My Journey with Mental Health
Towards the end of last year, I had a relative take his own life.
While mental health has been an important part of my journey ever since my initial encounters with its challenges in high school, this incident gave me a real-life wakeup call to its importance. It also motivated me to want to share more of my story with others in case it might be helpful to anyone else out there.
In short, my journey with mental health has led to some of the most challenging moments of my life, but has also been directly related to some of the most fulfilling ones.
In high school, I experienced my first encounters with depression and the stigma attached to it. While it’s often hard for me to pinpoint an exact cause for my mental health challenges, in general I was attending a high-achieving school with strong academic rigor and competitiveness, so there were definitely stressors that resulted from being in that environment.
I was also a victim of bullying, and wasn’t as mindful and intentional about my social media use as I am now.
In hindsight, while the actual symptoms of depression were challenging to deal with, what was actually perhaps just as challenging was being unfamiliar with these feelings when they first came up, not knowing exactly what to do to address them, and then experiencing the unfortunate stigma attached to mental illness.
Communicating with parents about these topics came with some bumps in the road, especially in the beginning. Both they and I have evolved a lot from when we first learned about mental illness, overcoming obstacles related to cultural and generational differences. This process culminated in my parents stepping up in the biggest ways to help when my relative recently died by suicide.
My journey in navigating mental illness and seeking help led to strong relationships with friends, teachers, and my school social worker. My experiences with the rigor and competitiveness of my high school also led me to co-found a schoolwide peer tutoring program where students tutored each other in an effort to foster a more collaborative learning environment. I was motivated to do this in order to help alleviate the stressors that led to my mental health struggles and the competitive environment that was the root cause of how I got bullied.
The summer after high school and before Duke, I had time to decompress for the first time in a while. I also used some of that time to open up on my mental health challenges publicly through social media. That said, I did encounter a pretty major depressive episode due to feeling post-grad existential thoughts, maybe due to the upcoming changes of knowing I’d be leaving home for college.
Entering Duke, I was excited for a new chapter of my life, but I was admittedly a bit afraid on the mental health front. I was afraid when my RA talked about how he was a mandatory reporter around mental illness on the first day, and I was afraid I wouldn’t find a new support system. In reality, I ended up finding even more support than I did in high school, more than I could have ever imagined actually. This came in the form of friends and faculty members, as well as mentors and principals from high schools across the nation through an avenue I could not have quite predicted beforehand (more on that below).
In my first year at Duke, I had gotten into an entrepreneurship program called Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs to found my startup PeerKonnect, which helped high schools more easily build sustainable peer tutoring programs with software. This was inspired by my work to start my high school’s peer tutoring program.
A lot of my work in the early stages involved having conversations with principals from high schools across the nation about their challenges around managing competitive academic environments and pain points behind providing students with the necessary academic support programs. I had many meaningful and authentic conversations in which I got to be vulnerable and share my challenges with mental health. I also got the help and support from many mentors who helped me along my entrepreneurial journey.
What made all of this work so meaningful is that I was building something authentic to my own journey. I felt like I didn’t go through my mental health challenges for nothing if I was going to be able to apply the lessons I learned to create something to help others. Even if my work only decreased the chance that other high school students went through the experience I went through with competitiveness by a small amount, it would all feel worthwhile. This work felt like some of the most meaningful I had ever done in my life, and I have no doubt it had a positive impact on my mental health too given the tremendous sense of purpose it gave me.
What’s interesting about this backstory behind how my high school experiences and mental health challenges fueled my passion to work on PeerKonnect is that I didn’t share any of it when I applied for the Melissa & Doug Program. I was afraid that the stigma around mental illness would make the program mentors think less of me and not want to accept me. It was only when I hit a low point and was running into some challenges a couple of months into working on the startup that I ended up getting vulnerable and sharing with a mentor. That mentor showed a great level of support and understanding, helped me realize how it was all very related to my motivation to start PeerKonnect in the first place, and became the most important person to me during my time at Duke.
About a year into founding the startup too, I watched a documentary called Looking for Luke, a story of a former high school valedictorian and Harvard sophomore named Luke Tang died by suicide. The story particularly resonated with me, especially since it involved aspects of a rigorous high school environment and Asian cultural challenges with mental illness. Later that spring, I was able to have a conversation with Luke’s high school principal, who resonated with my story and the importance of alleviating competition and prioritizing mental health.
I still remember how fulfilling it felt to hear of the news that they wanted to work with us. It was a moment that in an instant made all of the challenges of founding a company and insecurities of taking a different path seem irrelevant. I recently was emailing with that same school recently about setting up for what will be our 4th year working with them next year!
Nevertheless, my passion for PeerKonnect also led to some challenges that I didn’t initially anticipate. Specifically, I started to attach my self-worth to my work, and ended up overworking myself and burning out. In my last semester at Duke, I was taking six classes (compared to the usual four) in order to graduate in three years, all while trying to hit an aggressive goal I set for PeerKonnect. I had accomplished a lot during my time at Duke, but felt that I was craving the feeling of crushing it all the time without acknowledging and appreciating the things I had been able to accomplish. My depression resurfaced during this period, and ultimately, I learned some critical lessons on the importance of balance and taking care of the other aspects of my life outside of career such as mental health.
A beautiful thing that did come out of these challenges was the support I got from friends and mentors from the Melissa & Doug Program. My mentors shared their own experiences with mental health challenges, and supported me fully when they were in no way obligated to. I still remember during my toughest stretches, simply showing up to my classes was an accomplishment, and I would text some of those mentors every day giving them updates on how each day went, taking it one day at a time.
Last year, my story with the Melissa & Doug Program that started with being afraid to talk about mental health in the initial interview process came full circle when Melissa (cofounder of the program itself) came out with her story about her struggle with existential depression. This was the ultimate validation to me that I’m not alone, and that it’s important to accept all parts of myself.
After graduating Duke, mental health continued to be an important part of my journey. For example, despite my best efforts to put into practice the lessons I learned on the importance of mental health and balance, I encountered another bout of post-grad existential depression that partly led me to become interested in trying out a 10-day silent meditation retreat (more here).
With the onset of COVID and subsequent uncertainty in life shortly after, I also started to feel physical symptoms of anxiety and my first encounters with panic attacks. These experiences actually motivated me to pursue a more flexible freelance path in 2021 (more here) so that I could have more bandwidth to prioritize my mental health.
If there’s one thing I learned from my journey, it’s that if I don’t have my mental health, I don’t have anything. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do to work on mental health up to this point, and strive to continue to find more ways to improve because of how important I’ve realized it is. Some of the more practical things that have helped me a lot include meditation, journaling, talking to a therapist and life coach regularly, calling friends, self-affirmation cards, gratitude, and group therapy options like Coa. Additional things I’m working on include cultivating more internal self-kindness, exercising more, leaning more into fun and childlike play, and learning more about psychedelics.
Overall too, I hope this piece can further help alleviate the stigma around mental illness, and be a real-world example that you are not alone if you have had challenges with mental health. For me, my journey with mental health has involved some of my hardest moments, but also some of the most human and meaningful. It’s easy to get caught up these days in thinking that everyone else has it figured out and is doing well, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to figure it out, and we’re all human beings that want to be loved and accepted.