The Intersection Between Racism and Mental Health: Ending the Stigma with Joesh Khunkhun

The Intersection Between Racism and Mental Health: Ending the Stigma with Joesh Khunkhun

Stigma-Free Society is committed to eradicating stigma of all kinds, including those related to race and mental health. Cultural diversity is key to fostering an inclusive world where people of all backgrounds are accepted and celebrated. We are excited to share the work that Joesh Khunkhun, a presenter at Stigma-Free Society, is doing to raise awareness about these issues.

In 2017, Joesh gave a presentation at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver, BC called Racism & Youth. In this interview, he talks about the topics he explored in his presentation, from the intersection between racism and mental health to how youth can make a positive difference. Watch the full video here!

At the age of 17, Joesh is a powerful voice for his generation. As a professional public speaker, he has tackled topics such as racism, diversity, technology addiction, community building, neurodiversity and learning differences, and mental health issues such as anxiety and ADHD. His audiences have included small groups, large sold-out auditoriums, and thousands of online viewers. As a TEDx Speaker, Public Health Researcher, and Youth Ambassador for Stigma-Free Society, Joesh is an outspoken advocate for more youth-friendly, connected, healthy, and happy communities.

Joesh has represented organizations such as The David Suzuki Foundation, Science World, The Kelty Mental Health Resource Center, Global Civic Public Salon, The University of British Columbia, and The Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Joesh believes in science and the power of personal story. He has used these in combination to provide his audiences with informative, inspiring, and unforgettable presentations.

1. What are some of the ways that racism can impact mental health?

Racism has been shown to be linked to anxiety and depression. In addition to leading to anger, it can also lead to feelings of low self-worth, self-loathing, and conflict.

2. Have you and/or your family members been affected by racism?

Yes, my grandparents on both sides experienced a lot of racism. My paternal grandfather was a truck driver and was not allowed to cross certain bridges to enter white-only neighbourhoods (i.e. British properties). My maternal grandfather wore a turban and had trouble getting a teaching job until he cut his hair.

For me, it has been more subtle things like the constant mispronunciation of my first and last name, and the lack of effort to learn how to pronounce my name. I am also frequently asked, “Where are you from?” When I say Canada, I am then asked, “Where are you really from?” However, sometimes on the soccer field or basketball court, I will hear overtly racist comments.

3. What can people around your age do to raise awareness about mental health, reduce racism, and create a more stigma-free world? Do you think youth play an important role in this mission?

Have conversations about racism and mental health. Share stories, speak frankly, and try to create safe spaces for discussion. It’s also important for young people to diversify their role models and look up to all types of people from different racial and cultural, neurodiverse, and mental health backgrounds.

4. What can adults learn from youth when it comes to racism and mental health?

In my experience, current adults grew up where there was less discussion and openness concerning these topics. They could be more open to how fast the world is changing and look towards my generation for some more tolerant perspectives.

As I said in my speech, racism is taught to the younger generation, directly or indirectly by society. Adults could take some time to reflect on their racially based perceptions. They could ask themselves: where did these views come from? Did they come from society or are these my own experiences? They can take the time to get to know real people from other races, and they may be surprised that their perceived prejudices are not true. It’s often not their fault, it’s the unconscious bias of the world they grew up in.

5. Is there anyone who you look up to or feel inspired by who is taking action against racism?

Viola Desmond is still an inspiration to me. It is so powerful and cool how she’s the first woman and first person of colour on the Canadian $10 bill. My speech highlighted the story of Viola Desmond.

I am also inspired by the many Indigenous activists, as I feel that is an important issue in Canada right now. Two that I really find inspiring are Autumn Peltier and Richard Wagamese. They both have done exceptional things in their communities and have made the world a better place for all. Additionally, exceptional role models such as Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, are people I look up to.

6. In your opinion, what is the main lesson that we should take away from Viola Desmond?

That it’s very important to stand up for what’s right. Although we have come quite far since the time of Viola Desmond, there is still much work to be done. Her bravery can be an inspiration for all of us.


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