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Nina Huynh, lifestyle influencer, on breaking the cultural stigma around mental health

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With over 250K followers across Instagram and YouTube, influencer and entrepreneur Nina Huynh inspires her followers to dress boldly, love deeply, and live freely. 

Nina has also faced mental health struggles. She joined First Session on Instagram Live for #MentalHealthWeek, to share her journey as a young Asian woman, new mother, and public figure.

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Could you talk a bit about where your mental health journey began?

I remember when I was really going through it, and it was really, really hard. I told my parents that I wanted to talk to somebody, and I figured that because I was struggling so much that they would give it to me. But there is just so much of a stigma within our culture, and I think in a lot of cultures. They couldn't admit that something was wrong. And so they were like, “Just talk to us. It's fine. We understand.”  

And I'm like, “No, you're the problem.” 

I talked to my high school counsellor, and that was kind of helpful. But, over the years, I’ve learned that you're going to have to find the right fit for you. People say that finding a therapist is more like shopping around for a therapist. And I think that's very much true.

You mentioned your specific diagnoses. What effect did receiving a diagnosis have?

I remember when I was really going through it, and it was really, really hard. I told my parents that I wanted to talk to somebody, and I figured that because I was struggling so much that they would give it to me. But there is just so much of a stigma within our culture, and I think in a lot of cultures. They couldn't admit that something was wrong. And so they were like, “Just talk to us. It's fine. We understand.”  

And I'm like, “No, you're the problem.” 

I talked to my high school counsellor, and that was kind of helpful. But, over the years, I’ve learned that you're going to have to find the right fit for you. People say that finding a therapist is more like shopping around for a therapist. And I think that's very much true.

What was the journey like from the beginning to where you are now?

I'm the kind of person where, as things get better, I'm like, “This is fine now. You don't need to keep working on yourself.” And then I'll slide back into my old habits. 

It’s important to fully understand that mental health is something that you constantly need to be working on and that it has to be a priority. You're the only person that can really do that for yourself. Nobody else is going to be able to make you happy. Nobody else is in charge of your happiness or your wellbeing. 

Can you talk a bit about mental health stigma and what it was like in the culture where you grew up?

I grew up American in San Francisco. So if I'm hearing about mental health or talking about it in a positive way, I very much associate that with white people things. 

I thought that maybe that would be my experience if I told my parents—that I would finally open up to them and I would share how low things had been for me… I would be welcomed with this Hollywood story, like, “Yes, we'll go to therapy with you.” 

So it was just really hard that my parents could not understand that I was struggling so much, that I was not happy, that it took a lot of strength to admit that something was wrong.

I felt really deeply hurt by that. Because I was so vulnerable, and it was not well received when I was kind of told that it would be well-received if I finally had the courage to do it. So that was really hard. And I know that it hurt my parents a lot because they really didn't want to believe that anything was wrong with me. 

They were like, “We know you. We spend every day with you. We know nothing is wrong with you.” And I think for them, it was a reflection of their parenting, and they didn't want to be blamed for anything or seem like they were bad parents if I was seeking help, which I completely understand. 

But I think that my parents were doing the best they could with the resources they had and the knowledge they had growing up.

What kind of advice do you give for people who run into similar obstacles when communicating with their families?

I learned how to trust my gut. I learned that if you feel like things aren't okay, then they're not okay. Your feelings are very much valid. 

I think a lot of what was really painful in telling my parents my experience was that I felt like my emotions were not valid or seen. So knowing that you are valid and surrounding yourself with people that will hold that space for you is really great. 

But I also think what's helpful now, and everyone says it, is journaling. And I know somebody just said it too in the comments, but there's a reason why people will say it. 

It doesn't have to be pen and paper, but just checking in with yourself and being aware. What are you feeling like? What is that exact emotion? What are you responding to? Journaling has been really, really helpful for me.

How has COVID affected your mental health?

I think the hardest thing for sure was just being apart from the rest of my family. I tend to like being alone with my thoughts. I like to really sit and reflect, but when you're doing that day in, day out every single day, you're just with yourself or with your partner or roommate. It can be a lot, and it can be very overbearing. 

Eventually, I just got so down that I was like, I would rather lay in bed and watch TV, and I don't want to talk to anybody. 

I always felt better when I talked to my friends. During and afterwards, I think that as a relatively introverted person, I am very easy with saying no to social things, even before the pandemic. But I always find that I feel better afterwards. It kind of makes your issue seem smaller because your worldview is expanded that much bigger.

What quarantining and COVID have really helped me with is really defining my boundaries and really being clear. I feel like I've heard that a lot. 

What is it like being an introvert but also a public figure?

It is hard. Because I very much wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm very open. I've always been that way. My parents very much taught me, don't tell people your business and family issues or private issues. And I just did the complete opposite because I've always felt like people gain more from being able to connect with other people. So I live my life publicly, but it is hard to have constant feedback on your life. I don't think that as humans we're meant to have that. 

If you think about a couple of years ago, that's not how we lived our life at all. So I just try to take it with a grain of salt. For a really long time, I tried to make everybody understand everything about my life. If they were wrong about one aspect or made assumptions about one aspect, I really wanted to correct them and have everyone like me. And that's just so, so hard, it’s exhausting to do that. 

What advice do you have for someone early in their mental health journey and trying to take the next step forward?

It's really important to just keep moving forward if you're in a bad place. It’s totally okay to let yourself be sad, let yourself be upset. Let yourself be in a rut, even if it's for months, because it won't last. And if you want to get out of it, then you will get out of it. 

But I think sometimes we just need to go through those really low phases and know that they will always come back, even if you're working on your mental health journey and you're talking to your therapist, and you're doing everything you need to do.

I get a lot of people DM-ing me, and even just personal people in my life that really struggle with either toxic friends or toxic family members. And it doesn't mean they're bad. But, sometimes, people that you love just are not what you need at that moment.

I think there's a lot of guilt and shame that is tied to those really intimate relationships, but I've seen so many of my friends really struggle with toxic family members and not knowing how to create boundaries. And it's really, really, really hard, especially when it's your parents. But just creating space and understanding, you can still love them and also realize that you need some distance for you to work on yourself—that's important. 

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