienced a challenging home life including physical abuse and academic expectations I felt I couldn’t live up to. I eventually internalized the negativity and dealt with suicidal ideation.

It was at the age of eighteen when I reclaimed some control of my life. I had established my own mental health-based not-for-profit, Free Your Mind Mental Health Society, and it was just getting off the ground. Free Your Mind introduced me to a number of people who respected my various identities and who legitimized my experiences. My birthday coincided with my move to a Nova Scotian university, and my move from a difficult Calgarian home. As soon as I finished moving on campus, I actively sought out mental health initiatives that I could join. I became a member of Jack.org, a national charity focused on youth leadership in mental health. I challenged myself to take leadership roles whenever I could. I promoted a Jack.org event across the university and jumped on weekly calls to Calgary so I could continue to manage Free Your Mind. The people with whom I surrounded myself inspired me. They taught me that I deserved to feel good, and I was made to feel safe in seeking professional mental health support. Shortly after classes started, I walked into a counsellor’s office for the first time.

“My name is Jenny, and I am a lifelong mental health advocate.”

I will be the first to say that my road to recovery is long, and that it’s been far from smooth. While talk therapy helped me to better acknowledge the pain, it was not enough to help me cope with the extreme emotional lows that I had struggled with for years. I felt that I needed more intensive support than I was getting. When I expressed these concerns to my counsellor, I set out on my journey of bouncing between doctors and between provinces.

Three years after starting to access professional mental health services, I have spoken to a counsellor and physician in Nova Scotia, done a mental health screening in Calgary, and switched family doctors at least once. I’ve completed talk therapy and started medication. However, my experience of getting lost in the system is not one I wish for anyone else to have. That’s why I continue to advocate for better youth mental health services in Canada, and how I learned about integrated youth services. I first heard of this term a year ago, when I completed a sociology research paper on the national ACCESS Open Minds project. I immediately fell in love with the accessibility and the practicality of this idea.

Imagine my surprise when, a few months later, one of my connections from Jack.org introduced me to the Alberta Integrated Youth Services Initiative (AB-IYSI). I was thrilled to learn that the resource I’d been missing, and that I was informally campaigning for my peers, was being established in my home province. I was immediately hopeful, and I continue to believe that having a one-stop-shop for mental health resources and personal support will transform lives. To me, AB-IYSI is more than just another project. It is greater than the community building it will inhabit. AB-IYSI is a marker for progress, the symbol of understanding and youth-centeredness that Canada sorely needs.

In the many hours that I spent working on AB-IYSI projects, I expanded the network of folks who genuinely value my experience and actively check in with my well-being. I collaborated with people who not only hear my voice, but who listen to what I’m really saying. I feel proud, because I no longer perceive myself as a problem. I am a trailblazer and a part of the solution.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact emergency services (9-1-1) now.