In-depth Q&A with Zoey Ka, multicultural mental health advocate (Part 1)
Discussions of mental illness, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.
In this comprehensive interview, Zoey Ka and Monique Moate discuss a wide range of mental health–related topics. They cover, for example, mental health advocacy, lived experience, intersectional identity, the challenges of people of colour, cultural influences, stigma, how to be a great ally and support person, workplace improvements, and hopes for systemic and societal advancements.
First published by The United Project.
Q: First, could you share with us a bit about yourself, your story, and your lived experience with mental health conditions?
Zoey: Myself, I probably say I’m a highly sensitive person, an empath, an introvert, an Asian Australian, specifically, Chinese Australian. And I was born in Australia but raised in Hong Kong until I was seven. I came back and have spent my entire teenage years jumping from place to place.
So, obviously, that has really impacted on my mental health, especially with childhood emotional neglect. I have never been formally diagnosed for many of my [conditions]. However, my formal diagnoses are depression and anxiety.
Q: How did you start out in mental health advocacy, and what advice would you give to those interested in doing so?
Zoey: I’d probably say “mental health advocacy” is such a loaded term. When you first hear it, you think it’s, you know, you have to be advocating on a national level with the commissioner, or talking about policies. That is definitely a part of it.
But I think mental health advocacy is as simple as talking to your partner or talking to your friend or your peer about mental wellbeing. I think that’s really the beginnings of it.
And if anyone wants to consider mental health advocacy, I’d probably say, look into yourself and ask what does advocacy actually mean to you? Because advocating on a professional level means you’re in an advocacy role; at the same time, you can be in formal roles. Or you can be doing that as a citizen of your country, and just talking to people about mental health awareness. That is a form of advocacy too.
Monique: That’s interesting to think about.
Zoey: Probably lots of people won’t agree with what I say. But that’s how I see it, to be honest.
Monique: I think I see it the same way. ‘Cause it is a loaded term, and we do think about it more in a professional context. But there are lots of ways to be an advocate, even if you’re just an advocate for yourself.
Zoey: You’re right.
Q: Could you tell us more about your current work with MIFA and Finding North?
Zoey: Absolutely. So, the organisation that I work for is the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia. It is an advocacy and policy organisation, with a focus on severe and complex mental health.
Now, we know that during COVID, the government has provided a lot of funding because mental health and mental health conditions have really, really, come out of hiding when many people have been impacted by it.
However, a lot of the major funding has been put into, I guess, the lower end of the spectrum. Hate using that term, but you know, anxiety/depression is on the lower end. Whereas there’s still not a lot of funding for those who are severely impacted by mental health, such as psychosis, schizophrenia. They’re still quite stigmatised.
Even though we say that mental illness is a lot more out in the open now, there are still things that people are not talking about. And we really need to talk about it.
Essentially, I work on the Finding North team. So, Finding North was actually developed by a co-design team when we went through a branding process, to develop a website and also an exclusive network for lived experience. When we went through that branding process, our co-design team really, really wanted something that would be hopeful. Something that transcends through culture and time.
In the end, we landed on Finding North. Because wherever we are, whatever journey we are on, there is a north. And your north and my north may look different. And my north may look different at different times.
I always like to use this example of my personal experience. My north, probably, 10, 15 years ago, was to get up and get out of bed. That was a success. And another north of mine, many years ago, was to wake up and not wanting — please use a trigger warning in this — not having any suicidal ideation. Or any self-harm, for example. Or drinking. Or any sort of drug use, for example.
But now, my north right now is to really use my personal experience and to advocate. Also, share with others, and hopefully support others in their journey in various ways.
And also make sure that the lived experience sector, which is a growing sector now to be heard—. The lived experience workforce is growing; however, what I’ve found is the lack of diversity, especially in terms of people of colour. And that’s kind of where my north is right now. To first, work on and see why is it that there is a lack of people of colour in that particular sector. I have a lot of thoughts about that. But I guess that’s where it is.
Q: What have been some of the highlights of your advocacy work so far ?
Zoey: I think the acceptance of me as an individual. And also, the comradery of people within this sector. Everyone goes on their own journey of advocacy — what they feel strongly about, what resonates with them, what doesn’t. A simple one is the term “recovery.” You know, Chinese Australian, I’ve been quite indoctrinated into the system.
Also, the power thing, where I listened to what the doctor said. The doctor says I’ve got this and I’ve got this; the doctor tells me to take medicine. Like, I’ve never had the opportunity or even the awareness to question these things.
