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Pooja Handa, co-host on CP 24 Breakfast, talks about her mental health journey during quarantine

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Pooja Handa is an award-winning broadcaster and the co-host of Toronto’s number one morning show, CP 24 Breakfast. She also makes regular appearances on CTV’s The Social, and the Marilyn Dennis show.

She joined us during #MentalHealthWeek on Instagram Live to discuss some of her own experiences with mental health.

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When did your mental health journey begin?

I work at Bell Media, and they started Bell Let's Talk Day in 2010. I think that was sort of my first experience.  

I couldn't believe how many people had a story, when it came to their mental health and some of the challenges that people were facing. Thank goodness we are starting to work towards being able to talk about it more, removing that stigma, and that people are understanding. Especially younger people. They have the words and the tools to be able to describe what they're feeling and thinking.

When I was growing up, we didn't know things like being able to say you're being triggered or being able to say, “This person's toxic in my life. I want to separate myself.”

How did that experience cause you to reflect on your own mental health?

Being in, in the public eye, I was never a shy person. I'm very used to being in front of people and expressing myself, public speaking, and all that stuff. I think to some extent, I never ever even thought about it. It wasn't something that impacted my life in any way. I didn't even know what was out there. 

So, when I looked at my own journey, I couldn't relate because there wasn't really anything that I had experienced in my life that I thought was the same. It wasn't really until this past year with COVID that I've had my first experience feeling like, “Am I the only one who feels this way and holds on? Where is this coming from?” 

I thought I knew who I was. I thought I had control over emotions and my thoughts and all those things, and then the pandemic hit.

When you say you thought you had control over your emotions, what were you experiencing that made you question that?

I want to be clear that I haven't been diagnosed with anything, and I do think there's a difference between experiencing anxiety and dealing with mental health issues. We have to differentiate, and there are so many different levels even within the anxiety umbrella. I want to make sure that I'm clear I'm not coming from a place where I really know how to define it. I just know what I've been experiencing. 

It started to become something where I couldn't stop the thoughts. I kept thinking, “Well, if this happens, what about this? And then this could happen... And what about that? And there's a possibility that this will happen…” 

And I could not talk myself out of it. I was talking myself more and more into it, to the point where I was not sleeping at night. I started to shake a little bit at night as well, which I didn't understand. My body was telling me something. 

At first I kind of ignored it. Then I thought, okay, there's a lot more going on here. Is this anxiety. Why can't I stop the constant worrying? You know, what is different now than before? Yes, we're in a pandemic, but we're all in a pandemic, we're all in the same boat. So why is it impacting me this way?

What kind of wellness techniques have you adopted?

I put a post out on Instagram, this book From Panic to Power. The very first thing I wanted to do is define it—and not only define it. What is it that I can do about it? How do I stop all of the worrying? How do I stop the anxiety? 

What started to happen is, as I was reading about other people's stories, I was starting to feel better.

And I think the reason why I was feeling better was I realized I wasn't alone. And that a lot of people experience a lot of different things. Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways. For some people it's debilitating, they feel like they're having a heart attack, there's physical attributes that are attached to it. And, and for others, it just becomes something disruptive in your life. And that's where I was at, where it was disrupting everything. 

So, I've been on TV for almost 20 years, and being on live TV every single day comes with pressure. And it comes with scrutiny. People write you everything they're thinking and feeling, and I think they forget for a moment that you're a human, a flawed human, just like they are.

And if you're in a live situation every day for 20 years, you're going to make mistakes. It's going to happen. But I started to get to a point where I was afraid of making a mistake. I was afraid of the words coming out of my mouth. My confidence was shaken, which I'm not used to. 

I was on Instagram and I was reading somebody else's story. And they had mentioned that it was anxiety, that they were battling, and they recommended the book. So I got the book. Reading it really confirmed for me that everybody, first of all, has anxiety. That was good to hear. But with that, I understood that it was starting to become a disruption in my life. That's where I had to take action and realize that, yes, this is something that I'm dealing with. It's different. I'm not used to it, but I can't be in denial about it and I should talk about it.

Do you believe the stigma against mental illnesses is still an issue?

Unfortunately, I do. Now, don't get me wrong. I think we've come a very long way—leaps and bounds. However, there's still so much work to be done. 

And I think there's also a generational part to this. I think if you look at a lot of racialized, marginalized communities, there is a stigma that exists. Like, you just don't get help. You suck it up—you know, we've been through far worse. If you have an immigrant story, or your parents have been through so much, you almost feel like, “What I'm going through isn’t  worthy.” There is a lot of that that I still think we have to work through.

