Best For You

Tanya Marwaha is a disability and mental health advocate and student, studying International Relations with Mandarin in London.

Life as a disability and mental health advocate: Tanya’s story. There’s a photo of Tanya, a South Asian woman in her 20s. She’s smiling.

You’re really involved in mental health advocacy – where did that journey begin for you?  

I’ve always kind of struggled with my mental health. When I was 13 or 14, we went through a period of multiple bereavements at home – that was the start of struggling with my mental health more seriously.

And then also at that age, I started developing physical health symptoms. Six years later, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (which is widespread chronic pain) and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (which is a connective tissue disorder).

I was also diagnosed with anxiety and depression, which can often go along with the health conditions I have. It’s all a bit interlinked.

Because I was undiagnosed for six years, alongside everything else that happened, I struggled with my mental health. I didn’t understand why I was feeling what I was feeling.

And I think living with pain is something we don’t talk about enough – we don’t talk about how it might make you feel mentally as well. Repeatedly being in pain causes a lot of mental stress, especially when you don’t know the cause. No one really expects to be in pain every day when they’re in their teens, so it was quite isolating. I couldn’t join in with things like PE, which made me worry that I wasn’t good enough in comparison to my peers.

It was difficult, because I didn’t really understand it myself, so I couldn’t explain it to anyone else. I kept it to myself – I think a lot of the time I thought it was ‘in my head’ or that I was too sensitive or overreacting.

Being a young female with a disability from the South Asian community has affected my mental health journey too. I feel like, being South Asian, mental health isn’t really talked about at all. It’s very stigmatized and very poorly understood. I was brought up in the UK, but mental health is still something that most South Asian individuals don’t really talk about because it is so heavily stigmatised.

It was an upsetting conversation to have with my family because they weren’t very aware of exactly what mental health is. And not seeing representation through media meant I wasn’t aware of who I am and how that impacts how I’m feeling.

Over time, I’ve found smaller communities of South Asian women who are able to talk about factors like intergenerational trauma and how it impacts your mental health, how to navigate conversations with family and friends within the community, and how to navigate mental health and religion!

I’m very lucky that my family have been very supportive about it, so I’m trying to use that moving forward to make sure that I’m providing a voice for those who perhaps don’t have that support in their family or their friend group to do so.

Thank you for sharing a bit about your story and all of the different things that have affected your experiences. What’s helped you with your mental health?

My journey through it has involved antidepressants, counselling, and CBT therapy. But I’d say that I did a lot to help myself understand what was going on too. I saw different doctors and got different answers – there wasn’t consistency, and my own research helped me understand things.

Once I started to learn more about anxiety and depression, being able to understand it and be self-aware made it easier for me to carry on. It also gave me the courage to go back to my doctor and explain that I thought my mental health was affected by the fact that I was in pain every single day. I was able to access more support – but I’d like to credit myself for ‘joining the dots’.

That’s a lot to be proud of! Best For You aims to make things more consistent for young people. It also exists to share information and resources to support young people. How did you begin to channel your experiences into advocacy?

It was actually in my second year of university, as lockdown began, that I realised I didn’t feel like I was taught anything about mental health. I wish I’d been taught about it, because it would’ve helped me a lot during my journey. Anything I did learn, I’d learned through Google searches – which isn’t always the right way to learn about your mental health!

During lockdown, I was talking to a lot of my friends because it was the first time they’d ever dealt with feelings of loneliness or low mood. Quite a few people came to ask me ‘how do you deal with this?’ because they knew I’d experienced it before. And I think that’s when it cemented in my mind that something needed to be done to make sure that more young people were equipped with knowledge and awareness about how they feel and what they can do about it.

That’s why I started by own organisation, called Championing Youth Minds. All the content is youth-led and it’s made to raise awareness and empower other young people to take care of their mental health.

Through Championing Youth Minds, I got in involved with my local Mind and an organisation called Beyond. I’m really excited to take my journey as a service user and be able to impact decisions to make sure as many young people are aware of services as possible.

Are there things you still do to take care of yourself and your mental health?  

Definitely – I do self-care acts for my mental and physical health!

Every morning, I journal for at least five to ten minutes. I usually have four set questions: How am I feeling today? What’s my plan for today? What’s the little message I want to hear for today? And what am I grateful for?

It gives me the chance to write down how I feel, make choices (like, if I’m irritated I can decide not to talk to every single person I meet!), and feel less overwhelmed. It also shows how small things can boost my mood.

Aside from that, I try to do things that make me happy – I might go for a walk, do some meditation or mindfulness, journal some more. But you don’t have to do all of these things every single day – you just have to determine what your mood is and what might help.

That’s all so wise – I love your journaling prompts in particular! Do you have any advice for other young people who might be experiencing chronic pain or chronic conditions? 

I’d say the most important thing is to believe in yourself. And I know that sounds cliché… but a lot of the time you’ll be made to feel that it’s ‘it in your head’ or that you’re ‘too young’ to feel specific symptoms. It’s quite demoralizing.

So I’d say keeping a symptom diary might be useful because it can help you understand how triggers impact you (or how you can make changes in your day to day life to manage your chronic pain). But it can also help doctors to better understand about what you’re experiencing and how they can help you.

And I’d also recommend reaching out to organisations who specialise in the conditions that you think you have (or you do have). There are some great organisations out there who provide support groups, resources, or anonymous support.

Finding a community online through like Instagram or Twitter is great too. There are young people in similar positions who are raising awareness and talking about their experiences. You can find comfort. I think, in hindsight, that’s something I wish I did earlier on. But once you discover it, it’s like having a family you can talk to, who can give you advice!

Brilliant advice! What do you hope for the future of Championing Young Minds, and what are your aspirations too?

The main goal is to try to impact as many young people’s lives as possible – to help empower them to care for their mental wellbeing, remind them that they’re not alone in this mental health journey, and just bring awareness around some of the struggles that young people face. I want to tell people about the things they can do to support others who may be struggling with that mental health.

Personally, I’d say it’s also a similar goal: to make sure there’s impact in everything that I’m doing as a young female with a disability who’s also from the South Asian community.

Those are the overarching goals – but I want to do as many different things as possible to help as many different young people as possible.