Whereas, when I first came into this role, and I posted something about recovery, I had a very, very nice peer who shared with me. They said that they don’t align with the term recovery. There was no judgement there, the fact that I used that terminology. Because some people definitely like that term. There are some who don’t.
But it was the fact that someone wrote that comment that had given me an awareness that, oh, I didn’t know that I could like a word or align with a word. Or not align with a word. So, I think that my biggest highlight of advocacy is the ability to have a choice and awareness on what I feel comfortable with, or not comfortable with. What I should be involved in.
Monique: That’s really interesting. ‘Cause words have a lot of power and connotations surrounding them. I mean, I have thought about that myself. When will I ever kind of “recover?” Will I ever recover? Or is it just gonna be something that’s kind of always there, waiting to be triggered, you know?
Zoey: Mmhmm. And that’s why some people are like, “I don’t think I’ll ever—. I don’t align with the word ‘recovery.’ Because I’ll never recover.” Recovery has this connotation that you were “a full piece,” at one time, and now you’re broken. And in the future, you’re able to piece all those pieces back together.
But really, when your life changes so drastically because of mental ill health — whatever terminology. That’s another term: “mental illness,” “mental health conditions,” “psychosocial disability.” So, we’ve got to speak different languages to different people. Some people don’t think they’ll ever recover. And some people think they will, and they accept that, and they prefer that. And that’s okay.
But knowing that there’s the option, and choosing what word resonates with you, that’s the power I was never given. The only reason I used the word “recovery,” in that particular sense, was when I first started this journey, that was the only word I knew. There were no other words that my support network, my clinicians, have used.
Monique: What word would you prefer to use instead?
Zoey: Oh, god, I haven’t really thought of that. But I probably say just—.
Monique: Remission? Or?
Zoey: Probably just my journey. I know that J-word is so used. But I think I’ll always be on a lifelong journey. And I don’t think I’ll ever “recover,” because I don’t necessarily think I was in a good place before. At any time, if that makes sense. I’ve never been fully well. [laughs] Or what people might think is fully well.
But when I look back, I was never in a very good place. So, if I have to talk about recovery, I don’t think—. I think I’ve healed. That’s probably a better word of my journey; healing from a lot of the trauma. But I don’t think it’s recovery.
Zoey: Very complicated!
Monique: Yeah, it is. Especially if you have childhood trauma. Were you ever really safe? And how it affects your personality development and attachments with other people. It’s interesting to think about. A lot of these terms, they mean a lot of different things to different people.
Monique: You have to unpack them for your own self.
Zoey: Who has the time to do that, though? Unless you’re forced to. [laughs]
Monique: Language is like—. It’s so easy to be misinterpreted by people. Another word that’s used a lot lately: intersectionality.
Q: How does intersectional approach inform your work?
Zoey: Looking back, I wouldn’t have said that I have a particular approach. But I did a lot of things intuitively. And I’d probably say that I’d always look at it from a racial point of view. You know, as a woman of colour, in particular, what are the points that actually really restrain me from doing the things that I want. What are the typical assumptions people make for a Chinese woman, for example.
And that really helps me inform the work that I do by making sure that, okay—. I think the biggest thing for us is that we’re in a Eurocentric world. And so, I can’t say that I understand other cultures aside from my own as a Chinese Australian.
But I think that sensitivity, in terms of the discrimination and racism and sexism that I’ve experienced, and many of my peers have experienced, that it’s always in the back of my mind to be sensitive, to be aware, and to be respectful as much as possible.
Monique: Me too, actually. It’s one thing if you’re white, and you’re not really aware of—. You don’t have that lived experience, and you don’t know how much it hurts. But it’s completely different if—. And for people to start talking about racism, it means they’ve experienced a lot of it, you know. Not just one or two incidences.
Zoey: I think what hurts are not the people that have experienced racism, or even the allies not being able to fully understand. I think what hurts are the people of colour who have never experienced racism — or at least, in their own perspective — and say that out loud, and being quite disrespectful. I get that it is their truth.
But at the same time when they make these assumptions, oh, you know, this area, I’ve never once experienced it. It does harm other people. So, I think that the way that we talk about these things really have to be appropriate. And many of us are not equipped with the language to do it. And sometimes it does more harm than good.
Monique: Mmm. I guess this kind of leads into the next question.
Click here for Part 2 of Zoey’s interview with Monique.
Looking for more information or support?
- Shapes and Sounds – A social enterprise that destigmatises mental health for Asian communities.
- Embrace Multicultural Mental Health – A national platform for Australian mental health services and multicultural communities to access resources, services and information in a culturally accessible format.
- Multicultural Minds – Dedicated to raising awareness of multicultural mental health.