With that said, I also think that I have seen it in young people and I'm just so impressed by it and encouraged by it as well that they will actually identify what you talked about, those emotions, those feelings, being able to name them and being able to recognize that, no, this is not okay.

It's just a question of getting help, and I'm hoping that people are actually doing that, because there are so many resources out there. Even if it's not a therapist to begin with, even if it's a simple Google search of “What can Kids Help Line can do for me?” Or you could even go to the Bell, Let's Talk website. There's all these tools and resources that are available to you that can maybe help get you to the next step.

You mentioned the “immigrant story,” and the attitudes of parents and grandparents. How has that affected you?

My parents came to Canada in the seventies, and they came with nothing. They built a life for my sister and I, and really struggled financially as well. We really learned the value of a dollar. I worked several jobs growing up, to pay my way through school. Nothing was ever given to us. We had to work really hard, but we knew that our parents sacrificed everything to give us a better life, to come to this country. So we felt like we owed it to them. 

But with that pressure, of course, there were times when you felt like you had to just suck it up. Because, how dare you complain, when they've given you this beautiful life?

As I've gotten older, I’ve realized that is not the right way of thinking. If you are going through something, if you're battling something, you have to take care of you in order for you to be good for anybody in your family. And, at the end of the day, your family wants the best for you. They love you. They are your support system. No matter who you talk to, who's battling something, when they finally do decide to open up to someone, a friend, a family member, often one of the things that's very common that they say is, “I wish I had done it earlier, because if I had known that I was going to get all that support and that they were going to be so great about it... I don't know why I didn't.” 

I think I've realized that I have a great support system. My family is behind me one hundred percent, no matter what. If I'm struggling, I tell them I'm struggling, or if I'm having a bad day I tell them I'm having a bad day.  I think we have a lot of work to do. But within my own family, I think we've come really far.

What would you say with people who are struggling with work, especially in the face of COVID?

I think everybody struggles with work-life balance. It doesn't matter what industry you're in, or if you're a mom who's juggling working from home and also teaching your kids. Everybody is doing so much. [What’s important] is really taking that time for self care. It's something I never did before. I’m so glad #SelfCareSunday is a thing, because I've started to really turn my mind to what I can be doing every day, not just on Sundays, to give myself that mental and emotional break. 

And there are some days where those things work, whether it's meditation, whether it's just tuning out, watching some reality TV where I don't have to think... Or sometimes it's also just having a day where I'm not feeling it. I don't want to talk to anybody. I'm just going to be kind to myself, let me feel all the feelings. And if the next day I recharge and I feel better, great. And if I don't, that's fine too—sort of giving myself that space to be able to navigate whatever it is that I'm feeling. And to honor it, feel it, and then be able to hopefully move on.

Do you think you will ever go back to Sunday brunches, or will Sunday always be self-care days?

It's hard to say, because we all experienced this lack of social interaction and human connection, which I miss so much and I totally took it for granted, just like so many other people. So part of me says, “Oh, as soon as we're back, I'm back. I'm throwing myself right back into it because I miss everybody.” 

But then the other part of me is like, “Nope, you can't do that because all of this balance that I'm working on is going to be completely off if I go down that path.” 

I'm a people pleaser. I like to make people happy. I like to make people smile. I like to make people laugh. Sometimes I have to tell myself, “You gotta take care of you. You can't take care of everybody else all the time.”

How do you feel about the response you got after opening up about your struggles on Instagram?

The feedback was so positive and I'm reading some of people's messages right now. People are wonderful for the most part. You will get one or two people who will write, “You have a job, what are you complaining about?” And I get it. I totally get it, because I'm not about to be mad at somebody who has lost their livelihood and who is struggling.

But for the most part, people were really, really positive. There's a whole community of people that are around us that I think sometimes we forget are there and we have access to. We can tap into that. It's just getting over that initial fear that somebody's going to judge you or think something about you that isn't true. 

I absolutely do not regret sharing it. And it's encouraged me, ever since we started Bell Let’s Talk, to always talk about whatever I'm experiencing, because I think there is so much in being honest about these things. I have a platform. I know there are a lot of people who follow me. So, it's so important for people to know they're not alone.

I always tell people: be kind to other people, you never know what they're going through. 

There's so much that we struggle with. I've had loss during COVID, as well. Unfortunately, we have family in India who are struggling right now. So, there's always a lot happening all at the same time. I still go to work every day and I put a smile on my face and it's real. I try to put a smile on other people's faces as well. But at the end of the day, we are all human. There's going to be moments where it's hard, and you have to deal with those things. And that's okay.

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