When Romy Lee reflects on her journey growing up – when she felt confused about her cultural identity, and full of worry and uncertainty about accessing mental health and addictions services – and compares it to her role today helping young people who were once in her shoes, she feels a mix of emotions. She feels proud of how far she’s come, empathy for herself, and a sense of gratitude for where she’s landed today.
“I started accessing mental health and addiction services from around the age of 15 and it was a very confusing experience for me,” Romy says.
“I felt ashamed that I had to go through that and needed help. I felt lost because I didn’t know what help was available. I also felt scared because I didn’t know what that meant for me and the rest of my life.”
Now, Romy knows there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that mental health challenges are nothing to be ashamed of. Her role as a project lead at Whāraurau means she supports young people to find work in the mental health and addictions sector, helping them to understand their job and use their personal mental distress and addictions experiences to support other young people who come through their service.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to do this work because my personal journey was very hard, but it has given me a lot of strength and drive to be able to make things better for others,” she says.
Romy says imposter syndrome hit her hard when she transitioned from being someone accessing a mental health and addictions service to an employee of one of those services.
“People who were once my clinicians and my support team became my colleagues. It was difficult to navigate the feeling that I wasn’t qualified, feeling like I was a broken person and couldn’t compete with them, and that my voice shouldn’t be as important as theirs in the workplace.”
Eventually, Romy’s confidence grew as she realised her lived experience was invaluable to informing the way services were delivered and she could represent others who had been on similar journeys - especially second-generation Asian migrants like herself.
“Often the workforce doesn’t know how to deal with young Asian second-generation migrants and the struggles and the discord and confusion they face, so one of the things I try to do in my role is to bring that representation of Asian people up,” Romy explains.
“As a young person, I always felt a level of shame about my culture. I felt different to my peers. I felt like people didn’t understand what I was going through and why I had such a different life at home. In my recovery journey I was very fortunate to have Māori kuia and kaumātua support me, and learning about te ao Māori and tikanga helped me connect back to my Korean culture.”
Connecting back to her culture and coming to a place of peace with her identity is just one of the ways that Romy has improved her wellbeing. She stresses the importance of connecting with friends and family to get through the ups and downs.
“Going through a journey of mental health and addiction and poor wellbeing can feel very isolating, and it’s very easy to feel like we’re alone. Connecting helps us understand there are other people going through similar things to us, and it also helps us to connect to people who might not relate but who still want to be there for us and support us in the way we want to be supported.
“Connection to my friends is important, and so is connection to my family – and family doesn’t necessarily mean family of origin, it can mean family of choice as well. I’m part of the rainbow community, and I know many of us have found a family there.”
Making time to do the things she enjoys is also one of Romy’s top wellbeing tips.
“I make sure I take time to do the things that lift me up. I love my job and I’m very dedicated to the work I do, so sometimes it’s easy for me to lose sight of things.
“I need to be intentional about taking time out and doing things I enjoy. It means getting out in the sun, it means exercising, taking time to cook a nice meal, staying off screens and the internet, and finding time to be present.”